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A call to all nations

Iowa woman dreams of multitribal learning center

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. - Restoring his people;s sacred hoop with objects given to him in a vision was a quest that Black Elk (1863 - 1950), an Oglala Sioux holy man and healer, was unable to fulfill before being called to rest under the prairie grasses he loved so much.

Part of that vision he wanted to preserve was to see his people regain their traditional way of life: communal lifestyles, environmental conservation and a strengthening spirituality ... to see the buffalo once again roam in huge herds, for his people to live in their dome-shaped homes instead of a square forced on them by other cultures.

Inspired by that vision and on a quest of her own is Shelley Watkins, a woman with a dream to unite tribes in a culturally significant way by purchasing land and building the Black Elk Speaks Tribal Learning Center.

The learning center, which would be similar to a living museum, requires the cultural and financial input of all tribes wishing to be involved in the nonprofit project. At least half the cost of the project could potentially be covered by the Vision Iowa program, a financial assistance program established by the Iowa Legislature to fund construction projects related to cultural, educational, recreational and entertainment activities.

According to the Vision Iowa Web site, in order to attain financial assistance through Vision Iowa the cost of the development must be a minimum of $20 million, with no more than 50 percent of the cost, to a maximum of $75 million, being requested. Vision Iowa is generally funded through a grant but can also take the form of a loan, forgivable loan, pledges and guarantees. Funding covers the cost of land acquisition and construction, major renovations and repairs to existing buildings, utilities and site development. It does not cover operational expenses or the leasing of a building without a lease-purchase agreement.

A match of at least 50 percent is required by the legislation, with matching funds coming from public and private sources. Non-financial or in-kind contributions cannot total more than 25 percent of the total matching funds, which can include donated labor, services and real and personal property. The Vision Iowa project is working to help communities achieve a vision of identity and attract visitors to share the experiences offered by Iowa visionaries.

Watkins has her eye on about 60 acres in Charles City but is asking for input from all tribes interested in participating in the project. Ninety miles south of Charles City is the settlement of the Meskwaki (or Fox) and the Sauk (or Sac) Tribe which has 1,300 members with a settlement area covering 7,000 acres. The tribes at one time were two separate nations but were forced to form an alliance, Sac & Fox, during the 1700s for the mutual protection of both tribes.

The People of the Yellow Earth, the Sauk, and the Red Earth People, the Meskwaki, share a place in Iowa history. And someday, hopes Watkins, in the Black Elk Speaks Tribal Learning Center.

''I have always been fascinated by Native Americans and their talent and remarkable beauty, both external and internal. Their wisdom is amazing,'' Watkins said. She has traced her Chippewa ancestry through her grandfather, Guerdon Herbert Head. ''My wish is for the tribes to envision what they would want the learning center to be: something cultural and honorable. I want them to be in charge of it and orchestrate it; I will be there to help and get the grass-roots going.''

Watkins has an image of stepping back into time when first encounters were made with Europeans and recreating that in the learning center with examples of traditional housing and artifacts. ''I firmly believe that it is the Creator's intention that we work to restore what he created: the landscape, the animal populations and the first American tribal nations that he placed here,'' she said.

''I would love to see tribes forming strong connections with each other. We need to start making changes now to preserve our pasts and work together in a more environmentally friendly way to plan for our future.''

To contact Watkins, call (641) 228-2527, e-mail guerdon6521@yahoo.com, or write to Shelley Watkins, 300 7th Ave., Charles City, IA 50616. For more information on Vision Iowa, visit www.iowalifechanging.com.