By Rochelle Hines -- Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (AP) - At first glance, it looks like a mass of red dirt piled high off the ground, sloping downward as northbound Interstate 35 curves east onto I-40.
But after exiting the highway onto Eastern Avenue, the growl of construction equipment moving earth, concrete and steel reveals how close - and how far - a decades-old dream is to becoming reality.
''The idea came to me in November 1962. That's how long I've been working on it,'' Enoch Kelly Haney, a former state senator and now chief of the Seminole Nation, said recently. ''An elder Native lady said to me at the time, 'Kelly, we ought to build a Native American cultural center in Oklahoma, to share our culture and sell our Native wares.'
''I think the sharing of culture is critically important and ultimately what it's all about.''
It would be several decades before the legal framework was crafted and ground was broken for the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, a model of modern architecture inspired by the history and customs of 39 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States.
Haney helped write legislation in 1994 that authorized the creation of the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority, a state agency charged with designing, building and operating the center.
Four years later, the city of Oklahoma City donated 300 acres of land at the junction of I-35 and I-40 east of downtown to be the center's home and committed $5 million in Community Development Block Grant and Department of Housing and Urban Development funds toward the project.
Significant environmental issues and difficulties in obtaining funding have caused further delays in the past 14 years, but an infusion of money from state legislators will allow the first phase of the project to be completed by September and the rest by 2012.
That's good news for Gena Timberman, who has not only guided the conceptualization of the complex but also has dealt with its financial setbacks, including cost estimates that have gone from $100 million to $135 million or higher.
Once it's completed, the Native American Cultural and Educational Authority will be a satellite facility of the Smithsonian Institution.
''When we started, we anticipated this project to be funded one-third state, one-third private and one-third federal,'' Timberman said. ''Costs have increased and we've had to adjust. The political climate in Washington has changed since we were first formed. The opportunity to receive one-third in federal funds has been limited by those dynamics. The shift has been back to state and private funding.''
Haney wasn't surprised.
''You know when you build something of this magnitude, you have to consider there will be changes along the way. That has been a significant challenge for those involved with the development of the cultural center.
''I've personally never doubted that it would be built. I believe in it, it is something that is good for Oklahoma and Oklahoma has come forward with part of the legislation to see that the project is completed.''
Legislators, guided by Sen. Johnnie Crutchfied, D-Ardmore, approved a bond issue in May that included $25 million for the center. It wasn't the $45 million organizers wanted, but it prevented a gap in construction and brought the state's total contribution to about $65 million.
Besides $5 million from the city and about $7 million from the federal government, organizers have raised $50 million from private and tribal donations.
The agency can now better focus on recreating ''the historical events that have helped shape our present reality in Oklahoma,'' Timberman said.
To tell the story, teams interviewed tribes and their members, and architectural and design firms took that cue in developing a project quite different from those they had done in the past.
An artist's rendering shows a series of broken circles that intersect at various points. Within them are the cultural center and museum, a Native American Artist Colony with galleries, a communications center with language and broadcast capabilities, a 200-room lodge and tribal council facilities, 200 acres of interpretive landscaping, dance grounds and an outdoor amphitheater.
Bill Fain, design partner at Johnson Fain and lead architect on the project, said the team working on the project studied American Indian culture and found recurring motifs.
''The circles are typical of encampments and settlements, tipis. Native Americans drew themselves into circles, possibly as a defense or as a community.
''These are intersecting circles that take you from the world outside into the world of the Indian. You pass through the four elements Indian consider to be important - water, wind, earth - and then they pass through fire.''
Visitors are welcomed by a fountain and encounter a circle of large columns that sound like flutes when the wind hits them, Fain said.
''Then you come into the Hall of the People, which the building is made out of an earthen berm and in the center of the courtyard is an eternal flame - fire.''
The American Indian state of mind is not like that of Europeans and Westerners, who tend to be linear in their ideas about the world, Fain added.
''You can be sitting in a meeting with a Native American and they'll refer to Bob and Helen as if they were in the room with you when in fact, they died years before. The difference is temporality - time and space.''
Even the space on which the center is being built has meaning. The Oklahoma River, once the Canadian River, flows near the site, and woodlands and plains represent the various topography indicative of where Indians once and presently live.
''The area used to be a historical trade route,'' Timberman said.
The gift from Oklahoma City - once called Oilfield No. 1 - was home to 57 oil wells and required a considerable amount of site remediation, according to Timberman.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission and the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, which specializes in cleaning up abandoned oil well sites, helped plug several wells, dispose of about 7,000 discarded tires and remove petroleum and salt residues.
The cultural and education agency held a ground blessing ceremony to heal the land before construction began in 2006.
The agency has anticipated a $2.6 billion benefit over a 20-year period to the Oklahoma economy from the project, more than making up for the funding it has had to provide, Haney said.
''The cultural center will be the gem of the region as far as tourism will be concerned. The project's economic benefits from the center are such that it will far exceed the tax dollars that were put into the project and that will continue to go on and on.
''Even in my wildest dreams, I didn't know it would be this magnificent until I go out and see the site. While it is a dream that I had, many other people have bought into the dream and made it a reality.''
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