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Boston center resists relocation

BOSTON - The word "relocation" resonates badly for American Indians and
Alaska Natives.

For several years, the possibility of having to relocate from its
state-owned property hovered over the North American Indian Center of
Boston like the sword over the head of the Indian depicted on the Great
Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The threat of relocation receded last year when the legislature authorized
the Division of Capital Assets Management to enter into a 99-year lease
with the North American Indian Center of Boston. The lease is currently
under negotiation.

But the legislative hand that giveth also taketh away. A companion bill
authorized DCAM to sell a unique tree-bordered open space behind the center
that members call their "back yard."

The green space with its fire circle of rocks is used for ceremonial
events, weddings, pow wows, and other gatherings, and includes a sweat
lodge and playground for the center's preschool program.

In June, DCAM divided the 1.8-acre property and sold 1.1 acres to
developers for $1.54 million.

Nevertheless, with a long-term lease in sight, NAICOB's Executive Director
Joanne Dunn, Micmac, and its board of directors are working to realize
their vision for a new building on-site that will reflect American Indians'
values and cultural traditions. And despite the sale of the back yard,
they're still hoping somehow to maintain it as their ceremonial space.

All that's needed to fulfill the dream is money.

"The goal is $20 million. That would make our dream and our vision a
cultural landmark for the city of Boston and a beacon to all Indians,
because that's what we've always been for Indians from all over the United
States and Canada," Dunn told Indian Country Today July 5, one week after
the back yard was sold.

"This is supposed to be the cradle of liberty. This is where it all began,
right here, and we are its first people. We were used to being invisible,
but we don't want to be invisible anymore. We don't want a run-down center
anymore. We want people to know we've become proud. We want people to come
here and see a center that has all the traditional aspects that represent
ourselves and say, 'Gee, there are Indians here.' We're not huge numbers,
but we are still here," Dunn said.

In pursuit of the dream, NAICOB is mounting a major fund-raising campaign,
seeking help from its friends both in and out of Indian country.

"We have helped so many other people and Indian agencies across the country
for years before we ran into trouble, and now we're calling on all of
Indian country and all our friends to try to help us do what we need to do
here," Dunn said.

NAICOB is a nonprofit community center that has delivered social services
to and provided a gathering place for Boston's American Indian community
for more than 30 years.

"We are the only game in town. There's nothing like us, no other agency
that delivers the services we do, and we've been delivering them for a very
long time," Dunn said.

Services include transportation; a high tech computer center; tutoring;
counseling; urban health, youth, employment and training; and American
Indian Community Head Start programs that serve some 6,000 American Indians
and Alaska Natives from 40 different tribes in the greater Boston area.

The state has leased the entire property to the center for $1 a year since
1973, and the new lease will continue that arrangement.

The century-old building that houses the center is a former detention
facility for girls in the city's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Although the
ivy-covered brick exterior has developed a beautiful weatherworn patina,
the interior is a funky warren of offices and institutional obsolescence,
including an energy-inefficient, museum-worthy furnace with a tag that says
"converted to gas in 1906," and drafty windows covered with sheets of
plastic.

The building was deemed unfit for state employees in the early 1970s, but
the Indians were glad to get it, Dunn said. NAICOB has paid all building
maintenances costs. The center currently operates on a federally funded $1
million budget that covers all programs and salaries for its 21 employees.

The issue of relocation first arose in 1996 when the state announced it
would evict the center. It was a wake up call, Dunn said.

"One of our weaknesses was not being politically astute and Boston is a
very politically savvy place. So we began to get involved. I was making
phone calls. I was downtown all the time and finally we began to connect
and made some very good friends and we began, frankly, to build a power
base we never had before," Dunn said.

But over time, property values soared while state revenues plummeted. In
2001, the state announced it intended to sell its "surplus" properties to
fill a revenue gap.

NAICOB was offered $3.5 million to relocate, but turned it down.

"We would have been able to lease a spot for a few years here in Boston,
but then we'd be in the same boat," Dunn said.

Supporters rallied to the cause, including state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez,
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and DCAM Commissioner David Perini - the first
commissioner ever to visit the center, Dunn said.

Their support resulted in last year's legislation allowing DCAM to provide
the center with a long-term lease.

But the loss of the back yard - an integral part of the center's cultural
meaning and function - is devastating, Dunn said.

"This is probably the most difficult of all things to have to give up: the
spiritual place. We really want it all. We're trying not to be greedy, but
that's our ceremonial space. I doubt we would be allowed to construct a
sweat lodge or light the sacred fire on public park grounds. We were of the
understanding that we might be able to use the space until development
began to take place," Dunn said.

The developers - brothers Anthony, Michael and Assad Nader of Star Realty -
did not return a call seeking information about their plans for the
property. The state's idea was for a developer to build much-needed
affordable housing, but the parcel is in a "Green Protection Overlay
District" that allows only four housing units per acre.

The developers would need a zoning variance to build more houses on the
site, but that would require a public hearing and might not be easy, said
Rashid Ashraf, an architect.

"It depends on the politics," Ashraf said. Ashraf has designed a new,
American Indian-themed 32,000-square-foot building for NAICOB that
incorporates all the current programs and expands space for a research
library, traditional arts instruction, gathering court, gift shop and
outdoor amphitheater for ceremonial uses.

"The developers might not get what they need to justify the development and
might want to get rid of the property. Ideally, they could donate it to the
center. Otherwise, hopefully by that time the fund-raising efforts will be
successful and the center can purchase the land back," Ashraf said. Ashraf
has provided his professional services pro bono.

"It's good work to be doing. I get the blessing for it," he said.

While Ashraf's design encompasses the full site, it would still function -
though imperfectly - without the back yard, he said.

"But it's ironic that the government couldn't even give a tiny little bit
of land back to the Indian community that once lived on all of it," Ashraf
said.

DCAM spokesman Kevin Flanigan said his agency has no authority to give away
public land.

"Our actions are directed by the Legislature, and the Legislature
authorized us to go forward with a long-term lease. I think people
recognize the important work the center does. The intent was to work with
them the best we could to allow them to remain there or find another
location that could work for them. This is how it all turned out. In
practical terms, 99 years is a long time," Flanigan said.

Once the lease is signed, NAICOB's building committee will begin fund
raising in earnest, including applications for federal grants that were not
possible without a long-term lease.

The new lease requires the center either to tear down the old building and
build a new one or completely renovate the old structure.

The renovation option - a $5 million project that would completely
rehabilitate the old detention facility - is "Plan B," Dunn said.

"We have two plans only because I want to be ready, but our goal is to
pursue the vision and the dream of a new center," Dunn said.