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Fundraising feast benefits cultural learning center

OKEMOS, Mich. - Chilly temperatures and gloomy skies didn't darken the spirits of the more than 50 people who attended the inaugural spring feast and fundraiser at Nokomis Learning Center April 13.

The feast brought several members of the American Indian community together and helped to raise funds for the 19-year-old American Indian cultural learning center in Okemos.

''The truth is that [Nokomis Learning Center] is kind of poor right now,'' said Theron Moore, who serves as president of the center's board of directors and helps run a construction company in Holt. ''We need to raise money to make sure it keeps operating.''

Moore, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, donated about $600 to help bring buffalo meat, used to make buffalo burgers, to the event.

Duane and Lauren LaTour drove more than 100 miles to attend the gathering. The LaTours, who trace their roots to the Sault Ste. Marie tribe, became involved at the center to learn more about their culture and identify with their history and others in Indian country.

''A lot of times you don't get together with family unless there's a funeral,'' said Duane LaTour, while grilling buffalo burgers and hot dogs outside the center. ''The feast is a good idea, one of the ways to help keep connected.''

Board member Maria Valayil stressed the importance of the center and echoed LaTour's sentiments.

''Nokomis [Learning Center] is a great place,'' said Valayil, also a social worker from the Lansing area. ''A lot of people here are urban Indians, not in their home area and away from their tribes.''

Valayil, who identifies with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said the center gives the region's American Indian population a place to gather and meet others.

''It's really important to introduce cool people to cool people,'' she said. ''People here are really nice and accepting.''

Moore, Valayil and the center's other board members deemed a spring feast to be necessary. The center has held a fall feast for many years, but had never planned a feast in the spring.

''It is more culturally correct to hold a feast in the spring,'' explained Janis Fairbanks, director of Nokomis Learning Center and member of the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa Indians in Minnesota.

The Anishinaabe people, which includes the Ojibwa, Odawa and Potawatomi, traditionally held feasts in the spring after what was usually a long winter in the Great Lakes region.

Traditional spring feasts gave tribal community members an opportunity to catch up with each other because they often had less contact with others during winter, said Fairbanks, who also sits on the center's board.

Engagements, pregnancies and remembering family members and friends who had passed on were often subjects of conversation at traditional feasts. The Nokomis Learning Center's fundraising feast was no different.

Many attendees spoke fondly to each other about their tribes, families and jobs. Some spoke about politics and upcoming tribal elections. A few Michigan tribal leaders showed up to speak with their constituents.

The fundraiser featured music and singing by guitarist Ronald Sprague Jr., a member of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians. Drumming was performed by Moccasin Sound.

Nokomis Learning Center plans to continue the spring and fall events. The fall feast is likely to remain because popular culture often identifies American Indians with the Thanksgiving holiday, Fairbanks said.

Kimberly Byers, a volunteer at the center and student at nearby Michigan State University, said she likes meeting up with people at cultural events throughout the area, such as the recent pow wow held on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, about 55 miles away.

She believes that these gatherings provide an important opportunity for members of the tribal community to continually connect with and keep up with each other.

Proceeds from the event will help fund future events and activities at the center.