By Maria Scandale -- Today correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio - The sweetgrass grows where beer bottle castoffs were once the only color on a rubble-and-gravel chain-linked lot on Columbus' South Side. There in the courtyard of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio, a community garden is sprouting vegetables to feed the neighborhood, along with the Native population.
The 40- by 100-foot patchwork of indigenous plants has also become part of an outreach to other cultures.
On one day, Somalian immigrants who are part of the recent Three Sisters Garden Partnership may be visiting to exchange ideas. On another, schoolchildren gather around a teacher from the city's Franklin Park Conservatory to learn about native plants in the garden.
Neighborhood gangs don't bother the property, reputedly out of respect for all the center does for the community.
The boxes of food put together by center staff member Rick Collins are for whoever comes in needing them - ''people from all over, whatever kind of walk of life.''
''This part is the Indian Center garden where we grow bell peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, whatever I can get as far as plants. So that when I pass out my food boxes, I have plenty of food to give, and they have fresh vegetables,'' pointed out Collins, an Ohio native of Blackfoot ancestry.
Between 500 and 1,000 boxes a month go out from the center's door at 67 E. Innis Ave.
The nonprofit center has existed since 1975. Center Director Carol Welsh estimates that its programs and activities serve about 2,000 of the county's 9,000 people who identified themselves as Native on the 2000 Census.
The challenge to being American Indian in the city of Columbus, like many other cities, is that ''it's all very scattered,'' Welsh said. ''There is no programming in this area other than what we provide for Native Americans. There's no acknowledgment of the Native American community in Columbus. It's like we don't exist. As a center, we've been here for 33 years; but if you went down to city hall and asked them about the Indian population, they'd say there is none.''
When Welsh's parents retired to Columbus in the 1960s, little did they know the work that was yet to begin. They ended up founding the center, but only after finding the other Native people who were scattered and isolated.
Welsh's father, Joe T. Walker, Cherokee, had grown up in Tennessee and served 30 years in the Air Force as an airplane inspector. Some of those years were at Lockbourne Air Force Base outside Columbus. Selma L. Sully Walker, Dakota, was from the Yankton Reservation near Martin, S.D.
It wasn't long after retirement before both decided they wanted to go back to work. Looking in the paper every day, they kept seeing the same ad seeking an American Indian person.
''They used to joke about it. My dad said they probably wanted someone to stand in front of the cigar store,'' Welsh said.
Her mother finally called. It was the federal government's Comprehensive Employment and Training Act Program, which is no longer in existence. ''They wanted her to find jobs for Native Americans for the Central Ohio region,'' Welsh said.
With no direction given, ''she spent the first few weeks looking for people who looked like her,'' Welsh said. ''My dad used to go with her and they'd go wait outside the unemployment office, the welfare office, just trying to find Indians.''
Selma Walker knew that these people needed food and clothing before they could get a job. ''So she started collecting food and clothes and driving around house to house trying to help people out. After probably about six months, their need became kind of overwhelming, trying to do it out of a car.''
Out of need, a center grew from the ground up.
Many people were digging worms and selling them for income. ''So they said they would do that to raise money to open a center,'' Welsh continued. Columbus used to have a big trade in worms. They used to have semis come in here and pick up worms and take them all over. So that's how they opened up the first center in 1975.''
Today's center is half a mile from the first, and after eight years of renting, the center is buying the property.
Collins planted the sweetgrass behind a park bench. ''If an elder would happen to come to sit and enjoy the garden, all of the sudden they'd get a whiff of the sweetgrass and be like, 'Where is that?' It gives them a feeling of being back home where they used to grow it a lot.
''This bed is primarily used for families. Let's say they don't have enough room at their house to have a garden; they can come here and we'll give them a certain amount of area and they can grow whatever they want for their families.''
The city's Franklin Park Conservatory has given help and materials through its Growing to Green Community Garden program. Program leader Bill Dawson is of part Wyandot heritage.
''The center itself now can use that fresh produce in their food pantry, they can do cultural activities - it's not only for the Native American population, it's for the community,'' he said.