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Nuui Cunni Center sparks rebirth of river valley life

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. - American Indians in the Kern River Valley are discovering their roots, thanks to the Paiute Nuui Cunni Cultural Center in Lake Isabella.

Since it opened in April 2002, Nuui Cunni - Paiute-Shoshone for "Our House" - has been the gathering place for American Indians of the Kern River Valley. Among them are the Paiute-Shoshone and the Tubatulabal; the latter is a Shoshone band that settled in the valley about 3,000 years ago.

"We are working toward re-establishing the culture here," said Lori Pahvitse, site manager of the Career Development Center at Nuui Cunni. "We're so excited."

Nuui Cunni is designed to resemble a round house and overlooks Lake Isabella, a former valley filled by the Kern River after the Lake Isabella Dam was built in the 1950s. Here, the Kern River once flowed freely and the valley Indians hunted, fished, and gathered acorns and pinon nuts.

There is a feeling of timelessness here. It is easy to picture an Indian woman stepping from behind a tree to grind acorns and nuts in the grinding rock nearby.

"People say they feel a strong spiritual connection here," Pahvitse said.

On a recent Cultural Night, about 65 people visited the center for a night of drumming, arts and crafts. Every Thursday, valley Indians gather at the center for dinner.

One weekday afternoon, Administrative Assistant Debbie Terry (Choctaw) showed Harlan Bowers of Kernville how to obtain proof of his Choctaw ancestry. Helping Indians find proof of their heritage is an undertaking of the center. Terry has census information about some tribes.

The Tribal TANF Program - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families - helps Indian families set career, education and family goals and connects them to necessary resources.

The center also provides college field trips; five local Indians are going to college in September, Pahvitse said.

Activities for Indian children have included field trips to Disneyland and the Moscow Dance Theatre; baseball camp at Fresno State University; and the Native American Youth Junior Golf Program. Children are also creating their own traditional dance regalia and are learning to do traditional dances as well.

Inside the center is a museum and library. Items include reed-coiled and reed-woven baskets donated by Patricia Malone Henry; a pine-needle basket donated by Howard and Bessie Bales; culturally relevant books donated by Ruth Ozanich; and arrowheads donated by Hank Claussen. On a wall is a portrait of a Kern Valley Indian man, "A Face of the West," by Herberto Reyes.

Madonna Loon made the mudhead kachina doll; such dolls were traditionally displayed from the rafters and walls of Indian homes to help youngsters know the spirit of the mud where life began.

Outside is a dance arbor made of lodge pole pine, where local Indians practice traditional Paiute dancing. Drumming lessons also take place at the center. Nearby is a traditional herb and plant garden, where Indians can become familiar with the herbs and plants used by their ancestors as food and as medicine.

Education is central to the mission of the center. Also close by is a sweat - also known as sweat lodge - which is being discovered by younger people. Traditions are being resurrected to provide a sense of self.

"The kids are really excited about the cultural activities," Pahvitse said. "Something inside them hungers for it ? We want them to be proud of who (they) are."

Long road to rediscovery

For the Kern River Valley Indians, it's been a long road to rediscovery. In the 1860s, American Indians in the Owens and Kern river valleys began losing their land to settlers. On April 19, 1863, U.S. soldiers killed 35 Kern River Valley Indians that they suspected were planning an uprising; those Indians, however, were reportedly innocent - they had refused to join a rebellion proposed by the Owens Valley Indians.

In the ensuing years, several generations of Indian boys were sent to mission schools; one of them, Richard Acosta of Wofford Heights, is now the spiritual leader.

Over time, the Paiute and Tubatulabal languages - both Shoshonean languages - neared extinction. Pahvitse said the center tracked down one elder in Bakersfield who speaks and writes Tubatulabal, and one who speaks Paiute. The center is recording those languages so they can be taught.

"We are in the process of trying to bring back the language," Pahvitse said.

Today, the Paiute and the Tubatulabal are not federally recognized by the U.S. government. For several years, Ray Vega successfully negotiated with the U.S. Forest Service for a lease for a cultural center; the Indians have the lease as long as the property is maintained.

The center is overseen by the Kern River Paiute Council - the closest thing Kern River Valley Indians have to a tribal government. The center is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Council members and volunteers operate the center on weekends.

Successes in one year

In one year, Kern River Valley Indians have not only connected with their heritage but have assumed a new role in the valley.

The community - Indian and non-Indian - is invited to Native American Heritage Month activities in November and the Youth/Family Christmas Party in December.

A monthly elders' meeting is open to all American Indian elders; it's a time of cultural sharing. "The stories - we don't want to lose them," Pahvitse said.

Valley Indian girls made their own shawls and jingle-dance dresses for the Gathering of Native American Youth.

For the first time, the Kern River was the site of the Wildwater World Championships kayaking competition in June. Valley Indians participated in the opening ceremonies, danced in traditional dress made of eagle down or rabbit fur, and presented elderberry wand clapsticks to foreign athletes.

And last year, Spiritual Leader Richard Acosta blessed a plaque dedicated to the memory of the Kern River Valley Indians that were killed 140 years ago. The plaque has a living prayer engraved on it written by the late Edith Malone, a Kern River Valley Indian:

"As your eyes behold the water and the sky,

See those who struggled and died for a way of life.

As the Wind and Sun caress your face,

Feel their love of Mother Earth.

As you turn to go,

Leave a prayer to halt all inhumanity

one to the other.

Take within your spirit ? the love of our creator."

The Paiute Nuui Cunni Center is located at 2600 State Highway 155, Lake Isabella, Calif. For more information, call (760) 549-0800.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at