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Promoting traditions

Nokomis Learning Center educates community

OKEMOS, Mich. - Nokomis Learning Center, an American Indian cultural learning center in Okemos, provides many educational programs, exhibitions and events throughout the year.

The center estimates about 30 to 40 guests attend the center each day, with the number skyrocketing during school tours and special events.

;'It really varies,'' said Maria Raviele. ''A lot of school groups come in October and November. It picks up again in April and May when it's warmer,'' said the graduate student, who lives in Lansing and attends nearby Michigan State University.

Raviele first became involved at the center through her interest in anthropology. She studied the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation while a student at the University of Connecticut, and the center lets her to continue her work in this field.

''A lot of what I do focuses on Native people,'' she said.

Janis Fairbanks, executive director of the center for nearly two years, appreciates the dedication of her part-time employees and volunteers.

''My biggest wish list is to afford full-time staff,'' she said.

Prior to Fairbanks' arrival, the center had problems with turnover on a regular basis since it opened in the late 1980s.

She sought to correct the turnover trouble and gives Raviele and her co-workers a chance to work to fulfill their individual interests while helping Nokomis grow. This often means employees will be giving tours, teaching classes, doing research and writing grants to help secure funding for the center.

''Staff morale improved a lot,'' Fairbanks said. ''People had a little more say in what they did and that helped make us stronger.''

Other strengths of the center include offering traditional teachings of the Ojibwa, Odawa and Potawatomi nations, commonly referred to as the Anishinaabe people.

Nokomis also hosts a weekly drum social and recently planned a chili cook-off. An artwork exhibit currently featured at Nokomis is from Suzanne Cross, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and an associate professor at MSU.

While these events and exhibits bring in many visitors and help build the center's mission of bringing the indigenous community together, they do not come without a cost.

Nokomis relies on donations and grants to stay afloat, and the center recently received its largest grant ever.

The Arcus Foundation, which has offices in Michigan and New York, donated $10,000 to the center. The foundation works primarily to promote diversity and social justice.

This grant helped fund a Native language class that is being held until November. The instructor is George Roy, who taught Ojibwa language courses at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College for many years.

Other donations come from various tribes in the region and other organizations.

The center also taps into its strong board of directors. The 15-member board has numerous experiences in business, tribal government and medicine. Nearly all the members are affiliated with a tribe.

''They're heavy-hitters,'' Fairbanks said. ''We expect results from them.''

Nokomis features three large rooms and office space in the back. The entryway is decorated in American Indian artwork and features a gift shop that sells cultural items such as baskets, necklaces and dream catchers.

A reference library with teacher resources, books and CDs is also located in this area.

On one side of the building is a classroom with furs, baskets and other traditional items on display. Each item is marked with a card that explains its significance. The room is also often used for meetings and other events, such as a recent feast held at the center.

The center's opposite side is a gallery that features exhibits as well as a large carpet designed to look like a medicine wheel, which has great significance to many indigenous people. Contemporary artwork exhibits displayed in this room change every few months.

The center also actively seeks input from the community.

''I would love to see the center continue to gain strength and thrive,'' Fairbanks said. ''It needs input from other people.''

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