Indian center has new site and goal

Monday, July 1, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Heart of America Indian Center has a new home and an amended mission: preserving native traditions while remaining relevant to the larger regional culture.

"I can't tell you how many times I hear people say, 'There are Indians in Kansas City?"' said Pam Slade, a center staff member.

There certainly are. About 20,000 American Indians, representing 57 tribes, live in the metropolitan area, she said.

Previously located east of downtown Kansas City, the center doubled its space when it moved Saturday into two buildings in the city's Westport district.

For a year before the move, a lone eagle feather hung from the ceiling of the center's former building. It was placed by an elder to protect executive director Justin Orr as he prepared grant requests and worked on pulling the center from a debt-ridden past toward a new midtown location.

The grant requests succeeded. A $5,000 grant from the Hall Family Foundation helped with finance the move while the William T. Kemper Foundation will pay $250 a month for two years, keeping the center's lease costs unchanged despite the doubling of space.

An $11,600 grant from the Mag Foundation will fund a study of local American Indian health needs, Orr said.

And a case management pilot with a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor will help develop programs to move Indians out of poverty, low education, unemployment and addiction.

"More native organizations have realized they have to expand to different areas of funding if they are going to be successful," said Willie Wolf, a Colorado consultant who works with American Indian organizations, including Heart of America.

In other communities, Indian centers have been funded with help from bond elections and state money, Wolf said.

Heart of America hopes to add more state funding to its $212,000 annual budget if it can get Missouri licensing for alcohol and drug programs.

Slade and Orr said the center's mission is also focused on helping reduce Indians' dependence on government subsidies, and on attracting Indians who defy both external stereotypes and cultural expectations.

"Part of our mission is to demonstrate to ourselves that we are a healthy people, that we have a lot to offer," Orr said.

Middle class and college-educated American Indians sometimes are criticized by other Indians for being "apples," Orr and Slade said. They are viewed as cultural sellouts, assimilating too much to the mainstream.

"Red on the outside, white on the inside," Orr said. "It is as if to be Indian, you have to be poor, wear old clothes and live in low-income housing."

Tom Brandom, presiding commissioner of Clay County and the chairman of the center's board, agreed.

"The center's new location may be a better catalyst for affluent Native Americans to help their less fortunate members of the community," Brandom, of the Cherokee tribe, said.

The center welcomes members of the public, American Indian or not, Orr and Brandom said. One draw will be the Blue Buffalo Trading Post, which will sell beads, art and regalia.

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