The Native American Way has often been called the rough or hard way.
And so it has been for Wichita’s Mid-America All-Indian Center.
“It is easy to walk the black road – of not living right, not living life as best as possible,” said Milton Youngbird Hamilton, who is Cheyenne. “But to walk the Red Road, the Native American Way, is hard, very difficult. It is a hard road to follow. You have to balance the two ways out.”
There was a time when the Indian Center nearly failed. But now, there are signs the center is walking the Native American Way.
“We sit in a much better position than we did seven years ago,” said April Scott, the center’s director. “We are completely debt free. We have brought back the powwows. We are vibrant.”
This weekend, the center is sponsoring its second annual American Indian Festival featuring the art, songs, dances and culture of the many diverse tribes in Wichita’s American Indian community. There are hopes that the festival, patterned after Oklahoma City’s Red Earth Festival, will someday grow into one of the largest American Indian festivals in this region.
“If you look at the center now, and compare it to where it has been, it has been exciting to watch it grow,” said John D’Angelo, director of the city’s arts and culture department.
The center, at 650 N. Seneca, offers entertainment space, meeting places and a museum that interprets the history and culture of the Plains Indians.
When it opened in 1976, it was envisioned as a cultural center and source of social services for Native Americans. The social services have been cut, Scott said, because Wichitans can receive those services through other agencies, such as United Way of the Plains or Salvation Army.
The center offers community events, which feature American Indian drumming, singing and dancing, to encourage the public to use the building again. Steady building rentals and museum gift shop purchases keep money flowing into the facility.
In 2005, the Mid-America All-Indian Center temporarily closed and the city took over its operations because of a string of problems, including financial issues and missing artifacts from the museum.
Center officials took out a $175,000 loan from the city to pay off past-due bills. Within two years, the loan was paid in full, center officials said. And, it now has enough in savings that – should something unforeseen happen – there is enough to keep the center’s doors open for at least 10 months.
“We did it by trimming all the expenses,” Scott said. “We have a finance committee that balances everything. We do not go into debt for anything.”
At first, Scott said it was about doing away with the excess and asking tough questions, such as: Did the center need 15 phone lines? Or four websites?
“We found we could get rid of this and that,” she said. “Everything we spend, we think about it twice.”
But beyond creating a solid financial footing, Scott said, there has been an attitude shift. The center has become more inclusive and welcoming to Native Americans and non-natives as well.
“We try to be inclusive of everyone,” she said. “Our mission is not just to try and educate and preserve, but to open our arms and educate against stereotypes.”
The center serves as a meeting place for the more than 10,000 American Indians who live in the Wichita area, representing 72 tribes, mostly Plains and Southwestern tribes.
It operates on a $440,000 operating budget and attracts about 40,000 visitors a year, D’Angelo said.
Building back up
When the city of Wichita took control of the building, one of the first thing city officials did was reduce staff and take inventory.
Currently, the center has two employees besides Scott – Crystal Flannery-Bachicha, the center’s education director, and Deborah Roseke, museum director. At one time, it had more than 10 employees.
The museum’s computer database was brought up to date, artifacts and collections were photographed and digitized. All of the museum’s collection has been accounted for, D’Angelo said.
The collection includes original artwork by Blackbear Bosin, the internationally famed Kiowa artist, and other American Indian artists. There are sacred objects such as eagle feathers and pipe bags, exquisite beadwork jewelry, regalia, moccasins and baskets.
“It is actually a very fine collection,” said Jerry Martin, director of the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at Wichita State University, who was the center’s museum director from 1989 to 1999. “I would say that as far as Native American collections go, it is one of the best in the state and this region.”
Walking the Red Road
This weekend’s festival marks a time of celebration. The powwow, with its dances and drumming, is a celebration of life. It is a celebration of one more year and a way of renewing the old ways.
“Real Indians are aware of the negatives and positives in life, but we don’t dwell on them,” said Hamilton, who is Cheyenne. “For us, it is about learning to balance things out.”
This weekend will be about family – of honoring those who have come before, those in the present and those who will follow.
This weekend, Katherine Leading Fox and her family will celebrate. Her daughter, Bailey, was the Intertribal Warrior Society’s princess last year and will be dancing this year during the powwow. So will Adam, 14; Emily, 13; and Leading Fox’s husband, Chris.
“For our family it is not only a way to come together but it is a way to be with friends and other family,” Leading Fox said. “For us, it is almost a religion.
“When we get to come together like this, we pay our respects to the elders and veterans. It is a way for our children to learn the right ways. This is a lifestyle. For anyone who wants to learn about our culture, this is the way to do it.”