Nokomis Learning Center: preserving culture without any help

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By Kelly Sheridan
The Meridian Times Reporter

An exhibit at the Nokomis Cultural Learning Center. Photo By Kelly Sheridan

An exhibit at the Nokomis Learning Center. Photo By Kelly Sheridan

The Nokomis Learning Center, located at 5153 Marsh Road in Okemos, is a non-profit Native American learning center whose mission is to preserve the history, arts and culture of the “people of the Three Fires”– the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe and present it to the community. The building contains an art gallery, exhibit classroom and gift shop.

Founded in 1988, the Nokomis Learning Center is doing the best it can to preserve the culture from generation to generation.

“Nokomis means ‘grandmother’ and grandmother was the primary teacher in the clans and the villages,” Victoria Voges, the Educational Director at Nokomis Learning Center,  said. “One of our goals is to teach the culture and the history and hold it up so that’s why they named it Nokomis.”

An exhibit at the Nokomis Learning Center. Photo By Kelly Sheridan

An exhibit at the Nokomis Learning Center. Photo By Kelly Sheridan

The center provides tours to over 200 groups per year, and most of them come from local middle schools. However, the public schools aren’t doing enough to teach Native American cultures the correct way, according to Voges.

“The curriculums in schools are totally lacking when it comes to the relevance of Native American history in Michigan,” Voges said. “There’s just a little bit that’s offered unless you go into specialty areas, and it’s sad because you don’t know what has happened on your own ground.”

Cynthia Gabriel, an anthropology professor at Michigan State University, said the lack of teaching in schools leads to a lack of awareness and many misconceptions about these cultures.

“There’s a lack of awareness and I think that has to do with how we teach it in our schools. If all you’ve ever heard about Native Americans is what happened in the 1800s, you think they’re gone,” Gabriel said. “I’m always shocked when I’m teaching and undergraduate students talk about Native Americans in the past tense like they’re all gone. So I think that’s a common misconception. People today don’t really have an awareness that Native Americans are alive and well and thriving cultures.”

Gabriel said part of the reason the Native Americans don’t get the recognition they deserve is because of the lack of numbers.

“I think its always hard for minority groups to grab attention. And I don’t think Native Americans really have the numbers to grab the attention in the headlines. They’re only one percent of the population compared to other minorities at 10 or 12 percent,” she said. “With that said, in some areas we should know more about them because there’s clearly more.”

A display at the Nokomis Cultural Learning Center. Photo by Kelly Sheridan

A display at the Nokomis Learning Center. Photo by Kelly Sheridan

While there are many Native Americans in Michigan, the young people are losing sight of preserving their culture, Voges said.

“There are still many full-bloods here. The other purpose of Nokomis is to bring the community together, and it’s under-utilized because the elders and the people who still really want to do that are older and have health problems. The young people have been pulled into the world of technology and they’re running with the crowd,” Voges said.

Voges believes that it’s important to keep the culture alive in the modern day.

Photo By Kelly Sheridan

Photo By Kelly Sheridan

“The art and culture is the expression of the spirit and the soul. That always needs to be alive in every ethnic group. That alone is important,” Voges said. “Also, to remember where you came from. If we don’t remember where we came from and don’t honor those who came before us we kind of lose our way.”

According to, in the late 19th century, white reformers began to use “education as a tool to ‘assimilate’ Indian Tribes into the ‘American way of life.’” There were numerous day schools and reservation boarding schools, however it wasn’t enough. The Native American children were still able to express their culture with their families, so reformers took a step further. They moved the boarding schools further away from the reservations and had mottos such as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The children were given new “white” names and were being stripped of their culture. The hope was they wouldn’t return to their reservations and would simply join white society. In 1893, a court ruling increased the pressure to keep Indian children in boarding schools, and it wasn’t till 1978 that the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed that gave Native American parents the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.

“Native American boarding schools was something aimed at assimilation, but what it really did was decimate native culture to the point that if you wanted to be Native American today, and want to claim that heritage, you have to re-learn it,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel believes that the government should be taking more of a responsibility in helping these cultures thrive again.

“I think that if we took seriously the government’s role in what has happened to native culture, then the only possible human response to that would be to do everything in our power to support the continuation of these cultures,” Gabriel said.

However, the government is doing hardly anything to help them. Voges said The Meridian Township Historical Village recently took them out of their annual Heritage Festival and the local government doesn’t give them any funding.

“They don’t budget us any more, they give us no help, at one time they did, but there was controversy with politics,” Voges said. “If we don’t keep [the building] going, they will get it back. I think its kind of obvious that they want it back, because they don’t give us any help. It just seems like the community doesn’t seem to value the native aspect that much.”

Melissa Andersen, Educational Director of Meridian Historical Village referred to Jane Rose, the Executive Director, who could not be reached for comment.

Gabriel believes the first step in fixing this problem is acknowledging that there is one.

“I think that there’s ignorance at all of our levels, and part of our ignorance is not even knowing what can be done,” Gabriel said. “I think the first thing is curiosity and awareness that there is even an issue and humbly asking what is it that local and state county level government or communities could be doing to revitalize these cultures.”

Nokomis Learning Center takes it as a responsibility to keep these cultures thriving, and allow people to learn about the people who have come before them.

“We’re keeping these cultures alive, we’re keeping this beauty alive, we’re trying to express the culture, and take the history of Michigan to the next step because it’s so very watered down in the public school systems and even at the college level, you have to be in a particular area to get anything but a watered-down version,” Voges said.

Voges said her hope for the Nokomis Learning Center is to be taken seriously, and for the people to see the value in learning about the history of those who have come before them.

The Nokomis Cultural Learning Center. Photo By Kelly Sheridan

The Nokomis Learning Center. Photo By Kelly Sheridan

“I hope the native community itself will embrace it more, and the larger community will see its value. It’s under-utilized, it’s under-valued, people don’t care and they don’t care because life is hard, it’s tough. They’re all on the run, trying to make it,” Voges said. “But there are many lessons here that can help them with all that stuff. It can bring them balance, because we are all out of balance, we’re out of balance with each other, we’re out of balance with our earth.”

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