Reviving the heritage for young and old

Monday, November 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Miami News-Record

MIAMI, Okla. (AP) -- Most people driving by couldn't see past the dilapidated old supper club situated on Highway 10. Long overshadowed by brush, the property didn't spark much interest to prospective Grand Lake real estate seekers.

That is until Jack King came along.

Away from his Oklahoma homeland for several years, the Oneida Nation Indian returned troubled by what had happened to his people.

"In eight years, the language had gone. It was so sad. I knew then I wanted to bring back what I could," King said.

Past the overgrown trees, King saw a piece of land surrounded by eight tribes -- nations representing people he had lived among all his life.

He envisioned the land situated in the tip of northeastern Oklahoma as a future home to "individuals of many more nations, all of which had no meeting place or situation to maintain their Indian heritage."

Shortly after purchasing the seven acres in 1993, King spent the next year tackling the wildly overgrown property that would be the future home of the Painted Horse War Dance Society.

Ironically, working as a young carpenter, King had helped the contractor build the supper club.

In the 1970s, the place was special to him; he'd once owned the property.

But working on the building a second time around would prove to take a lot more effort, cleaning and remodeling. When King took possession a second time, he recalled seeing a lone 2x4 stud holding up the entire roof.

Massive cedar logs were used to bring the roof upright again and seven years later, the old supper club is the Indian Territory Museum. However not completely restored, the transformation is clearly evident -- areas of display include American Indian arts and crafts, dance, herbs and elements of nature, as well as models featuring traditional dress.

Today motorists passing by on Thursday evenings hear the distinct sound of a drum. King's wife Marcine describes as representation of "the heartbeat of Native Americans."

About 30 American Indian teens from several tribes meet weekly, setting up the drum in front of the building, gathering around it to sing songs with Sonny Waters.

"With all the video games and computers out there today, it amazes me that kids come here because they want to dance, sing songs and learn traditional ways," she said.

"Passing on the old songs helps Sonny too. It gives him purpose when he's sharing tradition with them."

Teaching the teens the art of stomp dancing brought an interesting outcome recently for King as a mentor. During a competition in central Missouri, 17-year-old Travis Mammedaty walked away with a first place honor. King's performance was ranked third by judges.

"I took a lot of ribbing over that one," King recalled with a laugh.

Arms crossed, with pride in his eyes he added, "My pupil beat me."

Mammedaty drove from Commerce each week when he first heard about what the King family was trying to accomplish for teens.

"A lot of people make fun of our traditions. I'm probably the only Kiowa around here for miles so until I came here I didn't really have anyone to communicate with about my own culture."

Mammedaty indicated he hoped the program evolved into a place where he could learn more than stomp dancing.

"Oh, I'd definitely be the first one here if they opened a school." he said.

Yvonne Davis, also 17, expressed much the same sentiment while warning of the repercussions of lost ways.

"I was raised traditionally. We believe if you don't pass on tradition, it will be taken into the next life as excess baggage,"

she said.

Leonard "Catfish" Smith said he learned from the school of hard knocks what happens when "we don't find ways for children to become interested in tradition."

A man who spent several years in and out of scrapes with the law because of repeated alcohol-related offenses, Smith said his "head always hung low" until he had a few beers, "then I became the life of the party." Alcohol appeared to take away that shyness and pain, but he believes some teens can be spared that heartache if they are drawn to "find their own way."

Elders would like to set up an educational program to help American Indian teens that have already dropped out of the public school system or are on the verge of doing so.

"Our Indian kids are getting lost to drugs and alcohol,"

King's wife said.

The center is currently working toward securing grant funding to start an education program that will use traditional Indian methods of addressing these issues. Elders would like to see the school opened soon but aren't sure if the necessary funding can be put into place.

In the meantime, the center has kept young and old alike busy planning and organizing events.

Recently, the group joined several area tribes in celebrations, participating in stomp dances, barbecues, camping and American Indian versions of football, basketball, dice, marbles and other hand games.

A nonprofit organization, Painted Horse War Dance Society is governed by a board of directors that meet the third Sunday of each month, beginning with a pot luck dinner at 2 p.m. at the culture center.

As King sums up things that have been accomplished since he first began whacking brush seven years ago, "There were times when I was about to give up. Then the kids came around. If we don't keep reaching out, it will all go down the river."