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Mike Nowatzki, Published December 23 2009

Native American Center in Fargo offers ‘a place to belong’

When she first came to Fargo, Verna Lucio looked for a Native American friendship center like those that dot big cities in her native Canada.

She was surprised not to find one.

Now, about a year later, American Indians coming to the Fargo-Moorhead area and those already living here will have a hub for gathering.

The Native American Center in Fargo opened its doors Tuesday in the lower level of 303 Roberts St.

“Having this center is actually crucial for the Native American people, because it’s a place where they can meet and at the same time just feel like they belong, kind of like a little home of their own,” Lucio said.

Cultural Diversity Resources Inc., which occupies the upper offices, created the center with a three-year, $400,000 federal grant from the Administration for Native Americans.

The ANA promotes self-sufficiency and cultural preservation by providing social and job opportunities through training and financial and technical assistance.

Project Coordinator Jeremy Syverson, one of three Native Americans who will staff the center, said it will refer users to a variety of services in Cass and Clay counties, from public housing and food shelters to bus passes and the Salvation Army across the street.

But, just as importantly, it will give local American Indians “a place to belong,” with space for activities such as bead working, drum groups and educational classes, he said.

Computers are available for those who wish to search for jobs or fill out applications online.

Some of the services are similar to those offered at Native American Programs in downtown Fargo, which closed three years ago when it ran out of money.

Yoke-Sim Gunaratne, executive director of Cultural Diversity Resources, said the center will seek additional funding sources in the future. While nothing is guaranteed, she said CDR wouldn’t have started the center if it didn’t feel there was community support to continue.

The center aims to foster development of the local economy, promote jobs and economic well-being and reduce dependency on social services, she said.

A nine-member Native American Council will govern and manage the center in collaboration with community volunteers and partners.

During its initial year, the center will focus on recruiting and training leaders. Years two and three will be spent creating committees on culture and education, Gunaratne said.

Danette Wolff of Fargo, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, said she hopes the center will be a place for her twin daughters to learn how to speak Ojibwe.

“A lot of our youth right now don’t know anything about our culture, and that would be a great opportunity to bring them up here, and then let other people enjoy what we have to offer,” she said.

Fargo-Moorhead is at the center of several American Indian reservations and tends to draw tribal members looking for jobs and housing, she said.

“It’s kind of a hard transition from living on the rez to moving to a big city, so hopefully it’ll be able to help people out and get them connected to whatever resources they need in the community,” she said.

The center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528