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April 2, 2001

'Something uniquely ours'

GT Band of Ottawa, Chippewa Indians unveils Strongheart Center
Record-Eagle staff writer

      PESHAWBESTOWN - The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians' $4 million civic center is now open, a fusion of cultural heritage and first-rate facilities.
      "We really set out trying to build something uniquely ours," said tribal member Mark Sherman, director of the band's planning and development office. "Anybody can build a gym. We wanted to have something special."
      Tribal symbolism is everywhere at the 225,000-square foot, turtle-shaped facility, which opened last month and is known as the Strongheart Center. From its snapping turtle design and color scheme to the 13 hand-carved wooden columns encircling the lobby to represent the 13 moons of the Ottawa calendar, the facility is one of a kind.
      "There's a lot of cultural significance in the building," Sherman said.
      The name "Strongheart" - or "Zoong' de ewin" - was chosen through a cooperative effort involving some of the band's cultural leaders and the native language staff. The cultural tie is that the turtle has a strong heart according to Indian beliefs, and is a symbol of strength, luck and endurance. The turtle is also a clan symbol for some of the families among Ottawa and Chippewa people.
      The circle, another Indian symbol for a center of activity and the continuing circle of generations, is also emphasized throughout the building. A large wooden circle surrounds the lobby, and in that is carved the surnames of the families from the 1908 Durant roll that was the first federal census of the band. Officials said that was an idea that came from tribal elders who wanted those family names recognized and preserved for years to come.
      "Every member of the tribe can trace their heritage to this list," Sherman said.
      Tribal members pieced together their unique vision for the civic center through community meetings and surveys but still needed someone to pull those ideas together. For that they turned to architect Douglas Cardinal, a part Blackfoot Indian who works out of Ottawa, Canada, and has won international acclaim for his work on civic projects in the United States and Canada.
      "We set out to get someone that would be sensitive to native culture and have an eye for it," Sherman said.
      Cardinal's work designing the unique building drew raves from band officials, although the consultant said it was the tribal community that deserves the credit.
      "The ultimate vision is what they had - it was my job to bring that vision to reality," Cardinal said. "It shows the skills the community has putting together a futuristic building with a connection to the past."
      For all the cultural and historic touches, functionally the facility is like a high-end health club. It includes a large center court that can be converted to separate basketball or volleyball courts, with bleacher seats for around 800. Officials estimate the center can hold up to 1,500 for indoor powwows or other events.
      There are twin scoreboards and locker rooms, meeting rooms, dozens of weight machines and pieces of exercise equipment, a cushioned walking and jogging track, a dance/aerobics studio, a snack bar/kitchen area and even a video arcade.
      Work will continue this spring on the outdoor amenities at the center, including a picnic area, sand volleyball courts, a baseball field and a multi-purpose field for soccer and youth football. There is also an outdoor skate park at the center.
      The center is open daily, operating Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., Fridays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It's open to tribal members, band employees and local non-Indian residents as well.
      "It's been very busy," center director Jason Hill said. "We've been averaging 200 to 250 people a day in the building."
      Tribal officials also are taking special pride in the new building because it's the first major project where the band's planning and development office served as its own general contractor. Tribal planner Susan Cronander served as the project manager, and band members also took part in several phases of the construction.
      "Our process was very tightly managed in-house. ... We basically trimmed the profit and put it back into the building," Sherman said. "The result was we got a $7 million building for $4 million."