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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 6, 2001 - Issue 46


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 Center Allows Children, Elders of the Oneida Nation to Meet, Learn, Share


 by Glenn Coin Post-Standard-September 20, 2001

At one end of the building, Sarah Stout swirls the dark mauve paint on her canvas during an art class for senior citizens.

At the other end, dozens of pre-school children ride scooters and read books and even learn simple math skills by stacking up blocks.

It's a typical day at the Ray Elm Children and Elders Center, built by the Oneida Indian Nation. Opened in Oneida in 1998, the crescent-shaped building combines a senior citizens center and a day care, with a room in the middle to bring the two generations together.

"Children and elders are the two most important segments of the population," said Mark Emery, speaking for the Oneidas. "The design is like the two arms of the creator wrapping around the children and the elders."

The center is named for Ray Elm, an Oneida who died in 1997 at the age of 94. Elm spoke Oneida, his native language. Today, Oneida children are taught the language at the center; even the workers at the center greet each other with the traditional Oneida word, "Skegoli" (pronounced sah-go-lee) instead of "hello."

The children's wing buzzes with shouts and shrieks throughout the day. Children are grouped by age, from infants to 4-year-olds, in bright classrooms with lots of windows and cathedral ceilings. The center has 51 children and 19 staff members, and is open to nation members and employees.

One recent day, when rain kept the children from their own age-specific playgrounds, the bigger children rode tricycles and scooters in the half-circle "large motor room" at the far end. It's like a game of bumper bikes, but the padded walls and the supervision of two teachers keeps things safe.

Play is an important part of learning at the center, said day care director Tricia Narolis, whose 3-year-old daughter attends the center.

"We try to focus on development of the whole child," Narolis said. "It's a balance for kids who are developing their whole selves."

Back in the toddler classroom, the five children from 18 months to 3 years sprawl around the bean-bag chair, where teacher Irene Peters reads a Cheerios counting book. It's not quite lunch time yet, but the children are looking tired. One little boy with curly blond hair sits erect and barely moves for the 15 minutes a reporter and photographer observe. The others, too, are sitting quietly or moving slowly. They just returned from the large motor room.

"This morning I never thought they would be tired at all," said Dawn Roache, who floats between the various age groups all day. "Out of all the rooms, this is the most active room."

Lunch will arrive in about 15 minutes, Roache said, and then all the children will take a long nap. Today is pizza day, everybody's favorite.

At the other end of the building, lunch is being readied for the elders. Today, about a dozen nation elders will gather for a free lunch of mushroom baked chicken, rice pilaf, squash and fresh fruit. They'll also get an extra meal to take home, something the center does once a month.

"I think it's fantastic," said Shirl Oatman, who comes to the center for lunch three times a week. "It's good to get together with all your friends."

The lofty cafeteria is also home to other events. The nation's tribal court holds its hearings there, and a pull-out stage allows for performances.

After lunch, Birdy Burdick comes from the nation's Shako:Wi cultural center to teach a painting class. Four people were scheduled to come, but one had a doctor's appointment, and two others are too shy to paint when a photographer and reporter are in the room.

So Sarah Stout will get a private lesson today. She and Burdick, an Oneida who is program coordinator at the cultural center, will brush in the background of the picture today, an impressionistic sky and forest. First they coat their canvases with a layer of white paint, then begin to apply the dark mauve paint with quick taps of the brushes.

"Tap, tap, tap," Burdick instructs. "We're painting far away trees. You can barely see them, they're so far away. You have to tap, tap, tap down the point of the brush," she says, moving behind Stout.

"My arms are getting tired," Stout says.

Stout keeps tapping, though. She took up painting a few years ago at age 70, and so far has created 11 paintings. She has given all of them to her children and grandchildren.

The rest of the elders wing is quiet today. None of the treadmills are in use in the recreation room, and the sewing room and pottery room are quiet, too. Evidence abounds of the center's use, though. On the counters in the pottery room, for example, lie ceramic turtle rattles. Here, too, is a small clay sculpture by Burdick, which depicts a native storyteller with children gathered around.

All the classes and services in the elder wing are free to nation members 60 and older. About 60 elders live in the area, Emery said.

Much of the elders wing resembles a well-furnished senior citizens center, but a recurring design pattern on the floors is distinctly Oneida. The tile floor in each room contains the diamond patterns of the traditional wampum belts.

"It's to remind people where they are," said Wilma Cook, a Mohawk who works as the center services representative.

Just across from Cook's desk near the front door is a building within a building that also reminds Oneidas where they area. It's an oval replica, 50 by 15 feet, of a traditional Iroquois longhouse. An open gas fireplace dominates the center of the room, and a bright, fluted copper pipe pulls the exhaust up and out the roof.

It is here, in the model of the Iroquois communal housing, that the generations meet. The children and elders gather here monthly for story-telling or crafts.

"They help them make kites and fly them," Wilma Cook said. "And the elders are always giving words of wisdom to the children."

Ray Elm died before the building was finished, but a bulletin board in the lobby has a picture of him standing at the construction site. The nameplate bears his name, in English and Oneida.

"It was one of his many dreams, to have a community building for his people," Cook said. "This is a present (the Oneidas) gave themselves."


Ray Elm-Children and Elders Center
Our Elders are our link to the past and our children are our bridge to the future. Bringing them together in the Ray Elm Children and Elders Center in 1999 marked a great milestone in the Nation's cultural rebirth.

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