few seeds, ceremonially scattered to Tuesday's brisk wind, marked
the first plantings of a healing garden here.
"Wherever it falls, it's good,"
Cecelia Earth pronounced, as she and other participants let loose
finger-pinches of native grass seed. The action marked the end of
a ceremonial blessing of the small plot of land and the garden's
mission. Earth is treasurer of AiKiRuti, the grass-roots community
organization that dreamed and prayed its way to that moment.
When the dream is complete, the garden,
designed on less than an acre of now-rough land, will provide a
place where visitors can find spiritual and culture strength to
help in their recovery from drug and alcohol addiction -- or prevent
addiction altogether. Plans also call for a building to enhance
cultural studies at the garden, a 3,600-square-foot Cultural Learning/Visitors
AiKiRuti, pronounced I key-ru-dee in the
Winnebagos' Ho-Chunk language, means Helping Hand. The AiKiRuti
Healing Garden will be more than a peaceful place. It will be planted
in grasses, flowers and forbs that have been of cultural and spiritual
significance to the Winnebago people. And, it will be a teaching
tool, restoring much of the nearly lost lore to the tribe and informing
outside visitors as well.
Work on the garden, which will include
a water pond, is set to start this weekend. Earth said plans for
the building will also proceed, although funding for the roughly
$700,000 project is still only partially assured. AiKiRuti, which
operates under a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has received
a three-year $100,000 grant from Nebraska Health Care/Tobacco Settlement
Fund and smaller grants from the Nebraska Humanities Council and
the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum. It is receiving other kinds of
support from the Loess Hills Resource Conservation & Development
Council. The RC&D donated the first seeds -- including prairie
cone flower, side oats gramma and big bluestem -- to the garden
The AiKiRuti organization got its start
two years ago in response to a 1999 University of Minnesota study
that showed 51 percent of the reservation's adult population, both
men and women, could be classified as "severe alcoholic."
It also showed the problem was not diminishing.
While the Winnebago's own hospital is
renowned for its alcohol and drug treatment program, the 12-bed
unit is often full and tribal members are sent elsewhere. Once patients
were released from any program, there was little continuing support
AiKiRuti set out to change that. It began
by operating a drop-in center with some evening hours, hosting Alcoholics
Anonymous meetings and sponsoring informational programs for the
broader community. It is temporarily housed in three trailer-classrooms
on the garden site, just a block or so off U.S. Highway 77, Winnebago's
"A lot of people lose their identity,"
said Winona Armell, president of AiKiRuti. "Learning about
the culture and our ways helps their self-esteem and helps them
be proud of who they are."
Tuesday's cedaring ceremony was performed
by a young tribal spiritual leader, Stuart Snake. Snake told the
participants that he was using in the rite some of the last tobacco
seeds that had been passed down to him by his late father, the highly
esteemed Reuben Snake. He prayed a Christian prayer that the garden
would help "eradicate this sickness."
The Cultural Learning/Visitors Center
will be where tradition meets high-tech. It was designed by Lincoln
architect David Littrell of Geller Design Inc. to provide spiritual
and cultural context. Plans feature a fireplace at the center symbolizing
creation with the four "roads of life," or directions,
leading from it. It will feature a kitchen where some of the plants
can be prepared or meals for groups catered, and a classroom where
AiKiRuti can host speakers, meetings and classes. Groupings of computers
will be where young people and adults can use interactive computer
games to learn about the garden plants and their historic uses in
the Winnebago culture.
A lunch was served after the ceremony.
In a foreshadowing of plans that Winnebagos will one day prepare
and eat some of the garden's healing plants, the meal featured buttery
steamed cattails, a food once common to the tribe, and wild rice,
a staple of the Ojibway people in Minnesota. Barry Blackhawk, a
Ho-Chunk language and culture teacher, said the pre-meal grace in
his native language then again in English. He also explained the
expression "AiKiRuti," which evokes the action of taking
someone's hand and pulling them up, spiritually and emotionally.
"It's a very appropriate name they have revived," he said.