Local Indian Center finally secures its land

May 11, 2007
By

JOHN SWAN


Gazette Photo by John Swan
The North American Indian Centre of Boston on S. Huntington Avenue recently signed a lease with the state to stay on the site it has used for the past 40 years.

S. HUNTINGTON AVE.—The North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) finally penned a 99-year ground lease with the state that in effect gives back some of the land the center always considered its own in the first place.

The agreement, signed three weeks ago, calls for a nominal payment to the state of $1 a year, but 1.1 acres of the original 1.8-acre site at 105 S. Huntington Avenue, where the center holds regional powwows, weddings and other large outside events, has already been sold to Cedar Valley Holding LLC for $1.5 million, presumably to build high-end housing.

“We’re relieved this part of our journey has come to an end,” said NAICOB Executive Director Joanne Dunn, who grew up in Jamaica Plain and has been a fixture at the center, formerly the Boston Indian Council, since it began in 1970.

Considering the alternative, Dunn called the agreement “pretty fair,” noting the center’s goal that “no matter what, we wanted to keep our visibility and identity and not be swallowed up by real estate development.

“I’m sad about losing the space next to the building where we hold events. It was a very poignant time when we had to take down the sweat lodge. It was like removing a chapel.

“But the big thing is not having to move. We had no control [over the property] before because all we could get [from the state] were short-term leases,” she said, noting the center will now hold its First Annual Gala Fundraising Event at the Seaport Hotel May 12 to begin a capital campaign for much-needed site improvements.

In the summer of 2003, things looked bleak for NAICOB, which has always operated on a shoestring budget. Although it serves 6,000 constituents from 40 North American Indian nations a year with counseling, day care, health services and job training, it faced an impending deadline to sign a take-it-or-leave-it deal for short money and move from the state-owned site as part of former Gov.Mitt Romney’s administration’s policy of selling off “excess property” in order to “extract the maximum value,” as a state official put it in 2003.

“I think [state officials] thought we would just go away, but we didn’t,” Dunn recalled. Instead, the center reached out to local elected officials and the community, which rallied to NAICOB’s defense. At a Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council meeting that year, Dunn explained the state’s proposed deal would not come close to funding a move to another site, then reminded them, “Relocation is an ugly word in a Native American’s mind. And I find it ironic that there’s no room for this nation’s native people.”

At first, the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) circled the wagons and refused to budge. But after a public outcry and coaxing from state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, then-City Councilor Maura Hennigan and Deputy Director Muhammad Ali-Salaam from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, DCAM Commissioner David Perini went back to the table and began what was a five-year process to forge an agreement.

“I give a lot of credit to Jeff and David. They worked very hard together,” said Dunn.

Part of that work included shepherding legislation through the State House enabling DCAM to negotiate a deal.

“It was a challenging process,” Sánchez said. “But the most important thing was David Perini telling the governor this is the way to go. If David didn’t sign on, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Kevin Flanigan, a DCAM deputy director, quoted Perini this week saying, “We are delighted that the lease agreement has been finalized and that NAICOB is assured a permanent home to carry on vital community services.”

Ali-Salaam, who said he originally got involved at the request of Mayor Thomas Menino, congratulated both sides. “David opened his heart and rose to the occasion,” he said, adding, “Joanne and the NAICOB members were an absolute joy to work with.

“I also want to acknowledge the JP community for sticking by NAICOB all these years,” he said.

As for the long process, Ali-Salaam was philosophical. “Perhaps the Native American community needed to learn how the system works, and the politicians needed to realize their moral obligation.”

“Now it’s time to figure out where they go from here,” said Sánchez. “It’s an exciting time for them. They’ve got a big event this month and we’re all going to work together to make their future a reality.”

Dunn said the center’s board of directors and building committee are meeting regularly to map out that future.

Plan A is a new center, already drafted pro bono by architect Rashid Ashraf. The circular center symbolizes what Dunn called “the continuum of life” and would use green technology and be constructed with “materials gathered from around the continent…and with art representing each Indian nation.” Dunn estimated the cost at about $30 million.

Plan B is a less ambitious $5 million alternative, rehabbing the current century-old building, a former detention facility for women, that Dunn said is in “very tough shape.”

Dunn went on to say, “I’m surprised and disappointed that we haven’t had any support from the [more prosperous] tribes [running casinos] at Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. We never have, and it’s a shame, because over 70 percent of Indian people now live off reservations, and this center has been a beacon for them for almost 40 years.

“But we’re excited about the future, and thankful for all the support from friends in JP. We’re a resilient and patient people, and have some options now. The upcoming Gala is just the tip of the iceberg. I’d really love to see this center become a landmark in Massachusetts,” she said.

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