McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

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September 7, 2013

Help wanted for Choctaw village park project

McALESTER — Volunteers are looking ahead to a special work weekend to start building the planned traditional Choctaw village at Hutchison Park — but they need more help.

The special volunteer weekend is set in two weeks on Sept. 21-22, a Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 9 a.m. on both days.

“We’re asking everyone to come out and help,” said McAlester News-Capital Publisher Amy Johns, who is leading the volunteer effort. “Bring work gloves, a lot of energy and community spirit.”

In addition to volunteers willing to work build the village, a call is also going out for materials, including rocks and stones that can be used to line fire pits and poles hewn from trees — not purchased at a lumber yard — for use in constructing traditional Choctaw dwellings and other structures at the site.

To help plan the project and design the village, a group of individuals involved met Friday at Whistle Stop Bistro in Old Town. Hutchison Park is at Fourth Street and Krebs Avenue, on the block that’s behind the restaurant.

Among those meeting were personnel and officials from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, including Choctaw Councilor Bob Pate; city of  McAlester officials and personnel, including City Manager Pete Stasiak, along with  local volunteers, including Johns and Old Town Association President Eddie Gray.

Those meeting set a goal of getting as much of the project completed as possible by Oct. 5 — the day of the Wild West Festival in McAlester’s Old Town.

Johns agreed to serve as the chief coordinator during the volunteer work days, with Gray offering to serve as back-up.

Choctaw Nation Marketing Director Lana Sleeper, Choctaw Nation Executive Director of Cultural Services Sue Folsum and Choctaw Nation Director of Cultural Services Kay Jackson also represented the Choctaw Nation. They told Johns an individual with an in-depth knowledge of Choctaw culture and traditions will be available to offer guidance during the volunteer work days.

Those present agreed that due to the scope of the project, it will have to be divided into separate phases, with the goal of finishing Phase 1 in time for the Wild West Festival. Pam Kirby, of the city of McAlester, posted stickers with photos of traditional structures on a posterboard, following a design plan suggested by the Choctaw representatives.

Included among the planned projects for Phase 1 is the construction of a summer hut, creation of a mound, which will require moving truckloads of dirt to the park; two fire pits, construction of a smaller hut, which can be used by vendors, and resurfacing the rest room facilities at the park, to make it blend more with the traditional structures planned for the site.

Sherman Miller, of the city’s parks department, said a city worker will use an auger to drill the post holes prior to the first volunteer work day, so the holes will be ready when volunteers arrive to begin the project.

Shortly after the meeting began, Johns said she had heard from some members of the Hutchison family expressing concern that the name of the park would be changed.

Gray said there were no plans to try and change the name of the park, which he said will continue to be known as Hutchison Park.

The main name suggested for the Choctaw village to be constructed inside the park was Choctaw Tobaksi Village, with Tobaksi translating as “Coal.”

When it was noted the Choctaw Nation has requested an agreement with the city regarding the project, Stasiak questioned the need for an official agreement. Sleeper elaborated on the reason for the request.

“The main focus of the agreement is the authenticity of what’s being made,” Sleeper said. For example, Choctaws do not like to see feathers placed at such sites, she said, because its not culturally accurate.

“It’s just an agreement to ease people’s spirits,” she said, so they will know the Choctaw Nation has a say in how its culture is depicted.

Johns offered to write a resolution or memorandum of understanding that would be agreeable to those involved.

Following the meeting, Folsum suggested several names if those involved decided they wanted to use Choctaw words exclusively when naming the village. Leading the list of suggestions was Chahata Tobaksi Aiasha, which Folsum said is a way of saying Choctaw Tobaksi Village entirely in the Choctaw language.

As the meeting ended, those involved appeared pleased at the progress and what had been accomplished for planning purposes.

“We are just excited to be able to work with the city this way,” Sleeper said. She predicted the cooperation will be fruitful and expressed hope it will lead to a closer relationship between the city of McAlester and the Choctaw Nation.

“We’re excited we’re going to be able to teach about the culture,” said Sleeper. “So many people in this area have been hungry to learn about the culture. This is an opportunity to do that.”

Pate said he thought everything was going wonderfully at this point.

“We’ve got a good rapport with the city,” Pate said. “It’s two governments working together to make for a better understanding of the culture of the area.”

Pate said he thinks the location of the proposed village is at a perfect site, next to the J.J. McAlester house and adjacent to the traditional Tobucksy County Courthouse.

Johns is also ready to move the project forward.

“We’re going to make this happen,” she said.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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