Montgomery County

Native heritage center planned for Tribes Hills

Proposed heritage center would bring Native culture and arts to Tribes Hills
Marjorie Dancing Wind Heacock shows a Hiawatha  belt that would be on display at the proposed Tribes Hill Heritage Center, which would be a showcase and learning center for Native American crafts, arts and culture.
Marjorie Dancing Wind Heacock shows a Hiawatha belt that would be on display at the proposed Tribes Hill Heritage Center, which would be a showcase and learning center for Native American crafts, arts and culture.

The field that Marjorie Dancing Wind Heacock pointed to on Wednesday slopes away from Route 5 in the hamlet of Tribes Hill, just west of Amsterdam, toward the Mohawk River and Schoharie Creek in the distance.

She swept her hand from right to left, pointing out distant tree lines, tracing the edges of the 60-acre property where she plans to build the Tribes Hill Heritage Center, an ambitious project to harness the area’s history into something of a living museum — though she doesn’t like the word “museum.”

“You have to think in terms of what is going to bring people here,” she said later at her home. “Participating, having a good time — that brings people. People don’t want to just sit there like at a museum and look at the thing on the wall.”

To her, the Heritage Center is fundamentally an educational facility, a place to “preserve the cultures and lifeways of those that went before us,” according to a news release.

Heacock, known to her friends as Dance, grew up in Western states learning Native American crafts and traditions from birth. She was breaking flint and making leather dresses for dolls, learning the basics of the craft that would become her trademark, before she was old enough to realize it was anything more than play.

“I got to live with Native people all over the country and I got to learn their styles,” she said.

Heacock is a mix of Eastern Paiute, Cheyenne and, most likely, Arapaho, she said. She grew up at a time when Native American children were sent to boarding schools where their native languages were forbidden, and people from hundreds of different tribes were “dumped by the thousands into big cities.”

“We have a whole generation that lost the middle,” she said.

Now that she’s retired from a 20-year teaching career, she wants to turn her deep connections to the world of Native American crafts and her love of education

to the task of encouraging, preserving and passing on those skills.

The Heritage Center is a massive undertaking, and Heacock knows it. In the end, she predicts it will employ about 300 people engaged in a wide variety of craft manufacturing, education, tourism and entertainment jobs on a 60-acre campus with some eight or nine major buildings, all built on what is now an empty field.

Although she doesn’t have a solid total cost, she aims to raise $15 million for infrastructure.

In a news release, she describes the pace to date — forming a board of directors, creating a charter, obtaining both 501(c)3 nonprofit status and a certificate of incorporation as an educational facility from the state since February — as “fairly quick.”

Officials in Montgomery County and the town of Mohawk are more effusive.

“She’s got a plan and a half, let me tell you,” said town Supervisor Ed Bishop. “And it’s beautiful.”

Heacock has kept the Town Board and Planning Board in the loop as she’s progressed this year, and Bishop said the town supports her “100 percent.”

Mark Hoffman, chairman of the town Planning Board, saw the plans when she brought them to the board in October.

“It’s quite a thing that she’s brought forward,” Hoffman said Thursday. “I’ve never seen anything done so thoroughly.”

Officials at the Montgomery County Business Development Center seem equally impressed and confident in Heacock’s diligence.

Senior Planner Amanda Bearcroft said they’ve been in touch weekly about the project and Heacock has been proving naysayers wrong from the start.

“We looked at this and thought it would take years to come to fruition,” Bearcroft said. “It seemed like a big project to tackle and she has proven us wrong.”

Bearcroft, like Heacock, sees the Heritage Center as something that will “put Montgomery County on the map,” drawing in both workers and tourists that will hopefully encourage secondary development like lodging and restaurants.

“There’s nothing like it in the nation, really,” Bearcroft said.

At her home in Tribes Hill, Heacock pulls out architectural sketches of the Display Building, which will feature Native American Arts and Crafts that she has personally collected throughout her life. She has roll after roll of blueprints next to her couch, and she can talk in great detail about the plans, down to the specific plantings — for that, she’s been assisted by an expert from the Landis Arboretum in Esperance.

Reaching out to local businesses and organizations has been a big part of the work and a big part of her success so far. The Original Lincoln Logs is on board for the design and construction of the buildings, and she’s worked with Steve Smith Engineering, Pyramid Realty and ESCOT management consultants, as well as countless other companies for materials and work estimates.

She declined to say where the initial funding for the project was coming from, but said “people have been beyond generous.”

Now that the paperwork phase is done, Heacock is waiting mostly on closing on the property. She said she has the option to buy, but is securing funding.

For implementation, she and Bearcroft are confident that the quality of the plan and multiple aspects of the project — from educational to historical and environmental — will open plenty of opportunities for funding through grants and foundations.

“She has thought about everything,” Bearcroft said. “We’re very positive about how this is being achieved and that when we do break ground it will be with everything in place.”

Heacock said she hopes that will be next year at this time.

“With the speed she’s going at in getting everything achieved, I don’t doubt it at all,” Bearcroft said.

Construction will happen in phases, but when it’s complete the campus will include a Powwow Grounds with Native crafts from across the U.S. and Canada being both made and sold, Old Town Shops for local artisans to work in the “settler style,” a School of Leather Craft that Heacock will personally establish, an art gallery and antiques mall, a natural history display, Quaker, Amish and Dutch areas, a restaurant called Lumberjack Lunch that will serve and teach traditional cuisine, a bakery, a blacksmith and costumer, and an area for traveling historical re-enactors.

Through her connections in the field — she’s run the “Powwow circuit” of Native American meetings for most of her life — she already has more artisans, vendors and educators lined up than she’ll have room for, she said.

“We have people promising to come all the way from Arizona,” she said.

From the beginning of her pitch, Heacock calls this a project aimed at economic revitalization. Not only does she see all the benefits of tourism and employment, but she sees businesses spinning off from the trade education and filling storefronts in nearby cities.

“We are three hours from New York City, we are three hours from Boston, we are three hours from Montreal,” she said. “People come through here, they drive right through Amsterdam, or right up through Johnstown and Gloversville and they go to the Adirondacks, but they never, ever stay here for any reason.”

In a few years, she hopes travelers will be coming off the Thruway and Route 5 to visit this camp of low Lincoln Log buildings, maybe with some thin streams of smoke from wood fires rising into the air, master craftsmen engaged in quiet work or teaching newcomers, and hot meals served at long tables after a morning of snowshoeing.

At her home, she dumps a basket full of stone hand tools onto the couch and explains what each is for — this one for cutting reeds, this one for cutting grass, this for shaping obsidian. Unless you do that work, she said, it would be impossible to guess the use.

Too often, she said, practical artifacts are ascribed religious or artistic significance that they simply didn’t have, and heritage cultures, when placed in museums, become something cold, distant and foreign.

“Having Native people on hand who all do this work, to the point that they could teach this work, would help in the understanding of what these things are,” she said.

And, hopefully, who those people are.

Categories: Life and Arts, News

Leave a Reply