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Loss of land, spiritual leader casts a cloud over powwow

There was drumming, singing, and dancing, and fry bread for everyone at the Gathering of the People powwow held at the North American Indian Center of Boston last weekend. But beneath the exuberance of the celebration, the mood was somber.

An estimated 200 people gathered to honor Sam Sapiel, a Native American activist and spiritual leader who died of kidney cancer in May. To some, the two-day powwow also served as a bleak reminder of the center's current struggles.

The center, which provides social programs tailored to the needs of the Native American community, sits on prime real estate in the middle of the Emerald Necklace.

In June 2005, the state sold 1.1 of the center's 1.8 acres of land. "We lost the backyard that we use for teens, youth, a sweat lodge, fire circle, weddings, powwows, and sacred ceremonies," said Janice Falcone, director of the center's Workforce Investment Act program, adding the center must now seek permission from the developer who bought the land for each activity it wants to hold on those grounds.

The sale came with bittersweet compensation in April, when the center signed a lease with the state allowing it to stay on the remaining land for 99 years. The center then made plans to tear down its crumbling and partially boarded-up office building and replace it with what Falcone calls a "beautifully designed, clean, and decent facility," with a research library, gathering court, and gift shop.

A $120,000 repair bill for the building's century-old furnace has since put these more expansive plans on hold. "We're in major debt trying to pay off basic maintenance," Falcone said. But, she added, "we'll struggle on. The Native community has been in Boston for years and years, before anyone else was here, and we'll keep going on, just trying to help our people."

VICTORIA CHENG

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