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$1.1M Creek Nation Day Care Center

November 23, 1998

OKMULGEE, Okla. (AP) _ A wiggling cluster of 2-year-olds sat on a rug, their upper lips stained cherry red from their morning snack.

``Hickory dickory dock,″ the children sang. ``The `ces’se’ ran up the clock. The clock struck `hv’mken,′ the `ces’se’ ran down. Hickory dickory dock.″

In one simple nursery rhyme, the class learned the Muscogee (Creek) Nation words for ``mouse″ and ``one.″

There are 65 children enrolled in the tribe’s $1.1 million child development center, which opened in July. Many are American Indians. Many are not. All are exposed to a curriculum and activities that incorporate lessons in Creek culture and language.

``I don’t want children to lose sight of our heritage, where we came from. It seems like it just dwindles out,″ said Gena Ballard, child development supervisor. ``It’s much easier to teach it when they’re younger than when they’re older.″

Preserving native languages is a particularly important issue to many tribes. At the center here, a storyteller comes regularly to share bits of lore.

``That’s where teaching culture begins,″ Creek Chief Perry Beaver said. ``You don’t wait until they’re 20 or 30.″

Art teacher Robert Satterfield on a recent morning held a painting at eye level for a group of 4- and 5-year-olds. They discussed the eagle, warrior’s face, fire and smoke depicted on the canvas.

Cooks in the cafeteria ran through some possibilities for the next week’s menu. Maybe, they say, they will fix some favorite Creek dishes _ hominy, fry bread and wild grape dumplings.

Operators of the day care say the incorporation of tribal customs elevates the self-esteem of Indian kids. Parents say they appreciate what the children absorb about the ancestral language and lifestyle.

``It’s so important to me because I don’t know how to speak Creek,″ said tribal member Alexis Crosley, whose 4-year-old son attends. ``I want my kids to know all of that.″

Federal grants financed the center.

``In Indian country, the biggest problem with child care is facilities,″ said Janet Wise, manager of the Creek office of child care. ``The tribes just don’t have money for construction.″

The new center in Okmulgee is licensed for 90 children ages six weeks to 12 years. The building _ at 12,550 square feet _ feels roomy and bright. There are plans by the Creek to build day care centers in Sapulpa and Tulsa, and to expand a center in Holdenville.

Subsidies are available for parents who are working or training for jobs but can’t afford to pay full price for child care.

Edwin Marshall, director of the tribe’s division of community services, said the financial help also helps families affected by the 1996 welfare reforms. The goal, he said, is to get recipients out into the workplace.

``We enable that by giving subsidies,″ Marshall said.

Activities for the children go beyond the usual repertoire of ABCs and counting. The Indian influence extends from lessons in Creek language to the playground’s shaded rest area, built with willow branches instead of aluminum.

The dead willow branches will be replaced by green limbs next spring in a traditional Creek ceremony dramatizing the cycle of life. Children also can expect visits at the Okmulgee center from tribal elders, dancers and an expert in beadwork.

``I don’t think we realized how grand this was going to be,″ Marshall said.

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