By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
“Our House” is in financial trouble.
The Nuui Cunni (Our House) Native American Intertribal Cultural Center located at French Gulch is facing the possibility of closure, and the council and volunteers are hoping that the community will help them turn things around.
While the center’s visitor count typically drops during the winter months, this year, the financial downturn has been multiplied by the construction of the new boat launch ramp and highway modification project at the French Gulch recreation area.
Although unintentional, the months of construction has hindered visitor access to the Nuui Cunni center, and the result has been a drastic reduction in visitors and revenue.
Because of the presence of trucks and heavy equipment, visitors do not realize that the center is open. And without any signage along Highway 155, finding the access road to and from the facility has been difficult.
“People are afraid to turn in,” Eric Stockton said. As a volunteer committed to the survival of the Nuui Cunni Center, he and other volunteers have opened the Center during regular business hours, Wednesday through Saturday. “It is a safety issue for people trying to get in, with all of these big trucks in the area.”
Fortunately, the access road was partially paved last week.
Council volunteers admit that there has been a lack of communication, both on their part and on the contractor’s side. At one point, the center offered to sell lunches to construction workers for additional revenues; however, the offer didn’t make it through the proper channels.
The Sun reached out to the Corps asking if financial assistance was available. A Corps’ representative responded that financial mitigation is not possible, as the money is federally allocated for repairs to Isabella Dam. To spend that money on something other than a direct cost of the dam repair would literally take an act of Congress. As such, under fiscal law, the Corps’ hands are tied.
The Nuui Cunni Center’s financial downturn started several years ago, said Sharon Carver, who serves as both volunteer and bookkeeper. They lost a monthly revenue of about $2,800 from the Owens Valley Career Development Center, for the use of the center for an educational program that was directed at Native American children.
“Our funding went away and we have been struggling since, looking for ways to increase our revenues,” Carver said.
For that reason, Carver said she was concerned about the cumulative impact on their finances when she learned about the construction project last July, when the Corps released the Draft SEA outlining the projects at French Gulch. Carver, and other volunteers submitted letters expressing their concerns. In her letter, Carver requested that action be taken to ensure minimal disruption to the center, pointing out that loss of revenue would be critical.
The interim boat launch ramp at French Gulch is being constructed to mitigate the loss of Launch 19 at Main Dam, which will be closed during the 5-year construction period of the Isabella Dam Safety Modification Project (DSMP). The DSMP will raise both the Main and Auxiliary Dams by 16 feet, along with the addition of a new emergency spillway and downstream drainage buttress. Work is expected to get underway this month.
The Nuui Cunni center operates as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization under a Special Use Permit from the U.S. Forest Service. Although they operate under a permit from the government, they do not receive any government funding.
The center has been in existence for the past 20 years serving as a visitor center and museum. The center displays Native American artifacts, crafts and art promoting the culture and history of Kern Valley Indian communities, including the Shoshone, Paiute, the Tubatulabal and the Kawaiisu tribes. Their mission is to preserve and teach their Native American culture and traditions by providing a facility for educational, ceremonial and social activities.
The center features a prayer garden, a veteran’s garden, native plant exhibits, artifacts, tule hut and sweat lodge. The gift shop offers handmade Native American-influenced crafts, baskets and art work. In addition, the center offers cultural programs for the public and schools and weekly craft classes.
Beyond the unique gifts, or even the educational aspect of the center, there is the spiritual element of Nuui Cunni. Visitors come to the center to experience the spiritual peace and beauty of the site.
“These are very spiritual grounds, and there has been a spiritual disruption,” Stockton said. “While it is not intentional, the intrusion is there.”
Volunteers are worried that their financial situation will lead to the closure of the center.
The Council and volunteers have spent time, energy and their own money to help keep the center open and have tried various ways to generate revenue through their gift shop, food and native plant sales.
They have also pursued grants in hopes of finding a funding source. So far, nothing seems to work.
“This center is too important to the Kern River Valley to be lost,” said council member Bud Malone. Patsy Malone Henry, who serves as Chair of the Council said the Nuui Cunni Center is often referred to as the ‘jewel of the valley.’
For that reason, the center is turning to the community and asking for financial support through donations to help it get through this difficult time.
While some believe that they should have closed the center during construction, others say they didn’t envision the extent of disruption that the construction would have on their center. They are all hopeful that once the construction is completed in mid-May, the visitors and money will return.
“We expect visitors will pick up once the boat ramp is finished. But can we survive until then?” Stockton said. “Hopefully, we will be overwhelmed with visitors.”
The center is gearing up for its Spring Gathering fundraiser that will be held sometime during April. In the meantime, tax deductible donations can be mailed to: Nuui Cunni Center, P.O. Box 3984, Wofford Heights, CA 93285.