Kenaitze Tribe breaks ground on new wellness center



That’s how Jaylene Peterson-Nyren described the pile of dirt, golden shovels and empty field further behind as she stood in front of an audience of about 100 residents on Friday.

The Dena’ina word means the tide has gone out, and it is coming back in, she said.

“This is a beautiful way to say that our people are turning back to our culture and back to ourselves,” said Peterson-Nyren, the tribe’s executive director. “It is an important day as the Kenaitze Indian Tribe returns to one of its traditional village sites with a facility that welcomes everyone back to healing and wellness.”

Moments later Peterson-Nyren, members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribal Council and various officials broke ground on the 52,000-square-foot Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai. The center, which will be located on Mission Avenue behind the tribe’s Tyotkas Elder Center, will provide medical, dental, behavioral health, optometry, chemical dependency, physical therapy, lab, X-ray, pharmacy and traditional healing services to more than 3,500 Alaska Natives, according to a press release.

Peterson-Nyren said the center will do more than provide medical care — it will elevate the tribe’s wellness, use their talents and resources, ensure they can take care of themselves and allow them to share with others.

“That is our definition of prosperity,” she said.

The Friday ceremony featured a number of speeches from members of the tribal council, local and state representatives. It also incorporated a blessing from a group of drummers and the Lord’s prayer recited in Dena’ina by culture bearer Jon Ross.

Father Thomas Andrew of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church also blessed the site, those who would work inside and those who would build it.

He asked the location “be a special place of wellness, wholeness, convenience and comfort for those who seek medical care.”

Kenaitze Tribal Elder Clare Swan said the plans and the funding secured so far have been a reaffirmation of the tribe and its people. She said the center has been a long time in the making, but the group did it together, adding no one builds anything by themselves.

“Without dreams there can be no greatness,” she said. “Nothing happens. Our healing place is born of the dreams and the hopes of our elders and those who have walked before us.”

According to a press release, the center was made possible through an Indian Health Service joint venture award and is one of only three projects selected from across the nation for the program. Under the agreement, the tribe will design and construct the facility and the Indian Health Service will provide funding for its operation and maintenance for a minimum of 20 years.

Peterson-Nyren said the design of the facility will honor the tribe’s spirit and traditions, evident in one aspect by incorporating traditional salmon drying racks into the architecture. She said she would like to host the center’s ribbon cutting ceremony in Oct. 2013.

Kenai Mayor Pat Porter said she was happy the tribe chose the location it did — where it has called home for so long — so traditions can continue. She also drew cheers from the audience when she said she was happy Natives wouldn’t have to drive to Anchorage for the care they need.

Porter added that while the actual building is important, it is really just a shell — the healing comes from within.

“From the hearts of the people, and if you cannot tell that by the enthusiasm that is here today, then I think we need to have a rewind and go through it again because it is contagious,” she said.


Brian Smith can be reached at