A Billings Indian Cultural Center would be a “beautiful place,” said one respondent to the Native American Coalition’s ongoing survey identifying key elements that the Billings native population would like to see in a future cultural center.

NAC, a subcommittee of Community Innovations, part of the Downtown Billings Alliance, is exploring the idea of developing a native cultural center, which would be the first of its kind since about the 1980s, said Nell Eby, chair of NAC.

A cultural center is long overdue, she thinks. Native Americans are the largest minority in Billings, tallied at about 6% of the population at the last census in 2010. That number today is likely higher.

But few places are Native-centric. Montana State University Billings is home to the Native American Achievement Center, and Billings has the Native American Development Corporation and the Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center, but Billings lacks a true mixed-use cultural center — emphasis on the word "culture." Eby would like to see a place where people feel comfortable, safe, and at home, a place that's celebratory of indigenous heritage but also provides key resources. 

Initial responses to the survey show a large majority of respondents, who were mainly native, said they'd go to a cultural center frequently. 

Identifying what the native community needs or would like to see out of a cultural center is the first step. Cora Chandler, business manager for the Native American Development Corporation, sits on the NAC and would like to see resources for people who have left the reservation for the first time and have to learn to navigate urban areas. 

She also wanted to stress that the cultural center should be a place to "help people who want to help themselves," as well as potentially a resource for youths and entrepreneurs. Eby also said she doubted the center would duplicate services with other social and health care services in Billings, but highlighted the need to be a referral resource for those organizations and for visitors. 

The idea is still in early stages, but the coalition is hopeful it will gain traction into the new year, and is set to begin applying for grant funding soon.

A location and timeline for development of the center is still in the works, but the group would ideally like to see the center near downtown Billings. Other ideas for the center could potentially include a museum and a shop to sell Native American wares.

Eby is excited for the ongoing project and said the center would be a "win-win" for Billings. 

The Native American Coalition initially formed in 2014 as a subcommittee of Community Innovations a committee from the Billings Downtown Alliance. The NAC actively works to represent the Native American population and give cultural input to the community, according to a press release sent out by the organization.

The survey is open until the end of October, and can people can access it online. Organizations looking to support it may also express interest online. Physical copies of the survey can also be picked up at the Billings First Congregational Church downtown. 

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