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Proposal for Native Arts Museum to Be Discussed : Thousand Oaks: Councilman Frank Schillo will host a meeting of county leaders to gauge interest in a new American Indian cultural center.


Museum designer Al Fiori cannot keep still as he sketches his vision of a Native Peoples Center, a potpourri of ancient artifacts, modern crafts and live demonstrations that he dreams of establishing in Thousand Oaks.

Gesturing broadly as ideas pop into his head, he describes the center as a new kind of museum, where 3-D television and holograms share space with dancing foreigners and scented herbs.

He talks of bringing indigenous people from Peru and Brazil to speak. Of sending elementary schoolchildren for weekends on Indian reservations. Of showcasing films about the world's ancient cultures in a 360-degree theater.

So far, Fiori's plans remain just talk. He has no blueprints, no feasibility studies and no money.

But he does have the enthusiastic support of Councilman Frank Schillo, who thinks that Ventura County needs a new museum to celebrate American Indian culture.

Because Fiori's scheme relies heavily on contributions from businesses, individuals and government, Schillo plans to convene a meeting of Ventura County leaders next month to gauge interest in the proposal. Among the potential collaborators is Fiori's friend, Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of explorer Jacques Cousteau and an entrepreneur with contacts spanning the globe.

At the conference, as yet unscheduled, Fiori will present his view of the Native Peoples Center. He sees the museum as a money-making tourist draw for Thousand Oaks, as well as an educational experience for kindergartners through graduate students.

"I am so turned on by this idea," Fiori said recently, sketching a museum and large herbal garden on a white legal pad. Drawn to Thousand Oaks when he heard of the city's ongoing efforts to woo the Southwest Museum, he quickly expanded his plans and drafted a sketchy proposal for the Native Peoples Center.

"Museums today are fairly boring and static," Fiori added. "But we would invite members from tribes around the world, and have them tell stories, do crafts, hold one-on-one discussions. The museum would become a living experience."

Yet some fear that a Native Peoples Center, however vibrant, would swiftly prove redundant.

Thousand Oaks already boasts several similar museums, which are popular but rarely crowded. One well-attended program takes place in the National Park Service's Chumash Center at Satwiwa, a small hut in the trail-crossed backcountry south of Potrero Road.

Children from Ventura and Los Angeles counties traipse to the center three times a week to learn about the Indians' history, culture and present-day activities. Hundreds of adults converge at Satwiwa each Sunday for live craft and dance demonstrations or conversations with local residents of Chumash descent.

Around the corner in Newbury Park, the Stagecoach Inn runs an education program on the Chumash, and exhibits a collection of artifacts and reproductions.

And in nearby Oak Park, county supervisors have pledged to build a cultural center focusing on Chumash history. A round museum, designed around a stately oak tree, is under construction in a vast, hilly park filled with Chumash rock paintings, ancient tools and even some Indian bones.

To add yet another American Indian museum to this list of Thousand Oaks' Chumash centers would be "ludicrous," said the park service's regional superintendent, David Gackenbach. "How many museums can you have in one area with the same goal?"

But despite the duplications, some local Chumash descendants welcomed the idea of a new, well-publicized museum to collect and catalogue their history.

"It's been a long time coming," Thousand Oaks resident Beverly Folkes said. "For so many years, Indian people were considered ignorant, dumb and lazy, but we're not. I'm so happy to see we're finally getting the recognition we deserve."

Many educators attribute the recent surge of interest in Chumash culture to the hit movie "Dances With Wolves," which prompted a more sympathetic look at American Indians.

Fiori's partner in the Native Peoples project, Lauren DeChant, offers another theory: "In the past 15 years, there's been a rise in environmental activism. Human issues have also come to the forefront--concerns about preserving peoples and cultures."

Whatever the reason, both Chumash descendants and their supporters welcome the flurry of projects.

"There's no such thing as too much," said Bruce Stenslie, director of the Candaleria American Indian Council in Oxnard.

At the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, which offers schoolchildren a chance to try such Chumash activities as grinding acorns and sanding sticks, Director Ed Robings agreed: "There can't be overkill."

Dismissing the suggestion that similar museums could be vying for a limited pool of patrons, Robings said, "Our only competition is ignorance."

Some of that ignorance may stem from the fact that much research on local Indians is buried in the "cultural resources" section of dense environmental impact reports.

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