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PORTAGE | Representatives from the Field Museum spoke Wednesday with locals and representatives from advocacy groups to find out just what makes the Calumet Region’s ethnic heritage so rich and diverse.

The discussion and presentation at the Portage branch of the Porter County library was the final of a series of “Calumet Region Community conversations” sponsored by the Calumet Heritage Partnership, which is using the data gathered to complete a feasibility study which could lead to the region being designated a National Heritage Area. The study should be complete in 2016.

National Heritage Areas “are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape,” according to the National Park Service website. “(They) tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation's diverse heritage.” Unlike National Parks NHAs “are lived-in landscapes,” meaning that it may include cities, towns as well as park areas. No land is acquired, as in the formation of a national park. Rather, NHA is a designation that also makes an area eligible for funding, the website says.

There are currently 49 National Heritage Areas in the United States, including the I&M Canal National Heritage Area in Illinois. The movement to obtain an NHA for the Calumet Region has been percolating since the 1990s. The Calumet Heritage Partnership and its affiliates have been collecting data for a feasibility study by a number of means, including its community conversations. Each conversation has had a theme, such as recreation or the arts. Wednesday’s conversation focused on ethnic/cultural heritage, and those who attended were asked to identify points of cultural/ethnic interest on a region map.

Madeleine Tudor and Mario Longoni of the Field Museum moderated the discussion, and participants came from around Lake and Porter counties. Mike Echterling, of Valparaiso, active in Friends of the Little Calumet River, brought a collection of stone points/arrowheads, some of which date back to the Clovis civilization. All were gathered on his great-grandfather’s farm in West Creek over a 100-year period. They represented the ethnic and cultural heritage of some of the region’s earliest residents.

“The region is always turning over and redefining itself,” said Tiffany Tolbert, a Calumet Heritage Partnership board member. An example of that can be found in Catholic churches of East Chicago which may have been founded by Eastern Europeans but are now home to Hispanic parishes. The churches display their heritage side-by-side with their current identity.

“Going to school, we were the United Nations,” said Cassandra Cannon, of the United Urban Network, which is partnering with the Field Museum in the project. Her neighborhood contained any number of ethnicities but everyone managed to find common ground and create a sense of community.

Dan and Dorothy Kurtz, members of the Ogden Dunes Historical Society, pinpointed the town of Whiting and the Slovak Club as places of cultural/ethnic importance.

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Night Editor

Jeanette is a journalist with The Times Media Co. who has worked as both a reporter and editor. She has a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.