Native American center envisioned for Kansas City

06/23/2014 11:50 PM

06/24/2014 12:04 AM

On this day, the parking lot is almost empty, and the nearly 100 rooms and 110,000 square feet of the Loretto on West 39th Street are mostly unoccupied.

But from his office, John Learned expects to see hallways and rooms crowded with activity, with businesses and national organizations related to Native American activities — especially sports — operating under one roof.

“Something like this doesn’t exist, and there is a need,” Learned said.

A need to be organized, an opportunity to exchange ideas and to feed off a collective energy.That’s what Learned, 59, sees as a mission for the American Indian Center of the Great Plains.

Learned, with the backing of private donors, expects to come up with $10 million to purchase the Loretto from John Bregin Jr., who had owned the building since the mid-1990s, and a grand opening is expected later this year.

Sports will be at the forefront of the operation, and Learned has set a goal of bringing as many Native American sporting events to Kansas City as he can entice. If there’s a national championship to be contested among Native American tribes, Learned wants to offer up Kansas City venues.

He has opened dialogues with several organizations, and one floor up from his office sits the new headquarters of the North American Indian Tennis Association.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the NAITA conducted its 38th annual national championship at the Plaza Tennis Center. Kansas City held the event for the first time but is now poised to become its permanent home.

“We’d played it in different cities and reservations with the idea of bringing tennis to people who may not have been exposed to it,” said NAITA President Yawna Allen. “Now, we want to grow the event, and Kansas City is the best place to do that.”

Also committed to the building is the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. The historic accomplishments of the likes of legendary athlete Jim Thorpe and track star Billy Mills are etched on plaques and other awards that fill the lobby of the basketball gymnasium at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.

It’s been one of Learned’s long-standing ambitions to create a separate structure for the Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1972.

Carol Green, president of the board of the North American Indian Athletic Association, which oversees the Hall, had talked to organizations in Oklahoma about moving it there. But Learned could offer office space, and the artifacts, some of which are in storage because of Haskell’s limited space, will find at least a temporary home in the Loretto.

“Our board met recently, and we talked about it being time to move into the next century with our Hall of Fame,” Green said.

Mills, the former University of Kansas runner, gold medalist in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics and a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Tribe, helped establish the Hall and was inducted in 1978. He spoke to Learned about this venture and offered his support.

“(W)hen he shared his vision with me involving his utilization of the property he was going to purchase, I was inspired,” Mills said in a statement.

Mills said he was convinced Learned was taking the right approach with a “strong social consciousness, helping to empower the community around them.”

Sports have been a driving force throughout Learned’s life. He was born in Lawrence and grew up in Oklahoma City, but there was no decision about where to go to college. All of his family members attended Kansas.

That included his father, John, an accomplished sculptor, and his mother, Juanita, who was the first woman elected chairperson of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

Two younger brothers, Brent and Matt, are accomplished painters, and Brent’s depictions of Plains Indian life have appeared at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution.

But football was Learned’s thing. He was a member of Don Fambrough’s Kansas football teams of the early 1970s, not playing enough to letter but competing for four years, and he remained in sports long after his playing days.

Learned joined the coaching ranks at the high school level in Oklahoma, then on the football staff at Haskell in Lawrence.

While he was a student at Kansas, Learned played club volleyball, which made him experienced enough to coach the sport at Haskell, then at Kansas as an assistant, and that’s how he became the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s first women’s volleyball coach in 1987.

“All I ever wanted to do was coach football, but every time I turned around someone was handing me a volleyball,” Learned said. “Still, I enjoyed it.”

The sports experience pushed Learned toward this Native American sports endeavor. The idea was hatched some three years ago, and Learned starting considering a headquarters. He initially looked at a Kansas City school that had been closed when Bregin, a longtime friend, talked about the Loretto.

The building opened in 1903 and served as a Catholic academy for girls until the mid-1980s. Bregin purchased the building in 1995 for $700,000 and spent some $8 million in improvements.

The building bills itself as “the ultimate in elegance” for weddings and receptions, and will remain available for those occasions, Learned said.

The building also contains a chapel, and services for former Kansas City Kings star Sam Lacey were held there in March.

“We’re open to the public,” Learned said.

The grand opening will take place later in the year, but the American Indian Center of the Great Plains is up and running.

“This is my dream,” Learned said.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlairKerkhoff.

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