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Camp Gabriels has sat empty for two years (File photo)
Camp Gabriels has sat empty for two years (File photo)

Native American group wants to reinvent Camp Gabriels

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Two years after New York State prison officials closed Camp Gabriels, a Mohawk writer and activist wants to reopen the Adirondack facility as an education center and accredited campus with ties to Syracuse University.

Doug George announced last week at a meeting in Ticonderoga that he is working with Native American leaders, state officials and with other educators to develop the program. He hopes to attract students interested in learning about Native culture, language and heritage.

As Brian Mann reports, the proposal has been on the drawing board for more than a year. But key questions remain.

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"We're moving toward securing land not too far from Saranac Lake in order to open a traditional knowledge center there," he said.

"Look for us to be a viable, active presence in the Adirondack region."

Doug George grew up on the Akewsasne reservation.  The writer, educator and activist was speaking at an event last week organized by the Adirondack Center for Writing in Ticonderoga when he unveiled a plan to reinvent Camp Gabriels.

The Camp Gabriels property with 92 acres has gone up for auction twice with no bidders, and it was also offered to the town of Brighton, which declined to take ownership.

George says his group has been talking to the state office Office of General Services, which now manages the land, about taking over the facility since last spring.

"We have met with the state in an effort to have that land returned to us and it would then become a cultural center, a place for teaching, a summer camp for our kids, and a language retention center," he said. 

OGS officials say they haven’t received a formal proposal from George about the project. 

But local and state leaders say they are aware of the effort and are eager to see more information. 

"I first spoke with him myself last spring," said Susan Mayer who heads the local committee in the town of Brighton that formed to help find a new use for Camp Gabriels. 

She says there are still some big unanswered questions.

"The town has never been given any details as to what exactly it is that he wants to do.  But from what we do know it sounds like it definitely would be a possibility that the town would like to get more information on and possibly consider.  Because we do wnat to get something worthwhile, something beneficial in that property."

That cautious interest is echoed by state Senator Betty Little.  She says she and another state Senator, David Valesky from Oneida, have been in talks with George for months.

 "I think it would create activity there and bring people to the area.  Certainly if they develop it to some of the goals that they have in developing there — and I've heard a few of them, they're not formalized yet — it would create jobs," Sen. Little said.

According to Doug George, a key partner in the project would be Syracuse University, a private college in Oneida County with a long history focusing on Native American issues. 

A spokesman for the school, Kevin Quinn, says Syracuse University could play some kind of role in the new project.

"We’ve met with the group and we understand the concept behind the proposal.  We don’t have any financial commitment to the project.  We do embrace the concept.  If and when the project comes to fruitiion, we may be able to offer some programmatic and academic connections," Quinn said.

 In an interview with North Country Public Radio, Doug George acknowledged that he hasn’t yet lined up funding for the project. 

He says just maintaining the campus’s buildings and grounds could cost more than $300,000 a year.  But George says he thinks Native American groups will pitch in to finance the effort.

"We think that the appeal will be received with a lot of enthusiasm," he said.

George says the group that would operate the facility is a new non-profit called the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, based at Syracuse University in Oneida County. 

He says a vote by the group’s board on whether to move forward with the Camp Gabriels project could come this fall.

 "Some time within the next month we're going to have a formal session and I'll bring them up to date as to my discussions with the Office of General Services and then Sen. Betty Little.  And then we'll set a date when we'll set a formal proposal to New York state to effect this transfer."

It’s unclear whether other proposals for the Camp Gabriels property might emerge.  The Adirondack Park Agency issued a finding earlier this year that as many as seventy-one homes could be built on the land. 

Other individuals, including a beer-maker, have expressed interest.  But so far, no one, including Doug George’s Hiawatha Institute has made a formal offer to the state.

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