Following a path from a Native American museum in the Central community, Yvette Collin walked among horses, a dance arbor, rows of prayer flags and teepees.

"I consider it my indigenous classroom," Collin said. "Instruction for all sense — sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing — that's what we want to offer those who come.

"I love reading and researching but I also love to get my hands in the dirt and learn that way. We're offering both ways here."

That is the goal of the creators of the Sacred Way Sanctuary, an interpretive center and museum at 4409 Lauderdale 200 that is now open to the public and celebrated the opening of its visitor center Saturday during a festival event.

"We bought it in 2008 and when we bought it, I had no intention of making this public," Collin said. "But I started feeling called to do so."

The 100-acre preserve that has been designated a Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area includes a museum in a rustic setting.

Collin just received a doctorate in indigenous studies from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Her thesis calls into question the western version that all North American horses were brought here by early European explorers.

Collin includes traditional knowledge passed down from generations by Native American elders in suggesting horses already were here, and is combining western research and Native American research in seeking information.

The interpretive center has received a donation to conduct the research, including carbon dating on horse artifacts, so the center will be a location of research as well as a museum.

In addition, the grounds are used by people of Native American heritage and others for prayer, dance and other activities.

Collin and her husband, Sean Collin, a professor at the University of North Alabama's Institute of Innovation and Economic Development who also serves as director of Legal and Indian Affairs, enjoy sharing information about Native American culture.

Yvette Collin has lived various places across the nation and is pleased to settle in the Shoals.

"Interestingly enough, I have not been treated nicer anywhere as a Native American than here," she said. "In the South, people may be quiet because they're polite but they will stand up when they see something is not right."

Yvette Collin has spent a great deal of time with Native American elders and said she comes away each time with an experience that helps her grow.

"The Native American way of thinking is, 'How will what I'm doing now impact my future generations?'" she said. "The more time I spent with my elders, the more my mind began to shift toward that.

"In our culture, we always ask. We don't just read it and say 'OK.' We go to the elders and ask, 'This is what I've read, is it correct?' I want this research to be done with these extra steps."

The Collins also hope to correct some inaccurate western culture beliefs about Native Americans. Sean Collin said, for example, that Native Americans did not invent scalping. They learned it from early European explorers to the New World.

He said Native Americans valued life and would kill only as a last resort. The museum houses several coup sticks, which were blessed by Native Americans before use.

The sticks were used to sneak up on an enemy and touch them. The idea was that sent the signal from the Native American to the enemy that the Native American had succeeded in reaching them without their knowledge and could have killed them but valued life too much, Sean Collin explained. Unfortunately, too often that would be met with a violent response from the enemy.

As Yvette Collin petted a horse that had trotted her way, she pointed out the ancestry of some others at the preserve. Some are Lakota-line horses that are descendants of Sitting Bull's horses. Another has ancestry that dates to the tribe that was led by Chief Joseph. A herd of 20-something horses is believed to be the largest from the Ojibwe herd.

"We want to teach the true story of Native Americans," she said. "Telling the story of the horses is a way to talk about it."

bernie.delinski@timesdaily.com or 256-740-5739. Twitter @TD_BDelinski

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