This is an archived article.

March 5, 2009

Campus ‘House of Knowledge’ longhouse a long-awaited dream

News and Information

In the area between Lewis and Clark halls on campus, a dream decades in the making is waiting to take shape.


Plans are coming together for a 19,000-square-foot Native American longhouse-style building to be constructed in that space — to serve as a gathering place, a student resource and a symbol of the powerful influence of Native American culture on the Pacific Northwest.


The longhouse, its supporters say, also will show the UW’s recognition of and respect for its Seattle campus being located within the historical homelands of the indigenous people of the region.


Its working title is the House of Knowledge, patterned after the University of British Columbia’s longhouse, called the First Nations House of Learning — though it will likely be given another name in time.


But can such a dream be made reality during this devastating economic era? Project organizers say yes — the longhouse will come to pass through the generosity of the community, the federal government, the help and advice of area tribes and the support of the Washington state Legislature.


In fact, its planners hope to start construction in December of 2011, complete it by December 2012 and open the building for public use in early 2013.


“People have been talking about it for the last 30 years,” said Charlotte Cote, associate professor of American Indian Studies and head of the House of Knowledge Advisory Committee, and a First Nations tribal member. “In 2003 there were a couple of us who said, ‘Let’s develop a strategy. Let’s start looking at this and see how we can go forward with this kind of project.’”


It wasn’t until the project got the attention of UW President Mark Emmert and the involvement of Sheila Edwards Lange, vice president for minority affairs, however, in 2006, that it got a true mandate to proceed.


“We invited President Emmert to come to one of our Native American Advisory Board meetings and I gave a presentation on the longhouse,” Cote said, “He said, ‘This is something we need to do.’” She said Emmert made it clear, however, that the project would have to find their own funding. The longhouse is estimated to cost between $12.5 and $15 million.


That’s where David Iyall, assistant vice president for advancement for the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, comes in. An enrolled member of the Cowlitz tribe with lengthy experience in tribal relations, Iyall will oversee fundraising for the project. “This is my top priority,” he said.


“For the funding side, we’re looking at splitting it into thirds, though not precisely,” Iyall said, “with approximately a third coming from the state.” The UW has requested $1.5 million from the state’s coming biennial budget, “and we intend in the next biennium to go back and ask for another $1.5 million. And then in terms of the other two-thirds, we will look to private donors and we are hoping to include the tribes in that group,” Iyall said.


Gov. Christine Gregoire responded, setting aside $300,000 for the project in her budget proposal for 2009-2011, and penciling in another $2.7 million in a budget plan for the 2011-13 biennium, which would total the requested $3 million. Iyall stressed that the latter sum doesn’t yet reflect a commitment on the state’s part. And he said he hopes the Legislature will yet include the full $1.5 million first request in the coming budget.


Randy Hodgins, interim vice president and UW director of state relations, views the proposed $300,000 in startup money optimistically. “While it’s certainly less than the $1.5 million we were seeking, it does establish the project as a state priority and gets it into the state capital projects pipeline,” he said.


From the start, Cote said, having the involvement and approval of area tribes has been a key factor in the project. She said it was just after the UW’s successful Tribal Leaders Summit in 2007 that a feasibility study was conducted and the project’s steering committees — a 22-member advisory committee, 14-member campus working committee and an eight-member committee of tribal elders — were formed.


Cote said, “The way we did that was by going out to every community we could think of that we believed were stakeholders in this project — and talked to them about what we were doing. We just reached out to everyone. It was exhausting.” The advisory committee includes representatives from the main five local tribes: The Duwamish, the Suquamish, the Snoqualmie, the Muckleshoot and the Tulalip. Ron Allen, Tribal Council chairman for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, is also a strong supporter of the project and co-chairs the advisory committee with Cote.


The committee reviewed several sites before making its choice. The location chosen, just south of Lewis Hall, “felt really good,” Cote said. “You’ll be able to see it as you’re walking up the Quad.”


The House of Knowledge longhouse project has several stated goals. Leading these are the effort “to make Native people ‘visible’ on the UW campus and to “visibly manifest and symbolize the importance of Native traditions to the institutional culture.” But another key goal is boosting recruitment and retention of Native student, staff and faculty.


What exactly will be built? More a longhouse-style building than a real longhouse. “There’s no way we can stay true to the architectural elements of a traditional Coast Salish longhouse,” Cote said with a smile. “I mean, a dirt floor? An open fire pit? I don’t think the University will allow that.”


Rather, the planning committee wants an attractive, culturally meaningful facility with a meeting area for least 350 people, and with a space reserved for students, too. “That’s one thing we stressed, that we would have a place for students to come and just hang out — with a kitchen for them.” The project also calls for smaller meeting areas and classroom space, storage room, a computer and resource room and administration offices.


It must be environmentally correct, too, with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. Cote said the environmental theme came through loud and clear when she spoke with tribal elders about the project.


As plans proceed, those tribes will continue to be directly involved in the longhouse project, with elders providing needed advice. “We’re actually going so far as to overlay the cultural processes right along the construction time line, so that we’re sure we don’t miss something important,” Iyall said. “And the process is so critical — I think that if tomorrow it just emerged and was there, it really wouldn’t fulfull what we need this facility to fulfill.”


The committee of tribal elders expressed early on that the site should be properly blessed and dedicated, and that will happen in a big public ceremony on April 10.


Already, Cote, Iyall, Lange and others have secured the approval and support of many in the tribal community.


Len Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, praised the planned longhouse, saying it can become a sanctuary for Native American students and values at the UW, as well as showing the UW’s commitment to those values. “I think the UW needs to do a better job of acknowledging the importance and presence of tribal cultural in Seattle and Puget Sound.”


Allen of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe, co-chair of the advisory committee, called the process of creating the longhouse “a journey to be remembered” and “an exciting chapter in the UW’s history book.”


Allen said the House of Knowledge project “is important to the University, the Northwest tribes and all of our native students who attend the UW today and in the future. It is a respectful way of honoring the tribes’ historical and unique relationship to the area and campus.”


Cote said she and others worried over whether to start fundraising for the project right away or wait until the Legislature’s funding was in hand. “But we’re starting now,” she said with emphasis. “I don’t want to wait.”


She isn’t waiting to tell the world about the longhouse project, either. “We need more people out there knowing about this and seeing this,” she said. “We really want people to understand that it won’t be just for Native people here on campus — it’s for everyone.”


Iyall is clearly as eager as Cote and others to see the House of Knowledge project move from dream to reality.


“We want it to be visible,” he said. “The very architecture of this facility is going to be an education. When somebody walks by this, they’re going to know it’s not your standard University building. And we’re hoping they’ll ask questions and want to learn more, and that they’ll become aware of our history, and our people.”


You can learn more online — and even donate to the House of Knowledge —  at http://www.washington.edu/diversity/hok/.