March 10, 2015
As home for Native learning opens, a dream is realized
Though it doesn’t officially open until March 12, the modern, longhouse-style building on the University of Washington campus is already steeped in significance.
wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House represents a dream four decades in the making. It will be an anchor for indigenous students, a hub for Native learning and a means of acknowledging the Duwamish people whose village and longhouses were once on the university grounds.
“It means that we still exist. We still matter,” said Intellectual House Director Ross Braine, who is Apsáalooke. “We belong.”
The $6 million, 8,400-square-foot building northeast of the Quad is designed with the architectural elements of a traditional Northwest Coast longhouse, including cedar planks and posts.
It features a gathering space that can seat 500 people, a large kitchen suitable for teaching about Native foods and medicines, a smaller meeting room and an outdoor area with a fire pit where salmon can be cooked in the traditional way. Fundraising will start soon for a second building that will provide additional space for teaching and learning.
Leaders envision wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House being used for activities ranging from symposiums to community events. And they emphasize that the facility will be a welcoming place for everyone.
“I don’t want people to walk by and think, ‘That’s where the Indians go,'” said Braine, who is also the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity’s tribal relations liaison. “I want it to be, ‘That’s our longhouse.’ That’s what I want to hear.”
wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, a term from the Coast Salish Lushootseed language (audio pronunciation here), is the third longhouse-style facility to be built on a Washington college campus — The Evergreen State College in Olympia has one, as does Peninsula College in Port Angeles. Its completion has generated a buzz beyond campus, prompting inquiries from American Indian scholars and students interested in coming to the university, said Sheila Edwards Lange, UW vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity.
Thursday, March 12 – grand opening:
3 to 4 p.m. – Housewarming reception
4 p.m. – Ribbon-cutting and Tribal Leadership Summit
Friday, March 13 – community celebration:
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. – Cultural protocols of the Coast Salish people, music, performances and cuisine.
Intellectual House is located at 4249 Whitman Court (E. Stevens Way and Whitman Court NE)
“There’s a lot of excitement around the country about the University of Washington having this facility,” she said. “It’s raised the university’s visibility among tribal communities. It’s really put us on the radar as a place that is committed to access and success for Native students.”
American Indian, Alaska Native and First Nations students currently make up 1.3 percent of UW Seattle undergraduates, and they graduate at a rate that is 23 percentage points higher than the national rate for public four-year institutions, Braine said. He believes the opening of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House will increase those numbers even more.
“I think it’s going to put us into a whole new tier,” he said.
A sense of belonging
For Native American students, particularly those who grew up on reservations, arriving on a college campus can be alienating. Charlotte Coté, Nuu-chah-nulth, a UW American Indian Studies associate professor, attended Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in the late 1980s and recalls seeing only one other native student there. Her professors were almost exclusively white men, she said.
“It was tough,” Coté said. “It would have been a lot easier if I had a place to go and there was a sense of belonging there.
“That’s what Intellectual House means to me,” she said. “It will be a place where students can come and feel safe. It’ll be a place where we can come and express who we are as indigenous people.”
Indigenous research and learning is going on across UW’s three campuses, in departments ranging from law to medicine, social work to art. But that work is often siloed, said Christopher Teuton, UW American Indian Studies chair and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House will unite those efforts.
“We haven’t had a space where we can all come together,” he said. “That’s what’s really exciting about the building. It’s not just a cultural space. It’s also an intellectual space. It’s a space to showcase indigenous knowledge at the university.”
Elders, revered in Native American society as mentors and teachers, have played a key role in the project for close to a decade. An advisory committee comprising Elders from around the state came up with the facility’s indigenous name, led a spiritual cleansing of the site to honor ancestors before construction began, and provided guidance on tribal protocols and ceremonies for each phase of the project.
Their participation has been integral, said Polly Olsen, Yakama, the Elders committee chair.
“The Elders we worked with give breath and spirit to this building,” said Olsen, director of community relations and development for the UW’s Indigenous Wellness Research Institute. “When you walk into this building, you’re going to feel that there is life. And that was what the Elders provided.”
A long road
Efforts to establish a dedicated space for Native Americans at the UW began in the 1970s, led by a core group of faculty members and students that included Julian Argel, a member of the Tsimshian and Haida tribes and the tribal liaison with the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity. Braine, director of the new facility, met Argel not long after starting at UW as a freshman in 2000, and Argel — known among students as “Uncle Julian” — soon became his mentor. When Argel died in 2012, those involved in the project resolved to finish the work he started.
“He died carrying this project forward,” Braine said. “That passion, it never goes away. He carried that idea all the way to us, and we finished it.”
The road to completion was a long one. Former UW President Mark Emmert is widely credited for making the facility a priority by putting it on the university’s capital construction plan in 2006.
Fundraising efforts stalled during the recession, then in 2011 UW Interim President Phyllis M. Wise pledged matching funds toward the project. The state provided additional funding, and the rest was raised through private donations.
“He was really the tipping point,” Lange said of Emmert. “He had a lot of interest in supporting the project.”
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, Coté and Braine walked over to the almost-completed building for a meeting. As they waited outside for others to arrive, Coté said, they looked up and to their astonishment, saw an eagle perched in a nearby tree, looking down at them. In her almost 15 years on campus, it was the first time Coté had ever seen an eagle on the property.
“I looked at Ross and said, ‘There’s Julian. He’s coming to the meeting with us,'” Coté said. “It was so beautiful.”