U of Washington Adds Longhouse to Promote Indigenous Education


The University of Washington opened on its campus just the second Native American longhouse to be built in Seattle since the late 1800s.

Those who were involved in the project hope this space will act as an encouragement for more Native Americans to pursue higher education. Richard Walker of Indian Country Today Media Network says the idea is to help Native American students feel more at home, see something familiar, feel welcome, have a place where they belong.

"The settlers burned our longhouses and they stole or burned the ancestors' things. This longhouse acknowledges the presence of our people, that our children belong in this environment. It acknowledges that we're still here, our people are here, we have our canoes, we have our languages,"said Connie McCloud, cultural director of the Puyallup Tribe.

It was almost 40 years ago that community members envisioned the Intellectual House, or "wah-sheb-altuh" if pronounced phonetically, as a place that would acknowledge the presence of the First People of the region, the Duwamish and Suquamish, as well as offering a place for learning and gathering to Native American students and faculty. The goal is also to attract and retain Native students and faculty, improve relationships between UW and Native communities, and "develop other intercultural and academic benefits."

The state of Washington, the University of Washington, 12 Native American nations, and many individual donors gave money and materials to bring the longhouse notion to fruition. On the UW website, the university states that the Intellectual House has been created to increase the success of Native American students at the school and prepare them for leadership roles not only in their tribal communities, but also in the region. At UW, and at institutions of higher learning across the nation, retention rates and graduation numbers of indigenous students fall short of those of other students groups.

"What it will say to Native students is that the university honors the indigenous perspective. It will be something familiar, inspiring and comforting. It will be a safe space—not every Native student is familiar with his or her background. Here, they might feel encouraged to ask that question: ‘What's my background? What's my role?'" said Michael Vendiola, Swinomish/Lummi, is program supervisor for the state Office of Native Education.

UW is in the Duwamish and Suquamish territory, and Seattle is named for the leader of these two peoples. Shanoa Pinkham, Yakama, graduated from UW in 2013 with a degree in American Indians studies and is now at the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle. She says walking past the Gothic buildings on campus made her aware that she was from a different culture. The longhouse will stand out from the other buildings and give indigenous cultures greater visibility and representation, along with the fostering of cross-cultural discussion and understanding.

Native American high school students who are part of UW senior Bailey Warrior's tour groups frequently ask how they are going to fit into the the campus community. Warrior, herself, is a Lummi Indian. Now, Warrior can tell prospective students about the longhouse. She says she feels at home when she enters the cedar building, which is now surrounded by cherry trees in bloom. The Seattle Times' Katherine Long writes Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribes says "the spirits and ancestors are happy."

Plans are set for the Intellectual House to host research symposiums, conferences, colloquia, lectures, and classes. Along with these activities, the house will be a gathering place and study area for native and non-native students. Normally, longhouses are built without windows, but the UW house has windows at one end to honor the modern world. Polly Olsen, director of community relations and development for the UW's Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, says Native American protocols were followed in the building of the house so Native Americans believe the house is a living object.

The architect of the building, Johnpaul Jones, the overall lead design consultant for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is a Cherokee-Choctaw Indian. This, along with the recent hiring of nationally known expert Christopher Teuton to chair the UW's American Indian Studies Department, shows UW's commitment to becoming a place of scholarship for and about indigenous cultures.

The longhouse's price was $6 million and the structure is 8,400 square-feet, which can seat 500 people. There is a kitchen which can be used to teach about Native foods and medicines, a smaller meeting area, and an outside fire pit where salmon can be cooked by the traditional method, says Deborah Bach of the University of Washington News and Information site. The house is to be shared.

"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."

Elders, who play an extremely important part in Native American cultures, named the longhouse, led a spiritual cleansing of the site, and provided guidance on protocols and ceremonies through each phase of the building's construction.

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