On the site of a former parking lot, an unusual structure has emerged among the collegiate gothic buildings and modern dormitories of central campus. A longhouse-style structure called wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House finally brings into view a community that at times over the last century has been invisible.
Unlike its campus counterparts, this building is more than classrooms and meeting space. The fairly simple edifice with a grand wood-wrapped gathering space, an office, a meeting room and a kitchen, is really a multitude of statements. It’s the University’s way of saying it values the Native American people of the Northwest, including the Indians who once thrived on the land the University has occupied since 1895. And it’s the Native communities’ way of saying they want to join with the University as a resource for education, outreach and cultural support.
And it’s everyone’s promise to nurture the indigenous students who come to the University of Washington, support their efforts to find their futures and obtain degrees, and provide them a place to practice and share their cultures. Calling it a home, a place to share art and knowledge, and a living entity with feelings and spirit, the staff, faculty, students, and community advisers proudly invited everyone to explore the $6 million, 8,400-square-foot building. A blending of modern aesthetic with traditional materials, its style and purpose date back centuries.
At the grand opening last March, two giant fans overhead moved the warm spring air through the densely packed hall. The bright open space filled with the voices and vibrations of a six-man drum circle.
“What do you guys think of our lovely home?” shouted Iisaaksiichaa (also known as Ross Braine, ’09, ’15), the UW’s Tribal Liaison and first director of the facility. An Apsaalooké (Crow), he was hard to miss in regalia from his roach headdress made of deer hair and porcupine quills to the bells around his ankles, which jingled with every step. Elders in traditional shawls, blankets, headdresses and basketry hats from the Puget Sound region and Washington’s coast emerged from the crowd to greet friends. Students, faculty, alumni, and a few hundred people from tribal communities around the region came for the two-day celebration in the unique building.
Like the rest of Seattle, the University of Washington was built on land with a long history of traditional Native American use. Just a hundred years ago, the UW campus was a densely wooded hill that reached down to the edges of Lake Union and Lake Washington, a backcountry that was home for the Duwamish and other Indian communities.
Today’s University Village, with its tony shops and restaurants was, in fact, the site of a real village with five longhouses and a fishing weir. Historian Coll Thrush, ’98, ’02, uncovered that fact as a graduate student researching his dissertation on Native Americans in Seattle from the time of white settlement. In 2007, his doctoral project became a UW Press book: Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing-Over Place.
“You wouldn’t think of Seattle as a place out of touch with its Native culture,” says Thrush. “It kind of marinates in indigenous imagery.” But this is a city that has always liked its metaphorical Indians more than its actual Native people, he says. He points to the city’s first official piece of public art, a totem pole. The original piece had nothing to do with the local Native cultures. It was stolen in 1899 from an Alaskan Tlingit community nearly 800 miles to the north by members of Seattle’s chamber of commerce. Its replacement (which was created after the original was vandalized in the 1930s) now presides over Pioneer Square at the intersection of First Avenue and Yesler Way. Totem poles like this didn’t exist around Seattle, says Thrush. But the city’s business leaders saw opportunity in branding the city in Native imagery, even if it wasn’t from here.
A stronger example may be Chief Seeathl, says the historian. The early settlers decided to take his name for their city, yet when he died 12 years after the naming, no newspaper acknowledged his death. Nonetheless Native Americans were central to the building of Seattle. Thousands of indigenous men and women, notes Thrush, helped clear land and build homes. They worked at Henry Yesler’s sawmill and built “Doc” Maynard’s store. They hunted and fished for the settlers, and even delivered their mail and groceries.
But some of the city’s white residents found the Indian presence troubling, and in 1863 enacted a resolution to prevent them from having camps within the city. Many were forced out to other tribes’ reservations at Port Madison and Tulalip, but some clung their traditional ways and places. Newcomers would find canoes along with racks of curing salmon roe along the shores of the young city. Native women sold their handmade baskets in front of department stores in the burgeoning downtown.
In 1895, as the scaffolding for Denny Hall rose out of the treetops, a few Native homes and camps still dotted the shores of Lake Union. But as the city developed, its indigenous community disappeared from view. In some instances, settlers razed Indian homes and burned their longhouses. “The Indian people who remained in Seattle,” Thrush writes in his book, “became almost invisible as they adapted to life in a new metropolis.” The same could be said for the Native students who enrolled at the University of Washington. Very few students of color attended the UW in the 1950s and 1960s, even fewer from indigenous backgrounds. No one knew who among the students was Native American. “Nobody kept track of those things,” says James Nason, ’67, ’70, a Comanche who came to the UW to complete a doctorate in anthropology and stayed for four decades, joining the faculty, working as a curator for the Burke Museum and serving as the director for the American Indian Studies program.
When Nason arrived, the University had very few Native American faculty and identifying Native students was nearly impossible, he says. The first count estimated about 120-130 Native students on campus, but that included those who self-identified as Indian, but may not have been connected with a tribe. At the time, Nason explains, neither the University nor much of academia tracked student ethnicity and background.
But in 1968, protestors led by the Black Student Union stormed and occupied President Charles Odegaard’s office, demanding that the University recruit a more diverse student body, hire non-white faculty and broaden its curriculum. They argued that in the 3,000 classes offered in arts and humanities, not one professor or instructor was using books by or about African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos or Native Americans. That and other student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to the creation of the Educational Opportunity Program to support minority, economically disadvantaged, and first-generation students, and to the establishment of what is now UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity.
The Native American students took their own specific approach. In a seminar in the summer of 1970, they defined the need for an American Indian Studies program and requested a space all their own. “They really wanted a place where students could hang out together,” says Nason. That notion evolved into a cultural center, where they could teach dance, host talks and display artwork. “We even identified a site, but nothing came of it,” says Nason. The need for space only increased. In the 1990s, the Indian studies programs lost access to campus dance rehearsal rooms and art studios.
“I remember when Jim Nason raised the issue of building a longhouse facility,” says Augustine McCaffery, ’85, ’92, ’12, a senior academic program specialist in graduate studies who arrived at the UW in the 1970s. It made so much sense to the young Native American woman. Such a resource could help the University recruit a more diverse faculty and be a draw for Native American students. McCaffery (Comanche) focused her UW doctoral studies on American Indian students in higher education. Her research revealed that Native Americans are the most underrepresented minority group in undergraduate education nationwide, and that the issue is even more glaring with graduate school.
At the same time, very few scholars have examined the success and needs of Native Americans in higher education. “They’re a forgotten minority,” she says. McCaffery remembers a time when only 75 Native Americans were enrolled in graduate programs at the UW. “Every year I would pull out the list and count,” she says. But the UW is headed in the right direction, recruiting and retaining more indigenous students, of which there are now more than 200 pursuing graduate degrees.
Over the past 15 years, the number of students at the UW who have identified as Native American has exceeded 550. According the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity, American Indian, Alaska Native and First Nations undergraduates at UW Seattle graduate at a rate that is 23 percentage points higher than the national average at public four-year schools. When Leonard Forsman, ’81, Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, was a student, the Indians at UW were “a loose grassroots group hanging on by their fingernails,” he recalls. “Far from home, on this big giant campus they feel alone.”
Three decades later, Tyson Johnston, ’08, a Quinault, felt similarly lost among the 38,000 students at the UW. But he made friends and found purpose when he joined the First Nations student group at the University and signed on to the advisory board to build the Intellectual House. Now vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation, Johnston developed his leadership skills working with his classmates to build campus and state support for the – Intellectual House project. He even traveled to Olympia to lobby for state funding.
“It would not have happened if it were not for so many, many people pulling together,” says Sheila Edwards Lange, ’00, ’06, UW’s vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity. Their mission was clear: to create a place that recognized and supported not only the Native American students on campus, but the broader Native American community. It would serve as a cultural center, but also be a place for academic programs and community events.
Julian Argel, ’84, ’90, ’91, a Tsimshian and Haida member working as the University’s tribal liaison, advocated for the facility throughout his UW career. In 2001, he handed newly arrived American Indian Studies faculty member Charlotte Coté a folder and said, “You need to take on this project.” Coté, who ultimately co-chaired the project’s planning and advisory committee with W. Ron Allen, ’81, of the Jamestown Sk’lallam Tribe, knew the challenges Native students face and the value of such a building. She left the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) First Nation on Vancouver Island to attend a large public university in western Canada where she saw only one other Native student.
“It would not have happened if it were not for so many, many people pulling together.”
Sheila Edwards Lange, UW vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity
The UW already had an advisory committee of leaders in the regional Native American community. They joined efforts with students, staff and faculty like McCaffery in the graduate school and Cheryl Metoyer (Cherokee) in the Information School and took the idea to the University’s leaders. It was a matter of timing, community support, and the right people in charge—particularly Patsy Whitefoot, a member of the Yakama tribe who led the UW’s Native American Advisory Board; Lange, who had just been hired as the UW’s chief diversity officer; and President Mark Emmert, ’75, who grew up in the shadow of the Puyallup Reservation and attended the UW in the 1970s.
“Dr. Emmert got it immediately,” says Coté. “He saw the value of not only recognizing regional indigenous culture, but also honoring Coast Salish traditional architecture. He couldn’t believe it hadn’t yet happened.” Emmert made the project a priority for the University and tasked Lange and the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity with making it happen. A timeline came to life for planning, fundraising, community involvement, siting and design. In 2009, the state appropriated $1.5 million for the project. Soon after, Phyllis Wise, the University’s interim president, pledged matching funds. And a dozen individual tribes have since donated money and materials.
While in a prominent spot on campus, the location bears a tinge of irony. The Intellectual House sits between Lewis and Clark Halls, and is bordered on one side by Whitman Lane (the Whitman Mission opened the West to thousands of white settlers and brought disease and death to the Indians, who responded by killing 11 people including the Whitmans), and on the other by Stevens Way, named for the Washington governor who forced tens of thousands of Native Americans into treaties and onto reservations.
They had several choices, including a beautiful site by the water on the east side of campus. “But it wouldn’t have been as accessible, or visible,” says Coté. “We picked a site that would best serve the students.”
Polly Olsen (Yakama), ’94, of the School of Social Work, shepherded an elders’ committee for the Intellectual House, and often helped elders from tribes around the region get to campus for meetings. The effort deepened overall tribal participation in the project.
The elders’ involvement made it clear that giving the building an appropriate name was as important as designing it. In sessions with the advisory board, students brought forward a series of words they associated with the project. Ultimately Vi Hilbert, an elder of the Upper Skagit Tribe, gifted the project with the right word. Hilbert had dedicated a good portion of her life to researching and preserving the Lushootseed language, which she learned as a child at the knees of her parents. She was one of the region’s Salish language experts and a well-known and beloved teacher. She offered four options, all of which described a place of intelligence, of intellectual pursuits. won out. “She was saying, we’re not just a culture, we’re intellectual human beings,” says Coté. Hilbert died in 2008, and Julian Argel died in 2012. “But their spirits are in this project,” says Coté. The first person to staff the house, Iisaaksiichaa (Ross Braine) follows in Argel’s footsteps as tribal liaison. As director of wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House, he will coordinate the use of the building for Native cultural and educational use as well as for broader campus events.
Late last spring, 200 students filled the gathering space to hear Interim President Ana Mari Cauce talk about racism and then ask for their help shaping the direction of the University’s Race and Equity Initiative. “This space is meant for these conversations,” Braine told them. “This place is something special, something alive. That’s why we built it for you.”