Seattle Landmarks Board Votes to Save Indian Heritage School
Plans to demolish a public school with strong ties to Seattle’s Native community have been sent back to the drawing board.
The Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board voted 7-1 on July 16 to designate Wilson-Pacific School a city landmark. That prevents Seattle Public Schools officials from proceeding with plans to demolish the school so a new school can be built in its place.
Wilson-Pacific School was built over a spring that was important to the Duwamish people. The school was the longtime home of American Indian Heritage Early College High School, which at one time boasted a 100 percent graduation and college attendance rate. The school was a longtime venue for cultural events, such as powwows, and Native organizations still meet there regularly. Exterior walls feature Native-themed murals by Haida/Apache artist Andrew Morrison.
The school was led from 1989-1996 by the late Robert Eaglestaff, Minneconjou Lakota. Supporters of saving the school want it renamed in his honor, saying that under his leadership the school was “a model for all urban intertribal alternative schools” and “balanced academic success with the cultural, traditional, and socio-historical uniqueness of tribal learners.”
Ironically, the school was nominated for landmark status by the very agency that wanted to demolish it. Under the state Environmental Policy Act, the school district was required to make an assessment of the school’s cultural and historical importance and present it to the landmarks board.
Erin Doherty, Landmarks Preservation Board coordinator, said the school met two of six criteria for landmark designation: it is “associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the history of the City” (Eaglestaff); it is “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community.”
Next, landmarks board staff and the school district will negotiate a controls and incentives agreement for landmarks board consideration. “Controls define those features of the landmark to be preserved and outline the Certificate of Approval process for changes to those features,” the board website states. “Incentives may include, but are not limited to, zoning variances, building code exceptions, and financial incentives.”
Mahlum Architects designed a new school site plan that would keep the walls with Native murals. But Doherty said that’s not enough. “The School District explained their plan to retain and relocate [the] murals as part of their new school building proposal,” Doherty wrote in an email. “This was provided to the board for informational purposes only… During a designation meeting, the Board must consider the property in its current state, and not base its decision on what may be proposed in the future.”
She added, “It is rare to demolish a landmark.”
For the Native community, the school’s present status is, in Morrison’s words, “a 360-degree turn” from a year ago, when the school district’s plans to dismantle the Indian Heritage School program and tear the school down seemed cemented. Morrison ultimately won an agreement to save the murals, but the district moved the Indian Heritage program to a classroom in a nearby mall, and later merged it with another program with plans for both to return to the Wilson-Pacific School site when the new school is finished.
Trena Harmon, Colville, was certain the school could be saved if its story could be told. “Indian Heritage School has been a part of my life for 20 years. I never lost faith,” she said.
“Board members wanted to know more about the culture and history, they wanted to know more about Robert Eaglestaff, they wanted to tour the school and get a feel for the area.”
Harmon, secretary of the Urban Native Education Alliance, led board members on a tour and provided them with a 20-minute version of a documentary on Eaglestaff a week before the designation hearing.
The UNEA continues to operate programs at the shuttered school: the Clear Sky Native Youth Council, the Native Warriors Basketball Program. Board members saw the young people’s artwork, drums, journals, and posters used at rallies to save the school.
“They realized the impact the school has on the Native community,” Harmon said.
UNEA members, its youth council members, and possibly some landmarks board members will attend Indigenous Cultures Day on August 16 at Seattle Center—within view of a memorial pole raised in honor of Nitinaht First Nations carver John T. Williams, who was killed by a Seattle police officer in 2010. The day’s events will include a viewing of the Robert Eaglestaff documentary.
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