Native American Center at University of Montana Connecting People

Native American Center at University of Montana Connecting People

Adrian Jawort

“As a Native person, if you have company and people come to your home you always want to make sure that they’re fed and that they’re comfortable and feeling connected,” Fredricka Hunter said about the University of Montana’s Payne Family Native American Center that formally opened in May of last year. “And that’s what I think we’ve created here with the new building.”

The centrally located $8.6 million building is the first facility in the United States to accommodate a Department of Native American Studies (NAS) on campus. Hunter, the director of American Indian Student Services at the university, said, “I think that our Native students have welcomed the non-Native community. It’s essentially their home.”

It was a home that was a long time coming, indeed. Academic advisor and program liaison, Salena Hill, described the previous NAS building as a “house with offices in it.” Now, with the new centralized building, Native students come across each other more often, and social gatherings among them have grown. “I let people know that this building is open for everybody, it’s not just for our Indian students our staff,” Hill said. “We encourage people to come in and utilize the building.”

Dustin Monroe, a Blackfeet and Assiniboine, who started a Native American Entrepreneurs group said, “Before, we didn’t really have anywhere to hang out, or meet and greet and talk with people or even share ideas about our classes. You couldn’t congregate.” He noted that Native groups often had to hold off campus meetings, and NAS professors and other Native American services were spread all across the campus.

“Now that everything is centralized, it’s easier to gain access to resources,” he said. “The building draws people from all across campus that just want to hang out there because of the serenity. It instills a lot of pride in being Native.”

David Beck, NAS professor and chair, said it’s made it easier for students not only to connect with other Natives, but has made them more comfortable in opening up to other non-Native students. In helping Native students not feel alienated because many are away from their reservations for the first time, Beck has no doubts the building will make a difference in student retention rates.

“One thing you see is a lot of Native and non-Native students sitting and visiting with each other and hanging out together,” Beck said. “To have a place where they can do that that’s a Native-orientated place, I just think it’s a really valuable place for the whole campus community.”

Hunter said there are requests for tours of the building not only from locals, “but we have groups coming from outside of Montana who want to take a look at the building and are really fascinated by the architecture of it.”

The building has been selected to be included in the upcoming book on contemporary Native American architecture, Design Re-Imagined, New Architecture on Indigenous Lands by Joy Malnar and Frank Vodvarka.

Crow Tribal member and architect of the building, Daniel Glenn, said, “It’s a culturally and environmentally responsive design which is the kind of architecture I focus my work on.”

Glenn said the building is in the process of becoming Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certified, the highest rating in “green” buildings. “In terms of using less energy, more recycled material, fewer toxic materials, reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills, all of those measures are looked at very carefully in this building,” Glenn said. “And that’s part of a Native American philosophy of doing less harm and protecting Mother Earth.”

The immediate landscape surrounding the NAS building is local native grasses as opposed to the Kentucky bluegrass around the rest of the campus. In addition, they have seven gardens that represent seven reservations and the 12 tribes, and the plants commonly found in their regions. Plants like bitterroot and huckleberries are commonly found in the mountainous eastern Montana Rocky Boy and Flathead reservations, while chokecherries and big sage represent the more prairie-filled southeastern Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. These native plants needing less watering and are able to survive with less care in the fluctuating climate, landscaper and Blackfoot Native Plants Nursery owner Kathy Settevendemie said. “Plants were sourced in Montana in an effort to be true to the customs of the peoples who used them to preserve the genetic integrity. We have an incredible palette of native plants in Montana, and Native peoples have traditionally been experts at using them. The array of colors, shares, sizes and fabulous variety of tastes and medicinal properties is amazing,” she said.

The building’s namesake comes from donor and local alumni Terry Payne. He said his reasons vary why he felt the need for such a prominent NAS building, but one of the reasons was his wife’s grandmother, Emma Sansaver, was on the 1904 Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School girls’ basketball team, who all became world champions. He also wanted his family to become invested in a project that would give national stature to Native American studies, and encourage more Indian students to attend and graduate college in Missoula.

“So it’s a combination of family connections with Native Americans, a personal feeling of Native American culture, and society needed to be recognized and to be given a prominent place on the U of M’s campus,” Payne said. “And we could help build a facility that everyone could be proud of that could really truly be used for Native Americans and others to collaborate on Native issues.”

Hunter said, “They look to Montana and see this new building, and they’re looking to us on how we nurture those relationships amongst our Native students, how we let those students know they’re instrumental to the learning process and higher education.”

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