Elaine Grinnell Blessing UW Longhouse
Emil Pitre/University of Washington
Elaine Grinnell, Jamestown S’Klallam, blesses the University of Washington longhouse under construction during a blessing ceremony, Aug. 6, 2014. The longhouse will open on March 12 and is the second longhouse built in Seattle since the last longhouses were destroyed during the settlement era.

UW Longhouse Opens Tomorrow, Will Encourage Higher Education

Richard Walker

The second longhouse to be built in Seattle since earlier longhouses were destroyed in the late 1800s will be opened on March 12, this time at the University of Washington. And those involved in its construction hope that it will encourage more Native Americans to pursue higher education—and will make them feel at home—in this city named for the mid-1800s leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples.

“That’s one of the purposes, so students that are Native can see something familiar to them, feel welcome, have a place where they belong,” said Connie McCloud, cultural director of the Puyallup Tribe.

“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.”

The grand opening and housewarming reception for Intellectual House—or wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, phonetically pronounced “wah-sheb-altuh”—will begin at 3 p.m., followed by an annual summit of Native and UW leaders.

According to elders committee member Elaine Grinnell, community members first envisioned the longhouse nearly 40 years ago, as a place that would acknowledge the presence of the region’s First Peoples and would provide a learning and gathering place for Native American students and faculty.

According to a 2011 resolution of support for the project by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the UW’s Native American Advisory Board consulted with Native leaders and communities beginning in the early 1990s, and determined a “longhouse-style facility” could help the university draw and retain Native students and faculty, improve relationships between UW and Native communities, and “develop other intercultural and academic benefits.”

This longhouse-style facility opens today, March 12 at the University of Washington. (Washington.edu)

The UW requested and received $300,000 from the State of Washington for pre-design work.

The late Upper Skagit culture bearer Vi Hilbert, who served on the elders committee, gifted the Lushootseed name wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ to the house before she passed away in 2008.

On January 3, 2009, the Duwamish Tribe opened its 6,044-square-foot longhouse and cultural center in West Seattle near the ha-AH-poos village site. It’s the first longhouse in Seattle since the 1890s.

On April 10, 2009, at the blessing ceremony for the site of the UW longhouse, Yakama Nation Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. announced his Nation would donate $91,000 worth of materials for the longhouse’s construction.

In May 2010, UW Regents approved naming the longhouse wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ.

In June 2010, architect Jones & Jones—led by Johnpaul Jones, Choctaw/Cherokee, who designed the National Museum of the American Indian—completed early design of the project.

UW interim president Phyllis M. Wise pledged $5 million in matching funds toward the $10.6 million needed to build the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ if $5 million could be raised by the end of 2011.

On Febuary 13, 2012, the university reported that “an ambitious fundraising campaign was recently completed,” with gifts from 12 Native American nations, the State of Washington, and individual donors. The Yakama Nation and the Snoqualmie Tribe donated at least $100,000 each.

A groundbreaking ceremony took place on October 25, 2013, and construction began.

The University of Washington and 25 of 29 federally recognized Native Nations are located west of the Cascade mountain range. The state’s Native American/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian population is 2.6 percent, but the indigenous population could be greater. That doesn’t include the 11.9 percent of Mexican or Central American ancestry, many of whom would identify as indigenous; nor the 4.4 percent who identify as belonging to two or more cultures.

In Seattle, those numbers are 1.2 percent Native American/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian, 6.6 percent Mexican/Central American, and 5.1 percent two or more.

According to the UW’s demographics for fall 2014, only 394 of the 29,468 students at its Seattle campus are Native American/Alaska Native. At UW’s campus in nearby Bothell, the number is 59 of 4,378 students. At UW Tacoma, the number is 77 of 3,788.

The UW has an American Indian Student Commission, First Nations Student Group, Medicine Wheel Society, and a Native American Advisory Board, and hosts an annual pow wow.

On its website, the university hopes wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ will “increase Native American students’ success at UW, preparing them for leadership roles in their tribal communities and the region. While the UW has made promising gains in recruiting Native American students, retention and graduation rates for Native American students fall short of those of other student groups, both at UW and at colleges across the country.

Michael Vendiola, Swinomish/Lummi, is program supervisor for the state Office of Native Education. He is in the dissertation stage for his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington. He believes wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ will have a “tremendous impact” on the lives of indigenous students.

“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?’”

Shanoa Pinkham, Yakama, directed the UW’s American Indian Student Commission and graduated in 2013 with a degree in American Indian studies and communications. She’s now project assistant at the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.

As a student, she knew the campus was in Duwamish territory. “But when you go on campus, you go past all these Gothic buildings. It’s a different kind of message from a different culture,” she said.

The wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ longhouse will stand out among the UW’s colonial structures, will give indigenous cultures greater visibility and greater representation, will serve as a reminder that Indigenous Peoples are here in this indigenous place.

“Having that physical presence makes that statement,” Pinkham said. She also hopes the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ longhouse will foster cross-cultural discussion and understanding.

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