Photo by Richard Walker
The Git-Hoan Dancers drummed and sang as a procession, representing numerous indigenous nations, entered the Longhouse at The Evergreen State College for the 20th anniversary celebration on October 17.

‘Soul of Our College’: Evergreen Longhouse 20th Anniversary Celebration

Richard Walker

The young one danced the Chief’s Headdress Dance and the Honor Song, and he represented what The Evergreen State College’s Longhouse is all about: to carry on the teachings; to keep breath flowing into the life of the culture. Continuity, the speaker said—that’s what we’re here for.

Indeed, that is what colleges and universities are here for—to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, to grow and understand. And for 20 years, the longhouse—formally the House of Welcome Longhouse Education and Cultural Center—has been an integral part of that at Evergreen, ensuring that Native American students feel at home and empowered, to ensure there’s a place for the teachings that have sustained Northwest cultures since the beginning of time, to provide a place where the traditional can inform and co-exist with the modern.

Jean Vitalis, Makah, said inclusion is important in our educational system. Her grandson is one of 24 students at a small school on a reservation. All are graduating—21 are going to college, three are going into the military. They are succeeding, she said, “because they feel comfortable with who they are, because they grew up in the culture.”

Tsimshian artist David Boxley said, “The idea of this facility and the things it does have always been positive, and it has fulfilled a lot of the hopes and wishes of Native people to have a gathering place here.”

Boxley with the Alaska Native Git-Hoan Dancers and bentwood box drummers opened the celebration of the longhouse’s 20th anniversary October 17, leading a procession of peoples from numerous indigenous cultures. They filled the crowded longhouse with a processional song, followed by a welcome and calling of witnesses and a blessing of the floor by the Hottowe and Tyishtid Family from the Makah Nation.

Speakers remembered Mary Ellen Hillaire, Lummi, the first Native American and first woman hired as faculty at Evergreen. “This [longhouse] was her vision,” U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Seattle, said. They honored Les Purce, who was president of the college when the longhouse was built. They honored state Sen. Karen Frazier, who has continuously advocated for funding for the college and the longhouse.

Hillaire, who founded the Native American Studies program at Evergreen in 1972, is credited with having first articulated the need to have a culturally appropriate place on campus so people from different cultural backgrounds could teach and learn together. The longhouse opened in 1995, and is reportedly the first longhouse on a college campus in the United States.

The longhouse, designed by Johnpaul Jones, Cherokee/Choctaw, features traditional longhouse design elements and is a showcase of indigenous art. The path leading to the longhouse winds past an ethnobotanical garden and features sculptures by Native artists. The entrance to the longhouse features a Thunderbird and two welcome figures. Inside, Native art is displayed throughout.

“When I first walked on that campus, the beautiful thing that I felt there was the Spirit. The Spirit said ‘Come.’ This is a place for people to hear what your ancestors wanted you to pass on,” said the late Upper Skagit educator and culture-bearer Vi Hilbert, who served as a Daniel J. Evans Scholar at the college. She and five other elders gave the longhouse the name sgwigwial?tx, Lushootseed for “House of Welcome.”

The longhouse is the home of a Native economic development arts initiative and an artist-in-residence program, and is used for classes, conferences and cultural events. The college has several Native programs and offers a master’s in public administration in tribal governance, a Native American and World Indigenous Peoples Studies program, and a reservation-based degree studies program.

Evergreen State College President George Bridges said the 20th anniversary event is a celebration of the college’s commitment to “serving and working and collaborating” with indigenous nations and peoples all across the country and the world.

“The strength of that commitment is reflected in these [house posts],” he said. “These massive beams that support this structure—their strength, their beauty, their power—reflect our college’s commitment to Native peoples around the world and to ensuring that we serve those peoples… who use this facility in ways that reinforce traditions that we are bringing back and seeing today. It is absolutely essential... to see future elders of our tribes here today, that we can foretell a continuation of this relationship that is the soul of our college.”

Heck graduated from Evergreen in 1974. “I’m grateful to be here because of what goes on here. Some of the most magnificent pieces of art imaginable are created in this building. There’s an old adage: ‘Tell me, I won’t remember. Show me, I may remember. Involve me, I will remember.’ There’s nothing more involving than the expression and creation of art, and it is beautiful what is made here. The longhouse is the best of The Evergreen State College, and everybody in this room who had a part of it, I thank you. And everybody who is here today, remember it and treasure it.”

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