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UW breaks ground on new Native American longhouse

Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ

Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ -

University officials and members of the tribal leadership and planning committee ceremonially break ground for the new Intellectual House that will take the place of the N6 parking lot. The longhouse is set to open in October 2014. 

Photo by Anastasia Stepankowsky

As shovels dug into the ground between McMahon and Lewis Halls, a generation of Native American students from the University of Washington took a collective sigh of relief. With each grain of dirt displaced from the earth, a longstanding wish spanning across decades became a reality.

The UW broke ground Friday on Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ (pronounced “wah-sheb-altuh”), a long-anticipated Native American longhouse.

When opened next year, Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ, or “Intellectual House,” will serve as a learning facility for the university’s Native American students. 

The building honors Duwamish Native Americans, whose tribe was once in Seattle and whose land the UW campus stands on.    

“We’re certainly thankful for the Duwamish on whose land we walk, and think it particularly fitting today that we have an opportunity to dedicate Wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ,” said UW President Michael Young. “This intellectual house will be extraordinarily important, and we hope it is an acceptable offering to the tribe whose land we currently occupy.”

Longhouses were a fixture of the area during the time the Duwamish tribe lived on the land. Ross Braine, tribal liaison for the UW, said there were once several longhouses, villages, and fish farms in the area now occupied by the UW campus.

He sees the construction of the Intellectual House as a tribute to the Duwamish people.

“It’s a recognition and a rebuild of what used to be here,” he said. “Those styles of houses used to be all over the place, so we’re bringing it back.”

For Braine and many other supporters of the longhouse, it has been a long road to the groundbreaking.

The idea for the building began 40 years ago when Native American students on campus expressed a desire for it. Sheila Edwards Lange, vice president of minority affairs and vice provost of diversity at the UW, said support from both staff and the community didn’t always connect. However, that all changed during this final push for the building, which began in the early 2000s, as all the sides came together.

“It still feels unreal,” she said. “You dream about something for so long, and then you can’t believe it’s really happening.”

Witnessing the groundbreaking ceremony was an emotional moment for Charlotte Cote, associate professor of American Indian studies.

“As a native — and I’m native faculty, and a native person — you come to places like this, these educational institutions, and you don’t see yourself,” she said. “To have something like this, that’s not going to be only a welcoming space for our students, it’s going to be a safe place and a comfortable place that’ll improve their overall educational experience while at UW. It gives me real great pride to be a part of this project.”

The Intellectual House will have a gathering space that can hold up to 500 people, with features such as a meeting room and an educational kitchen.

Fundraising has begun for a second longhouse, which will contain a student center and an art studio, among other things.

Braine said he wants the whole campus community, not just the university’s Native American students, to enjoy the building when it opens.

“I’m looking forward to having this space and then having other groups coming in,” he said. “I want them to come and use this facility not as a token Indian place. What I’m looking for is [for others to] come and learn about us.”

Lange said the longhouse, which took so many years to become a reality, will be on campus for a long time once built. She noted that buildings on campus are made to stand at least a century.

“And then we renovate them,” she said. “This building will stand for a hundred years and more. Just like the spirit of the first people whose land we stand on.”

Reach reporter LaVendrick Smith at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @The_Vendrick

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