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Longhouse at The Evergreen State College will celebrate 20 years of hospitality, native culture

Standing in the Carving Studio, Salish carver Peter Boome talks about  pieces  being created for the future Fiber Arts Studio.
Standing in the Carving Studio, Salish carver Peter Boome talks about pieces being created for the future Fiber Arts Studio. Staff photographer

Trudy Marcellay is always struck by the same feeling when she enters the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

“It makes me feel like I’m coming home,” the Chehalis tribal elder said. “(It’s) a very loving, supportive atmosphere with room to grow and expand.”

A daylong celebration Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the 12,000-square-foot gathering place, which was given the name “The House of Welcome” in the South Puget Sound Salish language.

The event, which will be free and open to the community, will include a traditional feast, dancing and gift-giving,

The Longhouse was the first of its kind on a public college campus in the United States, according to Longhouse development officer Peter Boome.

It was built in a style to reflect longhouses that northern Puget Sound tribes used, but will the features of a modern college building, he said.

“This is a place for indigenous peoples,” said Boome, an Upper Skagit carver and alumnus of The Evergreen State College. “If you come here, you’re like, ‘Oh man, this reflects me as a native person.’”

That home-away-from-home comfort was an integral part of the building’s design, said Evergreen alumnus Colleen Jollie, who oversaw the $2.2 million project to its completion in 1995.

“It was about hospitality,” said Jollie, a descendent of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe. “A hospitable place where Native students could feel comfortable on campus.”

Evergreen’s Longhouse has served as an inspiration for other colleges in the region that built longhouses designed to serve as cultural and educational spaces.

The Many Nations Longhouse opened in 2005 at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the House of Learning opened in 2007 at Peninsula College in Port Angeles and in March, the University of Washington opened its 8,400-square-foot Intellectual House.

With large wooden columns at the entrance, a wood fireplace and a great hall that can be partitioned off into classrooms, the Evergreen longhouse was designed by architect Johnpaul Jones of Seattle.

The Cherokee and Choctaw man has designed numerous cultural centers and tribal museums around the country, and was the lead design consultant for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

By the time the Longhouse was built, it had been a dream more than 20 years in the making.

The idea was spearheaded by Mary Ellen Hillaire of the Lummi tribe, who founded Evergreen’s Native American Studies program in 1972. She envisioned a community gathering place where people from all cultural backgrounds could teach and learn from each other.

The concept energized several students and people in the tribal community.

Jollie, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies in the 1970s, recalled writing a letter to then-Evergreen president Dan Evans about the need for a culturally appropriate learning space for tribal students.

“Mr. President, we’re going to build a longhouse on campus,” Jollie wrote. “Would you like to join us?”

Members of the Squaxin Island Tribe near Shelton hosted a series of fund-raising dinners supported by tribal community members from around the region.

Evergreen’s graduating classes began a tradition of designating a portion of their fees to support the effort.

“It was an idea that just took hold amongst the student body,” Jollie said. “… This little fund was growing and growing.”

In 1990, when she returned to Evergreen to begin the Master of Public Administration program, Jollie said the first thing she did was head out to find the longhouse.

“I thought, ‘Well, it must be here,’<TH>” she said.

But it wasn’t.

Instead, Jollie discovered that people were still talking about how the longhouse could be be built — someday. By then, supporters had raised just $13,000 in donations.

Jollie teamed up with classmates Lawanna Bradley and Judith Brainerd to research for their thesis project what it would take to make Hillaire’s vision a reality.

Hillaire, who died in 1982, left clear instructions for Evergreen’s longhouse: It needed to be a modern, permanent structure, not a dirt-floored shed-type building, Jollie said.

Most of all, she added, Hillaire wanted a place for Native students to study, “not a place for others to study Indians.”

During their research, the women learned several reasons why the longhouse hadn’t been built. One of the big ones: It had never been placed on the college’s capital facilities agenda.

“It was never taken very seriously,” Jollie said.

The proposal also encountered racism, she said.

“Fear of a Native American facility ‘bringing empty junk cars and beer cans’ — people said this,” Jollie said. “And noise and rowdy powwow stuff.”

The women’s thesis covered the need for the facility, a history about tribal longhouses in the region, their traditional uses and many of the obstacles that had kept one from being built on the campus.

“We also included art in the presentations,” Jollie said. “… It was incredible and there was not a dry eye in the audience.”

The presentation got the attention of key college administrators, including Les Purce, the college’s vice president of advancement who later would be named the college’s interim president, then permanent president.

“It was an idea whose time had come, really,” Jollie said.

One of the project’s biggest hangups, Purce said, was a long-held assumption that the longhouse couldn’t be built with public funds because it wasn’t an educational facility.

He countered that it, in fact, was an education and arts facility.

Purce met with two key state lawmakers — former Gov. Gary Locke, who had ran the House budget committee at the time, and Art Wang, who chaired several committees, including Commerce and Labor, Revenue, Capital Budget and Judicary.

“They said, ‘Well, how much do you need?’ and I said, ‘$2 million,’” Purce recalled. “And you talk about windows of opportunities. … It just goes to show what great public policy can do and how dreams can be realized.”

The Governor’s Office and Office of Financial Management also supported the effort, Purce said.

By then, Capitol Campus was filled with many former Evergreen students who knew the story of the Longhouse, Jollie said.

“Everybody — literally everybody — was pulling for it,” she said. “It was like a little unknown dream child.”

The Quinault Indian Nation donated much of the timber used in the building. The Burke Museum at the UW donated cedar shakes and posts from the Sea Monster House, which had been erected for the 1962 World’s Fair.

More than 1,000 people — including Gov. Mike Lowry and numerous tribal dignitaries — attended the opening celebration in 1995.

The building’s 10-year anniversary was celebrated with a huge potlatch, and in 2009, there was a grand reopening and ceremony for the renovation and 2,000-square-foot expansion of the building.

In addition to providing meeting rooms, classroom space and a multi-purpose venue for community events, the Longhouse has become a gathering place for indigenous artists.

It’s hosted numerous events for basketweavers, carvers, dancers and musicians from around the Pacific Rim.

“It’s truly become a ‘House of Welcome,’ and probably one of the most satisfying things in my career,” Purce said.

One of the center’s goals is to promote economic development for Native artists, Boome said. It can cause a ripple effect in tribal communities, as more artists learn ways to create a living through their art, he added.

“The Longhouse is a hub for Native arts and culture,” said Louie Gong, a Nooksack tribal artist. “They’re particularly effective in playing that role in the Pacific Northwest because of the staff.”

To commemorate the building’s 20th anniversary, Gong worked with Longhouse staff members to design wool blankets that feature a large Thunderbird bordered by a Coast Salish and a Maori design.

Gong said his company is the first Native-owned company to offer wool blankets, a traditional gift for significant events in Indian Country.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for us to come together to kind of model how when Native peoples work together, anything is possible,” he said.

The Longhouse recently broke ground on a fiber arts studio that will join a carving studio that opened in 2012. Eventually, a cast glass studio will be built nearby.

“If all goes well, those other buildings will be finished by 2019,” said Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, the Longhouse’s director.

Marcellay, one of the daughters of the legendary Northwest tribal basketweaver Hazel Pete, said she’s excited that the college plans to expand its offerings for the next generation of indigenous artists.

“I absolutely am a total supporter of the Evergreen Longhouse and what it has meant to tribal members in the area,” she said. “… It’s a total family.”

Purce said he’s excited about the Longhouse’s future, too.

“I just can’t wait to watch and see what more wonderful things it’s going to do,” he added. “It’s been an extraordinary journey.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433

lpemberton@theolympian.com

@Lisa_Pemberton

20TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION

The celebration to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Evergreen State College’s Longhouse Education and Cultural Center will be from 1 to 9 p.m. Saturday.

The event, which will be open to the public, will include a feast, gift-giving, a blessing ceremony, performances by indigenous dance groups and other activities.

The Longhouse is on Evergreen’s main campus at 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Olympia.

For more information, go to evergreen.edu/longhouse.

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