The Northwest Native Cultural Center proposed for Seattle Center would connect modern Seattle more closely with its namesake and his people, writes guest columnist Roger Fernandes.
RECENTLY, a group of Native and non-Native community members submitted a proposal for a Northwest Native Cultural Center (NNCC) at Seattle Center. The revitalization of the Fun Forest site is part of the Century 21 Master Plan meant to serve our city for generations to come. Seattle Center administrators asked us to respond to many questions about our proposal, which we did. Now we have a few questions of our own.
Our initiative is one of several under consideration: You probably have read about high-profile plans for a Chihuly museum, and a new home for public radio station KEXP. Supporters of those and other proposals have made convincing arguments. On behalf of the people of Seattle, we ask: Will the decision for what belongs at the Seattle Center be based on merit or on money?
The NNCC initiative perfectly suits the mission of the Seattle Center and its master plan. It will be a permanent venue in the city center dedicated to the history and living culture of our region’s first people — a place for all the Coast Salish tribes and groups, as well as urban Indians, to tell their own stories through dynamic displays, programs and performing arts. Admission to the exhibitions will be free.
In addition, the NNCC will expand the green space at Seattle Center with a cedar grove and interpretive garden, where Native experts can demonstrate the uses of indigenous plants for food, medicine, basketry, tools and shelter.
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Seattle Center is situated on the ancestral land of the Duwamish people and was once a tribal gathering place. More than a century ago, the Native population was driven from Seattle, some at gunpoint, and their homes and villages burned. They were cast from their own land and sent to live at nearby reservations like Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Suquamish. They no longer had a home in Seattle, the place where their history was lived for countless generations and their revered ancestors are buried.
Seattle is the largest metropolis in the country named for an Indian leader. Yet ironically, this city’s identity remains disconnected from the long history of its namesake and his people. Now, we have the chance to right that wrong, but time is running out. How can we seize this historic opportunity at Seattle Center?
The local indigenous cultures are alive and active. The NNCC will give children and adults a place to observe and interact with Native artists and carvers, basket makers and weavers, storytellers and dancers. The interpretive exhibitions will share how the Coast Salish people created a culture in harmony with the unique environment of the Puget Sound.
The NNCC will not benefit any one person, group, tribe or organization, but exist for the good of all. It will serve as a central resource center, directing visitors to other fine Native exhibitions and institutions in the region, such as Daybreak Star, the Duwamish Longhouse, the Suquamish Museum, a proposed Canoe Center at South Lake Union and the University of Washington’s soon-to-be-built House of Knowledge.
Already committed to help design the new facility is nationally recognized Native American architect Johnpaul Jones, who helped create the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He and United Indians of All Tribes Foundation founder Bernie Whitebear had once hoped to build a cultural center in the downtown area. Jones joined our effort to help rejuvenate that decades-old dream.
We hope that Seattle and Puget Sound’s non-Native and Native residents will support our plan to bring this free, authentic, dynamic and educational venue to the Seattle Center. After all, our lives and histories are thoroughly intertwined. Only through true collaboration can we honor our shared past and civic future.
Roger Fernandes is a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Nation, a Native artist, storyteller and educator.