Long before it became home to a major state university, the University of Washington’s Seattle campus and surrounding area was the site of an important village and longhouses for the Duwamish Tribe.

“And you would never know that, going through campus,” said Charlotte Coté, a UW American Indian studies associate professor and member of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribe of Canada. “We were so invisible.”

That will soon change. On Friday, tribal leaders and students joined university officials to break ground on a $6 million modern cedar longhouse on the UW campus — the first of two buildings that will establish a foundation for Native Americans at the school.

Several hundred people — including members of about 50 tribes, tribal elders and Native-American college students and faculty — came together Friday to sing, play traditional drums, talk about the importance of the project and shed a few tears of joy.

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“I know how important it is to find a place where you can feel comfortable — a place that reflects our cultures,” Coté said.

The longhouse will be built just north and east of the quad, where the cherry trees bloom every spring. It will be the third longhouse on a Washington college campus; The Evergreen State College and Peninsula College in Port Angeles also have longhouses.

Construction is expected to finish late next year, and the building is scheduled to open for programs in January 2015.

In English, the longhouse will be known as the Intellectual House, or, “The house of intelligence, where people come to talk in an intellectual way,” Coté said.

Native-American leaders have been trying to get the UW to build a longhouse on the UW campus since the 1970s, and say a place for native students to come together is long overdue.

While the UW’s Burke Museum has an extensive collection of Coast Salish art and artifacts, “The museum reflects the past, and who we are, and what our history’s all about,” said W. Ron Allen, the tribal chairman and chief executive officer of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“This is going to be looking forward,” Allen said. “It’s more alive and breathing.”

Native-American leaders hope it will help the university attract and retain more Native Americans, who make up only about 1.3 percent of undergraduates on the Seattle campus.

The longhouse, and other Native-American programs offered by the UW, are about “building capacity in Indian Country — building capacity to self-govern, to have healthy communities, to have access to education,” said Sheila Edwards Lange, UW vice president for minority affairs and vice provost for diversity.

The building will be constructed largely of cedar, in a post-and-beam style, with a large space that can seat 500 people, a smaller meeting room, and a large kitchen that can also be used to teach people about preparing traditional foods.

“We envision a lot of things going on there — we see weddings there, large conferences, symposiums,” Coté said.

And the building itself will help Native Americans connect to their culture, because many grow up in small, close-knit communities or on reservations, and become homesick on the big urban campus, said Patricia Allen, a student and Alaska Native of the Tlingit tribe who directs diversity efforts for UW student government.

“It’s going to be really great, because there aren’t very many areas for coastal natives to gather around here,” said Allen. She envisions dance practices, powwows and other native events in the longhouse — “a space where we can all share indigenous cultures.”

She called it a “home away from home for a lot of students — especially being natives, we’re so tied to our lands and our homes as an identity.”

Alana Quintasket, a UW student and Swinomish tribe member who grew up on the tribe’s small reservation near La Conner, said she misses the gatherings that happened almost every day on her reservation and in the tribe’s longhouse.

In classes, she hasn’t always felt that she fit in with other students, and said the longhouse would provide an important connection to her culture.

The building was designed by Johnpaul Jones, architect and founding partner of Jones & Jones and a Cherokee-Choctaw Indian. Jones was the overall lead design consultant for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

About half, or $3 million, of the cost came from an appropriation from the Legislature, and the remainder from private donors, tribes and the UW.

Fundraising has just started for construction of a second building that will include multipurpose rooms for teaching and learning, and will cost an additional $6 million to $7 million.

Allen, of the S’Klallam Tribe, hopes some of Washington’s other state universities will take the cue and build longhouses of their own.

The UW longhouse is bigger and grander than the longhouses at Evergreen and Peninsula, he said, and, “It really does somewhat challenge our other education institutions, because we have lots of native students in other colleges.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @katherinelong