The Tulalip Tribes on Saturday will open the $19 million Hibulb Cultural Center, where the story of the journey of the tribes is told in their own words, so their people may preserve it, their youth rediscover it and the general public come to better know their neighbors.

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The Tulalip Tribes on Saturday will open the doors to their newest pride and joy: the $19 million Hibulb Cultural Center.

Named for a traditional stronghold of the tribe near the mouth of the Snohomish River, the cultural center is still a stronghold today, after 30 years in the making. It’s a place where the story of the journey of the Tulalip Tribes is told in their own words, so their people may preserve it, their youth rediscover it and the general public come to better know their neighbors.

With about 4,000 members, including 2,500 living on the reservation, the Tulalip Tribes’ elders and leaders guided the vision for the cultural center over many years of discussion about what tribal members wanted it to be, and do.

The result is a facility that includes a 23,000-square-foot cultural center, a 10,000-square-foot collections wing and a 42-acre natural-history preserve.

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The statement of identity and place begins with the building itself. The front door is tight-grained yellow cedar, carved with a “people of the salmon” design, and fitted with bronze handles sculpted into orcas, the tribes’ totem animal.

Inside, the light in the grand hall is soft and evokes the feel of a traditional longhouse. On the floor, the sinuous shape of the Snohomish River is depicted, winding from the front entrance through the main hall and all the way out the back of the building.

Beginning with no budget, no office, no staff or even a desk, Hank Gobin, director of the cultural center and natural-history preserve, in time learned what tribal members wanted the museum to be and do: provide cultural educational activities, so the young people could learn and see aspects of their culture they might not have been raised with, and tell the public the story of the Tulalip Tribes’ journey.

“Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we now? Where are we going? It’s important not only for our people, but for the general public to understand these things,” Gobin said.

Not taken from any book of museology or exhibit design, the exhibits were developed by the community, especially a core group of elders, whose shared experiences became the main themes, Gobin said. He discerned themes that are historical, and deeply personal.

“That is the unique quality of this exhibition,” Gobin said.

“What they were bringing was things they had observed, and things they learned from their parents and from their grandparents. These elders and tribal leaders participated in defining the history of the Tulalip Tribes; they lived and experienced it. The goodness, the pain, the anguish — it didn’t come from a book.”

The exhibit’s main themes include the boarding-school era, from about the mid-1800s to about the 1930s, when tribal children were separated from their parents and stripped of their culture, history, life ways and spirituality. Told in historical photographs, and quotations from tribal members describing their experience, the exhibit, said former tribal leader Stan Jones, makes the point that “their concept of education was to destroy our language and culture.”

The Tulalip Tribes are descendants of the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish and other tribes and bands that signed the Treaty of Point Elliott.

Hibulb — “place of a thousand fires” — was the Snohomish stronghold near the mouth of the Snohomish River. It also means “place where white doves live” — a reference echoed in the figure of a bird often woven into early Snohomish basketry.

An exhibit on the Treaty of Point Elliott, signed by tribal leaders in 1855, relates that the treaty was signed as hangman’s nooses swung from a tree at the treaty grounds at Mukilteo, sending a clear, threatening message.

Tulalip military veterans are celebrated in a wall covered with their portraits, and quotations from them as they describe their experiences in battle, sometimes fighting for a country that did not admit them as citizens. Native Americans did not gain U.S. citizenship until 1924.

A family tree allows any Tulalip tribal member to put in their enrollment number and see their relations light up. And everywhere throughout the building is art, both original commissioned works and family heirlooms — from baskets to rattles to masks — on permanent exhibition.

The museum, paid for almost entirely by the Tulalip Tribes, but for $1 million from the Washington State Heritage Capital Project Fund, also will feature rotating exhibits.

In time, the tribes hope to complete a natural-history preserve on the site, with nature trails, observation platforms and ethnobotanical gardens.

Asked how he feels about completing the cultural center, Gobin, 70, who was born and raised on this reservation, was at first quiet. Then he explained this work isn’t about him, but about the journey of his people.

“I’ve been the eyes and the ears, but it’s their story.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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