A new longhouse-style building on the University of Washington campus fulfills a four-decade-old request.

Share story

When she leads tours of the University of Washington campus for Native American high-school students, Bailey Warrior is asked one set of questions above all others.

“How can I find my place on campus?” students ask Warrior, a UW senior who is herself a Lummi Indian. “Am I going to feel lost? Am I going to feel alone?”

The Southern Express drummers sing during the grand opening of Intellectual House at the University of Washington on Thursday, March 12, 2015. The longhouse opening fulfills a four-decade-old request. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

On Thursday, the UW opened a modern interpretation of a Coast Salish longhouse on the Seattle campus, fulfilling a 40-year-old request by Native Americans to create a space that would allow students to connect with culture and family.

Open house

Intellectual House will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday for a daylong celebration put on by area tribes, including performances and dances. An elk stew lunch will be served at 12:15 p.m. and a salmon dinner at 5 p.m.

Built of cedar and located northeast of the quad where the cherry trees are now in bloom, the building is named Intellectual House, or wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ in the Lutshotsheed language, and is phonetically pronounced “wah-sheb-altuh.”

“I feel like I’m home,” said Warrior as she walked around the warm, light-filled space.

The idea of the longhouse as home was echoed over and over by hundreds of Native American tribal members from across the region, as well as faculty and students, who came together for an opening ceremony Thursday.

“This is going to be a safe, sacred place for our people,” said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe. “Today, the spirits and ancestors are happy.”

The main feature of the building, which is 8,400 square feet in all, is a large, open room paneled in cedar, with benches that run along one side. Plans call for research symposiums, conferences, colloquia, lectures and classes to be held there, and it also will serve as a casual gathering place and study area for native and nonnative students.

In a nod to the way things are done today, the longhouse’s main room has windows at one end, but the three other sides have none. Longhouses are usually built without windows.

Because of the careful way it was constructed, and because Native American protocols and ceremonies were followed every step of the way, Indians regard the building as being alive, said Polly Olsen, director of community relations and development for the UW’s Indigenous Wellness Research Institute.

Intellectual House 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.

Native Americans have been trying to win support for a longhouse on the UW campus since the 1970s, said Ross Braine, the director of Intellectual House and a Crow Indian from Montana. In the late 2000s, the Legislature finally set aside $3 million for the project. The rest of the $6 million cost came from donations, primarily from area tribes.

The construction of the longhouse, and the recent hiring of nationally known expert Christopher Teuton to chair the UW’s American Indian Studies Department, have raised the UW’s profile as a place of scholarship for and about indigenous cultures, said Sheila Edwards Lange, vice president of minority affairs for the university.

“We’re looking to be a leader in indigenous studies” among American universities, said Lange, adding that Washington’s tribes are “some of the most powerful in the country, in terms of influence.”

Recently, the UW piloted a program that brought nearly a dozen Native American and Alaska Native elders into classes to share knowledge with students, designed in part to promote intergenerational learning.

Native Americans are one of the smallest minority groups on the Seattle campus, with 394 undergraduates. That’s about 1.3 percent of all undergraduates, a number that is little changed from 10 years ago. But the number of Native American graduate students has more than doubled in 10 years, to 158 students.

The longhouse will help with recruitment and graduation rates, Braine said. “They’ll see this place when they come as an undergraduate, and say, ‘Hey, I belong,’ ” he said.

Braine also hopes that Intellectual House’s existence will help dispel stereotypes. As a student, Braine said, he was constantly knocking down erroneous ideas: that his tribe owned a casino, that he went to school for free, that he was admitted automatically because of his native status.

He said he hopes the entire university community will feel welcome at Intellectual House … but the connection to the building will surely be strongest among native students.

“Every time I go in, I get a lump in my throat,” Braine said. “I think of those whose shoulders we stood upon to get here. The cedar and wood — it smells like home.”