The Grant County PUD has begun construction of a 50,000-square-foot Wanapum Heritage Center on what has been the band's ancestral homeland for between 700 and 800 generations.

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MATTAWA, Grant County — The Wanapum people are about to get a significant and functional monument to help keep their culture alive and help others learn.

The Grant County PUD has begun construction of a 50,000-square-foot Wanapum Heritage Center on what has been the band’s ancestral homeland for between 700 and 800 generations.

The center’s site could be considered the Wanapums’ “front yard” — an isolated expanse of desert sage and scrub off Highway 243 on the Columbia’s eastern shore at Priest Rapids Dam. Wanapum Village is on the river’s western shore and reached by crossing the dam.

“We’re all looking forward to that big day, the ribbon cutting, when all we all come together as a Plateau people with all of our friends and visitors who may come,” said Rex Buck Jr., leader of the Wanapum.

Intended to “protect, preserve and perpetuate the culture, traditions and identity” of the Wanapum, the center will contain space for permanent and temporary exhibits and a climate-controlled repository for the collection of Wanapum artifacts unearthed during construction of Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams.

Also inside will be a library, staff offices, and open space for large group activities and cultural programs.

Buck hopes the center will help put Plateau peoples in touch with parts of their heritage that may have become forgotten.

Elegant in its function and simplicity, the low-profile building will rise in vertically lined concrete with a long, lantern-like entrance that’s angled to face the sunrise — a tradition for Wanapum dwellings.

Rich Franco, partner of the Seattle office of the Mithun architectural firm, said the building’s design reflects the starkness of the surrounding landscape. Inside, the structure opens to large, western-facing windows with views of the river — a pillar of the Wanapums’ fishing and root-gathering culture — and of the band’s village and the mountains beyond.

“It’s a welcoming repository that is both immersive and protective,” Franco said.

Construction of the $20 million center began this past week and is expected to open in mid-2014.

Once the new center opens, the small existing heritage center at Wanapum Dam will close, PUD spokeswoman Sarah Morford said. Plans for the old space are not final, although a hydropower-focused museum is a possibility.

The Wanapums are not a federally recognized tribe. They resisted resettlement onto reservations and opted out of the 1855 Fort Walla Walla treaty in which other regional tribes surrendered to the reservation system.

They’ve remained largely on their ancestral lands. Grant PUD officials approached the Wanapum in the 1950s, when the young utility was seeking a federal license to build its Columbia River dams.

The Wanapums agreed not to oppose the structures. In exchange, they remained on their land. Today, about 60 to 75 people live in the village year-round. The number swells to more than 100 during fishing and food-gathering seasons, Buck said.