Longhouse at The Evergreen State College will celebrate 20 years of hospitality, native culture

Lyonel Grant,  lead designer and Maori-Te Arawa carver, shares his thoughts during the Fiber Arts Studio Dedication Ceremony at the Longhouse Carving Studio on the campus of The Evergreen State College Sept. 21, 2015.
Lyonel Grant, lead designer and Maori-Te Arawa carver, shares his thoughts during the Fiber Arts Studio Dedication Ceremony at the Longhouse Carving Studio on the campus of The Evergreen State College Sept. 21, 2015. Staff photographer

Chehalis tribal elder Trudy Marcellay said she’s always struck by the same feeling when she enters the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

“It makes me feel like I’m coming home,” Marcellay said. “(It’s) a very loving, supportive atmosphere with room to grow and expand.”

A daylong celebration is set for next Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of the 12,000-square-foot gathering place, which was given the name “The House of Welcome” in the South Puget Sound Salish language. The event, which will include a traditional feast, dancing and gift-giving, is free and open to the community.

The Longhouse was the first facility of its kind on a public college campus in the United States, according to Longhouse development officer Peter Boome. It was built in a style to reflect longhouses that were used by northern Puget Sound tribes, but it has all of the features of a modern college building, he said.

“This is a place for indigenous peoples,” said Boome, an Upper Skagit carver and Evergreen alumnus. “If you come here, you’re like, ‘Oh man, this reflects me as a native person.’ 

That home-away-from-home comfort was an integral part of the building’s design, according to Evergreen alumnus Colleen Jollie, who oversaw the $2.2 million project to its completion in 1995.

“It was about hospitality,” said Jollie, a descendent of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe. “A hospitable place where Native students could feel comfortable on campus.”

Several other colleges in the region eventually followed suit and built longhouses that were designed to serve as cultural and educational spaces. The Many Nations Longhouse opened in 2005 at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the House of Learning opened in 2007 at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, and in March, the University of Washington opened its 8,400-square-foot Intellectual House.

Evergreen’s Longhouse has served as an inspiration, and its six-member staff has been a mentor of sorts for all of those programs.

“We had many lessons learned that we could share,” said Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, who is Ojibwe and director of Evergreen’s Longhouse.

With large wooden columns at the entrance, a wood fireplace and a great hall that can be partitioned off into classrooms, the facility was designed by architect Johnpaul Jones of Seattle. The Cherokee and Choctaw man has designed numerous cultural centers and tribal museums around the country, and was the lead design consultant for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

In fact, by the time it was finally built, the Longhouse had been a dream more than 20 years in the making. The idea was spearheaded by Mary Ellen Hillaire of the Lummi tribe, who founded Evergreen’s Native American Studies program in 1972. She envisioned a community gathering place where people from all cultural backgrounds could teach and learn from each other, according to Kuckkahn-Miller. Several students and people in the tribal community were energized by the concept.

Jollie, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Native American Studies during the 1970s, recalled writing a letter to then-college president Dan Evans about the need for a culturally appropriate learning space for tribal students.

It stated: “Mr. President, we’re going to build a longhouse on campus. Would you like to join us?” Jollie said.

Members of the Squaxin Island Tribe near Shelton threw their support behind the idea and hosted a series of fundraising dinners that were supported by tribal community members from around the region. Evergreen’s graduating classes began a tradition of designating a portion of their fees to support the effort.

“It was an idea that just took hold amongst the student body,” said Jollie. “… This little fund was growing and growing.”

In 1990, when she returned to Evergreen to begin the Master of Public Administration program, Jollie said the first thing she did was head out to find the longhouse.

“I thought, ‘Well, it must be here,’ ” she said.

But it wasn’t.

Instead, Jollie discovered that people were still talking about how the longhouse could be be built — someday. By then, about a dozen years later, supporters had managed to raise a mere $13,000 in donations.

Jollie teamed up with two of her classmates in the MPA program — Lawanna Bradley and Judith Brainerd — to research for their thesis project what it would take to make Hillaire’s vision a reality .

The faculty member died in 1982 but had given clear instructions for Evergreen’s longhouse: It needed to be a modern, permanent structure, not a dirt-floored shed-type building, Jollie said.

Most of all, Hillaire wanted to create a place for Native students to study, “not a place for others to study Indians,” Jollie added.

During their research for the thesis, the women found out several reasons why the longhouse hadn’t been built. One of the big reasons: It had never been placed on the college’s capital facilities agenda.

“It was never taken very seriously,” Jollie said.

The proposal also encountered blatant racism.

“Fear of a Native American facility ‘bringing empty junk cars and beer cans’ — people said this,” Jollie said. “And noise and rowdy powwow stuff.”

The thesis, “The Gatekeepers: The Longhouse Project at The Evergreen State College” covered the need for the facility, a history about tribal longhouses in the region and their traditional uses and many of the obstacles that had kept one from being built on the campus.

“Our document — it’s feminist, it’s got leadership style and change agents,” Jollie said. “We also included art in the presentations. … It was incredible and there was not a dry eye in the audience.”

The presentation was moving enough to get the attention of some key college administrators, including Les Purce, the college’s vice president of advancement, who would later be named the college’s interim president, then permanent president.

“It was an idea whose time had come, really,” Jollie said.

One of the project’s biggest hangups? There was a long-held assumption that the longhouse couldn’t be built with public funds because it wasn’t an educational facility, Purce said.

“I said, ‘It is, isn’t it?’ ” he said. “It’s an education and arts facility.”

Purce said he set out to get money by scheduling conversations with two key state lawmakers: Former Gov. Gary Locke, who ran the House budget committee at the time, and Art Wang, who chaired several committees including commerce and labor, revenue, capital budget and judicary.

“They said, ‘Well, how much do you need?’ and I said, ‘$2 million,’ ” Purce said. “And you talk about windows of opportunities. … It just goes to show what great public policy can do and how dreams can be realized.”

The Governor’s Office and Office of Financial Management also supported the effort, Purce said.

By then, Capitol Campus was filled with many former Greeners who knew the story of the Longhouse, Jollie said.

“Everybody — literally everybody — was pulling for it,” she said. “It was like a little unknown dream child.”

The Quinault Indian Nation donated much of the timber that was used in the building. The Burke Museum at the UW donated cedar shakes and posts from the Sea Monster House that had been erected as part of the 1962 World’s Fair.

More than 1,000 people attended the opening celebration in 1995, including Gov. Mike Lowry and numerous tribal dignitaries. There was a feast — with fish donated by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and cooked by volunteers from the Squaxin Island Tribe, Jollie said.

The building’s 10-year anniversary was celebrated with another huge potlatch, and in 2009, there was a grand re-opening and ceremony for the renovation and 2,000-square-foot expansion of the building.

In addition to providing meeting and classroom space, and serving as a multi-purpose venue for community events, the Longhouse has become a gathering place for indigenous artists. It’s hosted numerous events for basketweavers, carvers, dancers and musicians from around the Pacific Rim.

“It’s truly become a ‘House of Welcome,’ and probably one of the most satisfying things in my career,” Purce said. “… One of the real joys of my life.”

One of the center’s goals is to promote economic development for Native artists, Boome said. It’s a system that can cause a ripple effect in tribal communities, as more artists learn ways to create a living through their art, he added.

“The Longhouse is a hub for Native arts and culture,” said Louie Gong, a Nooksack tribal artist. “I think they’re particularly effective in playing that role in the Pacific Northwest because of the staff.”

Gong, an arts entrepreneur, worked with the Longhouse staff to design a wool blanket to commemorate the building’s 20th anniversary.

The queen-size blankets, which will retail for $180 at eighthgeneration.com, feature a large Thunderbird that is bordered by a Coast Salish and a Maori design. Gong said his company is the first Native-owned company to offer wool blankets, which are a traditional gift for significant events in Indian Country.

“I thought it was a great opportunity for us to come together to kind of model how when Native peoples work together, anything is possible,” Gong said.

The Longhouse recently broke ground on a fiber arts studio, which will help make up what’s being called the Indigenous Arts Campus at Evergreen. It joins a carving studio that opened in August 2012. Eventually, a cast glass studio will be built nearby, too.

“If all goes well, those other buildings will be finished by 2019,” Kuckkahn-Miller.

Marcellay, who is one of the daughters of the legendary Northwest tribal basketweaver Hazel Pete, said she’s excited that the college plans to expand its offerings for the next generation of indigenous artists.

“I absolutely am a total supporter of the Evergreen Longhouse and what it has meant to tribal members in the area,” she said. “… It’s a total family.”

Purce said he’s excited about the Longhouse’s future, too.

“I just can’t wait to watch and see what more wonderful things it’s going to do,” he added. “It’s been an extraordinary journey.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433




A daylong celebration to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Evergreen State College’s Longhouse Education and Cultural Center is slated from 1 to 9 p.m. next Saturday. The event, which is open to the public, and will include a feast, gift-giving, a blessing ceremony, performances by indigenous dance groups and other activities. The Longhouse is on Evergreen’s main campus at 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Olympia. For more information, go to evergreen.edu/longhouse.