Building on Artistic Vision
by Nikki McCoy
A steady drum, the harmony of song, the dance of feathers kissed by wind. Indigenous people from the Pacific Rim and Pacific Northwest tribes converged in front of a welcoming audience of an estimated 1,000 people at Evergreen’s Longhouse Education and Cultural Center 20th anniversary celebration October 17.
The Longhouse—called sgʷigʷialʔtxʷ in the Lushootseed language or House of Welcome in English—was the nation’s first Native American longhouse on a college or university campus when it opened in 1995.
The birthday festivities perfectly embodied the spirit of collaboration between Evergreen and regional tribes, indigenous communities across the Pacific Rim, the Washington legislature, and prestigious donors and partners that made the Longhouse dream a reality 20 years ago.
“The Longhouse greatly enriches the experiences of everyone who is a part of the Evergreen community,” said Michael Zimmerman, Evergreen’s vice president for academic affairs. “The programming brings opportunities to campus that educate, inform, and stimulate.”
Over the years, it has served as a gathering place to celebrate art, performance, and culture. It has been an educational venue for students, faculty, and the community, as well as a welcoming space for honored guests ranging from tribal, state and federal leaders, to scholarship donors and recipients, to renowned speakers and educators.
And it is much more than a building. It is the home of an internationally recognized Native arts program, a symbol of Pacific Northwest Native heritage, and an inspiring space for learning and community building.
Roots and Reach
While 20 years is a major milestone, it may be fair to say that the real journey began 43 years ago when Evergreen faculty member, the late Mary Ellen Hillaire of the Lummi tribe, founded the Native American Studies program. To include a culturally appropriate facility was a challenge, and her tenacity influenced many in those beginning years, establishing the spirit of collaboration.
“I never had the opportunity to meet Mary Ellen Hillaire,” said Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, director of the Longhouse. “But I recall looking at archival footage of her work and her words. There was a time when she sort of makes this fist and says, ‘And we will build a Longhouse,’ and she talks about what it would mean for the people, and why she’s building it.
“There was just something about her determination, and that strength she was expressing with her body language and with her words, that you just knew it was going to happen.”
A former student of Hillaire, Colleen Jollie, worked with Lawanna Bradley and Judith Brainerd as students in the Master of Public Administration program to write their thesis exploring challenges and solutions in creating the Longhouse. Jollie later saw the building through to completion as the Longhouse project coordinator.
Graduating classes of Evergreen students allotted a portion of their fees to the welcome figures that stand at each side of the Longhouse entrance. The Quinault Indian Nation donated much of the timber used in construction and the Burke Museum donated cedar shakes and posts resurrected from the Sea Monster House, which was part of the 1962 World’s Fair. Squaxin Island, Makah, and Skokomish tribes provided valuable resources, and the Washington State Legislature allocated $2.2 million to support this unique educational space.
Since the Longhouse opened the public has increasingly acknowledged the value of this type of facility, prompting the construction of a handful of university campus longhouses throughout the region, as well as garnering media attention, private and public donors, and governmental funding and praise.
“The Longhouse is a model of how integrative community programming can successfully function by providing benefits to everyone who interacts with the amazing staff and facilities,” said Zimmerman.
Gillnets to Grants: The Longhouse in Action
In a recent Monday morning meeting in the Longhouse, John Edward Smith, a Skokomish carver and friend of the Longhouse, recalled his first impression when he attended a gathering of Northwest Native wood carvers nearly seven years ago. The large-scale event, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, included an international panel of carvers.
“I wasn’t too interested in the academic side of Indian Country,” he admitted. “But by the time the seminar was over, and I got to absorb what was going on, it was pretty amazing to see all these carvers coming together to work here. At the end of the seminar there was a time to ask questions, but all I had was a dare for them—to build a canoe together—and so we did.”
That inaugural canoe has since been on three expeditions and led to the formation of an international canoe-journey family.
Smith emphasized that being a reservation-based artist enhances his skills.
“It keeps a lifestyle that is as close to 500 years ago as possible,” he said. “Every single dime I make for my family comes from a natural resource—whether that’s a chunk of wood or a geoduck or a salmon. It’s important not to forget that.”
He also noted that he acquired his weaving skills during a bad fishing season. Sitting at the end of a gillnet waiting for fish, he designed a hat that became the financial saving grace for his family that year.
“The stories you are hearing are exactly why the Longhouse was developed,” said Kuckkahn-Miller. “I don’t think people understand when they look at a basket, how many hours went into harvesting and preparing the bark before weaving. There was no infrastructure to support the arts in this region at that time, so people would go to the tribal center and sell a basket for far less than it was worth because they had a light bill to pay.”
For Smith and many others, artist grants from the Longhouse were crucial to honing their craft and supporting their vision. Thanks to partners like the Ford Foundation and DeVos Institute of Arts Management, to date the Longhouse has re-granted more than $500,000 to support Native artists, tribes, and arts organizations across the Pacific Northwest.
Grade School to Greeners: Support for the Next Generation
Each year the Longhouse hosts Generations Rising, a daylong event focused on Native youth up to the age of 21. An art exhibit, craft workshop, and dinner are part of the fun.
“We marveled at your young people—their enthusiasm, talent, cultural knowledge, and fearlessness,” said participant Ed Bourgeois in a thank-you letter to the Longhouse. “Your elders, your staff, and your community have reason to be very proud and they are a testament to the good work you are doing at the Longhouse.”
Including young people in Longhouse activities, especially at the grade-school level, is very important, said Kuckkahn-Miller. Her husband, Delbert Miller ’96, is leads a recently formed youth program called Little Wolves Productions. Working with Skokomish and Chehalis tribal families, group activities include field trips to ancestral sites, picnics with indigenous foods, and production of art and theater—bringing to life traditional stories from their tribes.
Sharing Evergreen with young people is a big part of why the Little Wolves program was created, she remarked. “We want kids at an early age to feel very comfortable coming to a college campus.”
Now, the Little Wolves are at the helm of many of the Longhouse’s significant events— including the 20-year celebration—singing songs, and tugging at the heartstrings of an inspired audience.
Indigenous Arts Campus
In 2012 Evergreen opened a carving studio, Pay3q’ali, meaning “a place to carve” in the Lushootseed language. Since then it has hosted a variety of programs, including workshops on bentwood box drum making and traditional mask carving.
“With the establishment of the carving studio, we’ve had this exponential explosion of the kinds of programs we’ve been able to offer as a public service center,” said Kuckkahn-Miller. “We’ve gotten people here regionally and internationally to learn about the arts—but the magic and the glory of it is facilitating collaboration among the cultures. That’s where the true power of the art is revealed.”
Two years later Evergreen incorporated an Indigenous Arts Campus into its college master plan. The campus will include a larger carving studio, fiber arts studio, and cast glass studio and is designed to support a proposed Master of Fine Arts in Indigenous Arts program, the first of its kind in the U.S.
The Longhouse’s growth is due in part to its ever-expanding networks of artists. Renowned Maori sculptor Lyonel Grant is one of several master artists-in-residence to work at the Longhouse. Grant is co-creating the new fiber arts studio with Longhouse designer and indigenous architect Johnpaul Jones, who led the design of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
In September an art dedication took place, revealing elaborately carved cedar entrance poles for the fiber arts studio. Grant and faculty member Alex McCarty (Makah), John Smith (Skokomish), Taylor Krise (Squaxin Island) and Peter Boome (Upper Skagit) carved the structural art for the new fiber arts studio, slated to open by May 2017.Boome ’08, MES ’14, who is also development officer for the Longhouse, recalled his first visit to see Grant’s work at the Unitec University of Technology in New Zealand.
“That was a transformational moment for me,” he said. “It changed the way I looked at a lot of things artistically. It changed the way I looked at what was possible on a university campus.”
The fiber arts studio is going to set the standard not only for our region but also for our country, said Boome, noting that the blending of cultures through an Indigenous Arts Campus is something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
“We’re going to pursue the Indigenous Arts Campus in a way that has a traditional foundation, but with contemporary context,” he said. “It will have meaning today, and it will have meaning 20 years from now.”
Kuckkahn-Miller agreed. Reflecting on Hillaire’s vision, and that footage of her balled fist of determination, Kuckkahn-Miller said she is continually inspired.
“As the staff, team, and board work on each step of development for the Longhouse’s future vision, I sometimes find myself making that same gesture while saying, ‘We will build the Indigenous Arts Campus. We are doing it for the next generations.’”