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University of Montana to dedicate Native American Center

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MISSOULA, Mont. – The University of Montana will hold the formal dedication ceremony for its new Payne Family Native American Center May 13, at its campus in Missoula.

The $8.6 million, 30,000-square-foot center, the first of its kind on any university campus in the nation, will house UM’s Department of Native American Studies, American Indian Student Services and related campus programming under one roof.

“The center represents Indian people on campus and the commitment of the university to future tribal leadership,” said Linda Juneau, UM’s tribal liaison. “It marks a new beginning of our relationships on campus – at last a home on the homeland, where Indian students have the opportunity to provide a welcoming, sharing, cross-cultural exchange with all who enter.”

The building’s dedication signifies a “coming home” for Montana’s Natives, as the land on which the UM campus is now located was home to Chief Charlo and the Bitterroot Salish before the federal government forced them to migrate north to the Flathead Reservation in 1891.

Designed by Daniel Glenn, a Crow architect, the center boasts the Lodge Rotunda, a circular, translucent atrium that serves as an entryway and gathering space, with a canted roof pitched toward the east.

Designed by Daniel Glenn, a Crow architect, the center is steeped in traditional Native American symbolism. It boasts the Lodge Rotunda, a circular, translucent atrium that serves as an entryway and gathering space, with a canted roof pitched toward the east. The roof houses a long, slotted skylight that admits the first rays of the rising sun, as well as a central oculus that brings light down into the center of the circle. At night, the atrium’s translucent panels make the building glow like a teepee with an internal campfire.

The main features of the Lodge Rotunda – its canted walls, eastern entrance and circular form – symbolize the teepee lodge. Internally, it resembles a Sun Dance lodge, with 12 vertical logs representing Montana’s 12 tribes. The names of the tribes are engraved above each log, first in the tribe’s native language, then in English.

The building also honors Native Americans’ reverence for the environment. From its pending status as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold building (the second-highest designation) to the golden panels made from crushed sunflowers adorning the walls, the building symbolizes the Native philosophy of wasting nothing Mother Earth provides.

Private donations made up the majority of funding for the building; when financial support lagged the family of Missoula businessman and UM alumnus Terry Payne, the project’s lead donor, stepped up to provide funding. They deemed the project too important to fail.

“This was an opportunity to build a facility specifically for Native American studies that we can be proud of,” Payne said. “We feel proud and blessed our family was able to participate. And we weren’t alone – many people stepped up in a big way.”

He and others involved in the university’s Native American programs believe the center will raise the bar for Native studies at the university and across the country. They also think it will encourage more Indian students to attend – and graduate from – UM.

“The Payne Family Native American Center underscores our commitment to serve all Montanans, not just some,” UM President George M. Dennison said. “It also places The University of Montana in a unique leadership position nationally and is a source of tremendous pride for everyone involved.”

Representatives from all seven of Montana’s reservations, plus those from the landless Little Shell Tribe, will take part in the daylong festivities May 13 leading up to the formal dedication ceremony. Events will include many Native traditions, such as a “coming home” walk and early morning tribal flag raising, honor songs, the dedication and blessing of the Bonnie HeavyRunner Memorial Gathering Space, and a ceremonial luncheon including buffalo soup and fry bread. For a complete schedule of events, visit

“This center will make a tremendous impact throughout Indian country,” said Fredricka Hunter, director of American Indian Student Services at UM. “This says to Native students, ‘We care about you. We want you to be successful in your educational endeavors and in life, and we want you to maintain your Native identity.’

“The center also makes a statement to its own faculty and staff that American Indian students are important to this campus. Higher education in the 21st century needs a solid place for American Indian people, and this provides the means to that end.”