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Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest

Whatcom County Council is considering a request from Western Washington University for $75,000 in funding for the creation of a traditional Coast Salish style Longhouse.

The council unanimously offered verbal support for the project at their meeting Tuesday, Feb. 22. Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu said it is up to the council to approve an upcoming proposal to use the heritage building fund to fulfill the request, which will likely happen in March.

“We, meaning Western, are the only university on the I-5 corridor that at present does not have a cultural gathering place for Indigenous people. This Longhouse — House of Healing — will have a powerful impact, I believe, on the recruitment and retention of Native students and it will promote cultural sovereignty and a sense of place and belonging for Native students, faculty and staff and for our neighboring Tribal communities,” WWU President Sabah Randhawa told the council.

The university is also currently engaged with the city of Bellingham for a proposed parcel of city-owned land — an open meadow on the edge of Arboretum Drive across from Sehome High School. The location was intentionally chosen, Randhawa said, as it provides easy access for students and the public, allowing for educational and cultural opportunities for the Native community and the broader community as a whole.

The creation of the House of Healing Longhouse began in 2016 when the university’s Native American Student Union proposed to Randhawa’s predecessor Bruce Shepard a series of ways the university could address current and historical issues faced by Indigenous students on campus. Among the proposals was the establishment of WWU’s Office of Tribal Relations, which is committed to building the Longhouse as an integral cornerstone in support of its mission.

“When I first came to Western this was my long-range plan. I envisioned it to be a 5- to 10-year project, but now to make it a reality is really exciting... This Longhouse has been spoken about for decades. For me this is full circle,” said Laural Ballew, an enrolled member of the Swinomish Tribe who has served as the first executive director of American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations Relations and Tribal Liaison to the President since 2019.

“It’s important for our students — not just our Native students, but all students of color — to have that safe place. A place that they can feel grounded and feel included and I’m very excited to be able to make this happen for our Native students,” Ballew told the County Council.

The Longhouse has garnered endorsement from Lummi Nation, Nooksack, Samish, Jamestown S’Klallam, Stillaguamish, Suquamish and the Swinomish Tribes, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and the city of Bellingham.

Led by state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, the university sought $4.9 million in the state’s 2021-23 capital budget for the construction of the Longhouse. It has since received $4.5 million and are in the process of securing an additional half a million dollars from various corporations and foundations.

“I urge the Council to help WWU close the gap on this historic project. This project aims to increase representation of Native students and enhance their recruitment, retention and graduation, and it has been a top request of the Native American Student Union at WWU, as well as the Associated Students of WWU for several years,” Lekanoff wrote in a letter to the council.

The Longhouse will reflect traditional Coast Salish architecture, providing a gathering and ceremonial space to promote cultural exchange and understanding. The structure will include a gathering hall, indoor and outdoor kitchens and student lounges.

“For me, this really puts action behind those words of land acknowledgment,” Ballew said. “It won’t just be a building on a piece of land, it’s actually going to represent what our people have fought for and most importantly that Western is answering that call.”

The Longhouse’s vision serves to bring everyone together. As the House of Healing, it carries a similar message as Bellingham’s Arch of Healing and Reconciliation, the university told the council.

“Our proposed Longhouse will stand as a landmark for Native people, delegating Western’s and also the county’s and city’s commitment to restorative justice, equity and inclusion,” Randhawa said.

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Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps.