On Tuesday, Feb. 22, the Whatcom County council voted five to two to approve a supplemental budget request that included $75,000 to Western Washington University to build a Coast Salish style longhouse.
Sabah Randhawa, the President of Western, spoke at the meeting, explaining the need for the $75,000 and describing the location and purpose of the longhouse.
Western is currently the only university on the I-5 corridor that does not have a cultural gathering place for indigenous people.
The money will come from the county’s historic preservation restricted funding. Randhawa said that Western requested $4.9 million from the state legislature in its 2021-2023 budget for the project but only received $4.5 million.
“We are in the process of raising about half a million dollars,” Randhawa said. “Perhaps a little bit added to it because of inflation and supply chain management.”
He explained that the $75,000 would be a one time commitment from the county for this project.
In addition to fundraising, Western has been working with the city of Bellingham to secure a location for the longhouse.
“The city supports the vision to build a traditional Coast Salish style longhouse in the Sehome Arboretum and is excited about the opportunity to partner with regional tribal leaders and Western Washington University to make it a reality,” Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said.
The plan is for the longhouse to be built on a parcel of land currently owned by the city in Sehome Arboretum across from Sehome High School.
“The Sehome Arboretum will be a beautiful location for such an important and long overdue cultural center honoring the region's tribes, whose land the Western Washington University campus and city of Bellingham occupy,” Fleetwood said.
Randhawa said this location is adjacent to campus but will also allow public access and collaborative programming, not only with the university but with Sehome High School as well.
There was no concrete estimate mentioned at the meeting for when the longhouse will be completed, as the process has suffered many setbacks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next step before construction begins will be finalizing the process of getting the land from the city.
Laurel Ballew, Western’s executive director of American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations Relations & Tribal Liaison to the President, has been involved with the project since 2019 when she took her position.
“I envisioned it to be a five to 10 year project,” Ballew said. “Now it's becoming a reality, it’s really exciting.”
Ballew said the longhouse has been spoken about for decades and was part of Western’s Native American Student Union’s list of requests made in 2016. The longhouse is the final request to be fulfilled.
As both an alumni and employee of Western, Ballew said she is proud to see this as a reality.
She said she walked around the area where the longhouse is planned to be built, searching for anything that might make it unsuitable. She instead felt overwhelmed by a sense that this was the right place.
“I was close to tears because I could hear those voices saying, ‘finally, finally we can bring our students home,’” Ballew said.
She said it's important for all students of color, not just native students, to have a place where they feel grounded and included.
“To me, this really puts actions behind those words of land acknowledgement, that Western is true to their strategic plan of social justice,” she said.
Ben Larson (he/him) is a reporter on the city news beat for The Front this quarter. He is a visual journalism major and when he isn't reporting he enjoys the outdoors and horror movies. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.