New NW Native Cultural Center lands a site at Seattle Center

The Northwest Native Cultural Center is looking to build a two-story facility northeast of the International Fountain. City officials have pledged their non-financial support while the group seeks to raise $8 million for the project.

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The floor plan for the first floor of the proposed Northwest Native Cultural Center

The Northwest Native Cultural Center is looking to build a two-story facility northeast of the International Fountain. City officials have pledged their non-financial support while the group seeks to raise $8 million for the project.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the number of urban Indians living in the Seattle area whose tribes are based elsewhere.

Supporters of a new Northwest Native Cultural Center at the Seattle Center are moving ahead with plans for an $8 million, two-story building north of the International Fountain — and they have the blessing of city administrators. The facility would take five to seven years to build and would be sited between the fountain and the Pacific Northwest Ballet facility and McCaw Hall.

Fundraising for the cultural center has not begun, but will soon because supporters just received a written pledge of support from Robert Nellams, director of the Seattle Center, said Roger Fernandes, the cultural center supporters' leader. He estimated it would take three to four years to raise the money needed for the project.

City Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw, chair of the Parks & Seattle Center Committee, said she hadn't heard of the proposal. After hearing the details she called the plan a "good thing to explore," saying "we have a real opportunity to promote our Native culture." But she said the city had not committed to providing the space if the money is not raised.

The idea for a Native cultural center or museum came up last year, when city officials were reviewing plans for a new Dale Chihuly glass museum near the base of the Space Needle. Though the Chihuly proposal was chosen by the city, Mayor Mike McGinn said the city would try to accommodate a Northwest Native Cultural Center somewhere on the Seattle Center grounds.

Jones & Jones architects are designing the building, which will contain 14,830 square feet over two stories plus a basement. The facility will include a first-floor Coast Salish longhouse area with exhibits, a gift shop, gallery space, classroom, multipurpose room, and a café with Native foods, which supporters describe as the first of its kind. The second floor will include classroom, office, and meeting space, and the basement will be used as workspace. The Native supporters wanted the building to be built around existing trees and near the fountain because of the significance of water in Native American cultures, Fernandes said.

While the facility won't be built in time for the 2012 celebration of the Seattle Center's 50th anniversary, supporters hope to hold events honoring Native peoples during the broader festivities, Fernandes said. Between now and completion of the cultural center, the group hopes to also provide Native art markets and cultural events and celebrations such as powwows.

Fernandes, a Native artist and storyteller, said the focus of the cultural center will be on the native tribes of the Puget Sound, and he pointed out that the Seattle Center is explicitly acknowledging “the original inhabitants of this land.” The Seattle Center is built on Duwamish tribal land, and according to social protocol of Native Americans, the Duwamish people will be the hosts of the Northwest Native Cultural Center. But all tribes will be invited to participate in the center, Fernandes said.

The cultural center also will hold celebrations and events to represent tribes from other parts of the country. In Seattle alone, there are 8,000 to 10,000 urban Indians from tribes elsewhere, Fernandes said, adding that it's possible individual tribes could be given rotating space at the center to highlight their culture over the period of one month. There is a small area planned in the center in order to accommodate this.

The Native center also is considering assembling a cultural advisory committee, which would include a cross-section of people from different tribes, so that tribes could express their social protocols and to avoid misunderstandings among tribes of the importance of each tribe to the center, Fernandes said. The center has received letters of support from the Duwamish Tribe and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, a Seattle-based group that supports Puget Sound-area tribes.

Fernandes said the center would show that Native culture “is living, breathing, active … people can see it, be with it." In the United States, he said, Indians are often thought of or referred to in the past tense, and Indians are removed from the modern life of Americans. Cultural survival is very important to Native Americans, and the center would allow Seattleites and tourists to be with Native Americans — not just to look at their artifacts but to interact with the people. The Center is hoping to provide an educational celebration of the cultural significance of Native Americans, he added.

It's unclear whether the proposal will run into any opposition, the way the Chihuly plan first did more than a year ago. Some critics complained that the glass museum violated the Seattle Center's Century 21 Master Plan, as would the proposed Native center. That plan, completed in 2008 when chances for a levy to fund improvements at the Center looked better, called for more open space at the Center. But since that time, nonprofit groups based at the Center have struggled to pay rent, Mayor McGinn has apparently turned thumbs-down on a special levy, and city budget problems have added pressure for the Seattle Center to raise more revenue. The Chihuly museum's backers have estimated that facility will generate $10 million in lease revenue for the city over 20 years. Economic pressures were cited by the City Council when it approved the Chihuly plan.

The original plan for the Native cultural center called for it to be free to the public. But Fernandes now says the group might need to charge admission to make the center financially sustainable. The city has no plans to contribute money to the Native center, Bagshaw said.

Seattle Center director Nellams did not return calls for comment. In his letter pledging support for the Northwest Native Cultural Center, he said, "This truly has the potential to be a huge win-win for the Native American community, Seattle Center and the public at large. With that I am committed to working with you to make this historic vision come true, and I look forward to building a long-term partnership."

His letter, dated June 6, made no firm commitment, however, to provide the land.


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