A new “Home” for Native students at Montana State University’s American Indian Hall
By Clara Caufield,
Native Sun News Today Editor
BOZEMAN, Mont. – A tribal celebration attended by about 1,000 was held on the campus of Montana State University (MSU) Bozeman to mark the opening of a long-anticipated American Indian Hall, a 20 million dollar project in the making since 2004. A procession to the building was led by a Native American veteran honor guard carrying the American flag followed by flag bearers for the state and Montana’s 12 tribal nations, fancy dancers, jingle dress dancers, traditional dancers, representatives from Montana’s eight reservations and other tribes in the region, alumni, friends, donors and friends of MSU’s Indian community.
The 31,000 sf building will house several programs serving Native student population, this year at an all-time high enrollment of 811, said Walter Fleming, Ph.D., Native American Studies (NAS) Department Head. That will include three academic classrooms; student support services; the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, serving underrepresented communities and the Native American studies offices. It also includes a large commons area for special events, priority use for Native students and a kitchen.
Fleming, a driving force behind the project is a Kickapoo raised at Northern Cheyenne and has taught Native American Studies at MSU for 42 years, department head for the last 20. He credits several key people who collaborated on the project since the 2004 including Wayne Stein, Dennis Sun Rhodes, Northern Arapaho, Henrietta Mann, Southern Cheyenne, Major Robinson, Northern Cheyenne, former MSU President Gamble and current MSU President Waded Cruzada.
MSU President Cruzado called it the “finest building of its type in America and the world. Today we make history at Montana State University,” she said. “The American Indian Hall is promise kept and a dream fulfilled.”
Fleming noted that the building sits on the traditional lands of many Tribes. “We recognize this building as a “home” where Native students will feel welcome and comfortable,” he said.
Henrietta Mann, a nationally recognized tribal elder, Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and MSU professor emeritus who helped build MSU’s reputation nationally in Native American education when she became the first Endowed Katz Family Chair in Native American Studies also spoke. Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, remarked about the importance of education for Native American issues nationwide, saying that the American Indian Hall holds out its hand to the Native American people of this state and this country and says “come.’”
Other speakers included U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of Michigan’s Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwa) and Casey Lozar, chairman of the Montana University System Board of Regents, vice president of the Helena Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, Salish-Kootenai Tribe, who welcomed the crowed in his tribal language and praised the building as a place that will prepare American Indian people for the future careers. Norris Blossom, president of the Associated Students of MSU, spoke on behalf of the MSU student body, who contributed 2 million to the project.
The idea for the Hall was sparked in 2004 when MSU architecture graduate Dennis Sun Rhodes, Northern Arapaho Tribe then was designing tribal buildings throughout the country, and his college friend Jim Dolan, a Bozeman sculptor, called for a meeting at MSU. The two brought in drawing ab American Indian student center that Sun Rhodes had just designed at Bemidji State University, Minnesota as an example. Sun Rhodes wanted to “give-back” to MSU.
“They asked a simple question,” Gamble said. “Would that be possible at Montana State?” Gamble said he and Mann looked at each other and emphatically answered “Yes!
The site for the building on the eastern edge of Centennial Mall was selected in 2005. Fundraising proved difficult, however after eight years $20 million was secured for the building, whose cost had increased throughout the years due inflation and rising construction costs.
In 2017 a prayer ceremony was conducted on the site by Native students and Native staff/faculty. MSU received a major portion of funding to build the American Indian Hall in 2018 when the Kendeda Fund committed $12 million as the lead gift for the $20 million building. Additional donors included the Associated Students of MSU, the Terry and Patt Payne family of Missoula, and Jim and Chris Scott of Billings. The project was launched in 2019 with a traditional ground blessing ceremony on the site.
Sun Rhodes, who served as a consultant on the project, explained the distinctive feather roof of American Indian Hall recognizing the bald eagle. Also native to the valley, eagles hold a spiritual place in tribal cultures. “They are the being that can fly the highest, able to communicate with the creator,” he noted.
Georgeline Morsette, an MSU senior majoring in art education, Assiniboine Cree tribe, representing the current American Indian Council, said her career at MSU began when her parents enrolled at MSU when she was 3-weeks old. They frequented the same cramped American Indian Club room that she did when she arrived at MSU.
“Now MSU Indian students have a place where we can all meet at one time,” Morsette said. She also acknowledged fellow Native American and Native Alaskan students enrolled at MSU who, she said, often cope with loneliness and cultural uncertainty when they arrive at the university.“ I know our ancestors would be proud of us,” Morsette said. “We are doing it!”
Following the grand opening ceremonies, MSU Native American students helped conduct tours of the artistic building designed by ThinkOne Architecture. The interior includes Native American art, design and furnishings crafted from trees removed from the site to make room for the building. Included in the American Indian Hall is a special drum room that houses the MSU Bobcat Singers pow wow drum and is engineered to allow for smudging. Robinson said “The walls of the drum room are constructed from reclaimed wood from the Grandfather tree removed to allow for the building. In addition, river rock was donated from all the reservations in Montana and embedded in a circular pattern on the floor so Native students had a physical reminder and connection to their homelands.”
The building is surrounded by gardens and arbors of indigenous plants selected in cooperation with tribal ethnobotanists and planted by MSU Native American staff and students. Heated and cooled by 24 geothermal wells, the building was recently designated a LEED Platinum Level 4, a rating of its energy efficiency. It is the only building with that rating in Montana.
Contact Clara Caufield at email@example.com.
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