Tulalip cultural center helps maintain tribe's traditions

Aug 7, 2011

Native Americans have struggled to hang onto their cultures for decades. On August 20th, a local tribe will have a new resource to help.

The Tulalips are opening a cultural center on their reservation. It not only shares history the way the tribe sees it, but bridges the past with modern-day life.

A big part of Tulalip culture is to revere tribal elders, like 83-year-old Wayne Williams. People call him a walking encyclopedia because the roots of his knowledge run deep. 

"I’m still in the same house my grandparents built in 1922," he says. "My grandfather felt very strongly we should remember our past and tried to preserve it."

Discovering new ways to pass on culture

He says his grandfather was an avid collector of tribal artifacts and a skilled communicator. He learned one very helpful way to share his thoughts after his cousin told him about some pretty revolutionary concepts priests were teaching at a mission school on the reservation:

"He said, the white man, he can make marks on a piece of paper, and he can send that paper far away," said Williams.  "Another white man can look at that paper and he can look at those marks and he knows what that first man is thinking." 

Williams' grandfather went on to become a highly respected chief who wrote books and carved several story poles to spread the culture. He also carved canoes. 

Williams donated two of his grandfather's canoes and more than a hundred other pieces to the Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve on the Tulalip Reservation.

A modern museum with traditional ties

Tessa Campbell, assistant curator of the museum and a tribal member, says the building's design reflects the tribe's culture:

"The building’s outside is made from cedar, which was highly valuable," she says. "It was considered gold to Tulalip people. They would make their longhouses, canoes, even clothing because it was impervious to rain. Everything was made form cedar." 

The building's details show the balance of traditional and new, including: 

  • Heavy cedar entry doors with the image of men in cedar hats, in a cedar canoe, on a river brimming with salmon that was carved by a tribal member.
  • The pattern in the tile floor is a GIS mapping of the Snohomish River.
  • Tulalip artists carved two "welcome figures" at the entrance to the exhibition space.
  • Window art throughout the center was designed by a tribal member. 

This history isn't from books

"What people will see when they come here, the exhibition theme is going to be is a story about the Tulalip people, by the Tulalip people for the Tulalip people," says Henry Gobin, museum director and a tribal elder. 

The polished, 6,000 square foot gallery includes several sections of historic artifacts and a modern section with videos describing “Tulalip today.”

Visitors can see additional artifacts and murals of the tribe's traditional lands in the expansive main hall or listen to audio of storytellers in a replicated longhouse

He says some traditions have changed a lot throughout the years, especially since the tribe put in a casino and business park. Take fishing, for instance:

"The girls here are still very capable of making fishing nets out of nettles," he says. "But that redefinition, you go from sea going canoes to powered boats to nylon fishnets. The concept of fishing and providing is still there, it’s just taken on a different medium and process."

Looking to the next generation

He says the tribe has also taken a new approach to education that emphasizes identity. That's where the cultural center comes in. 

Tribal members say it's been a dream for decades, but they only recently built up the funds to make it real.

Tessa Campbell says it's already expanded her understanding of her tribe:

"I grew up off reservation and I’m learning so much about Tulalip culture. I’m learning the Lushootseed language, which I was never exposed to. I’m learning ethnobotany. For me, it’s been a spiritual awakening."

These types of realizations are exactly why tribal members say they wanted the center. That way, future generations will never forget what it means to be Tulalip.

Visiting the cultural center

Opening Dates: August 19, 2011 for tribal members and spouses. August 20, 2011 for general public
Location: 6410 23rd Avenue NE, Tulalip, WA 98271
Hours: Tues - Fri 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sat - Sun 12 p.m. - 5 p.m.
$10 for adults (18 years & older
$7 for seniors (50 years & older)
$6 for students (6 to 17 years)
$6 for military and veterans
Free for children (5 years and younger)
$25 for families
Free for Tulalip tribal members

Or, get free entrance for a year by becoming a cultural center member. Rates start at $50

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.