May 13 2010

UM Honors its Heritage in Opening The Payne Family Native American Center

In The University of Montana’s earliest days at the end of the nineteenth century, when faculty members barely outnumbered buildings, Salish Indian families still pitched tepees and camped on the grassy flat that would later become the Oval. More than one hundred and fifteen years later, UM has become the first university in the United States to design and build a home specifically for Native American Studies academic programs and related services.

Dedication of The Payne Family Native American Center on May 13, 2010, fittingly began with a “Coming Home Walk,” also called a “Welcome Walk,” from the Adams Center on the south side of campus up to the Oval. Salish children led the walk, followed by Salish tribal elders and Native Americans from each of Montana’s twelve tribes and seven reservations. UM officials and dignitaries from across the state, including UM president, George Dennison, joined them.

The story of the return of the Salish to the Oval began in 2004, when discussions began among Native American Studies faculty, university administrators, and the UM Foundation on the best way to design and build a suitable home for the University’s growing number of Native American education, support, and outreach programs. Space constraints had limited any further growth at the Native American Studies department offices in a small house alongside Arthur Avenue on the southern edge of campus. The number of Native American students from Montana and beyond significantly increased each year and growing numbers of non-Native American students, some 2,000 in 2006, enrolled in Native American Studies courses.

The story of the center’s final completion is, in the words of College of Arts and Sciences Dean Chris Comer, “Very simply, a story of good people rallying to support a good idea.”

Native American leaders and educators throughout Montana helped conceptualize and plan the building. Flanked on either side by classrooms and offices, the center’s main rotunda is a twelve-sided dodecagon symbolizing the twelve tribes of Montana. Natural daylight reaches all but one room of the center. The rotunda’s main gathering space, named in memory of Native American Studies professor and chair Bonnie HeavyRunner, offers soaring windows and views across campus. Additional daylight pours through skylights at the rotunda’s apex. Intended to represent the iconic lodge of the native Great Plains cultures, the building’s finished form acknowledges the long tradition of Native American tribes to adapt to new materials and technologies.

Philanthropy saw the building through to completion. Individual donors, led by the Terry and Patt Payne family, and the UM Foundation’s “Invest in Discovery” campaign, which made the new center a top priority, allowed the planners’ vision to become a reality. The building’s 19,900 square feet will provide what all who took part in its planning envisioned: An intellectual and social gathering place for all those interested in learning about Native American history, culture, issues, and perspectives. When available, space in the building will also be used for other campus programming and events.

The words of longtime Montana educator and Blackfeet tribal leader Earl J. Barlow perhaps say it best. Set in concrete on a wall near the eastern entrance of The Payne Family Native American Center, they read: “When wisdom is shared, knowledge exchanged, and virtue glorified, a Lodge becomes a well-spring of learning for all who enter.”