Plans for Coast Salish longhouse in popular Bellingham park near WWU moving forward

A Coast Salish-style longhouse at Western Washington University is moving closer to reality as construction starts and the Bellingham City Council considers a long-term lease for land in the Sehome Hill Arboretum.

City Council members got an update on the project March 25, and a public hearing on the 75-year lease is planned for their next meeting, at 7 p.m. April 8. An invitation-only “ground-turning and blessing” ceremony is scheduled for April 11.

Called the House of Healing, the idea for the center grew out of a 2016 request from Indigenous students at WWU for a type of cultural center on campus and a meeting place for the Native American Student Union.

“The core purpose, and you’ll see that in the lease agreement, is for tribal activities, education, ceremonies,” Parks and Recreation Department Director Nicole Oliver told the City Council in a March 25 committee meeting. “It’s going to be the office of the Tribal Liaison at Western. It will have student areas as well as a central area for meetings and ceremonies, classes and the like.”

“This is a very unique situation where the city’s contribution is the property as well as the funding from transportation to help with those improvements at the park that enabled the building to be built on that site adjacent to the Western campus,” Oliver said.

Oliver told the council that there have been “robust” discussions with the Sehome Hill Board of Governors because of the park’s “sacred” status in the community.

Location for the House of Healing is a 2-acre meadow on 25th Street near Bill McDonald Parkway. It’s near the current parking area for the arboretum, which is a 175.5-acre park that features miles of wooded hiking trails, a tunnel through rock and an observation tower.

Bellingham is planning to make street and pedestrian improvements costing about $600,000 and rebuild a nearby trail. The lease for the site is $1 annually for 75 years.

Plans for the longhouse moved forward when it caught the attention of state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, an Alaska Native. It received $4.5 million from the state.

Another $500,000 in donations came from the Mt. Baker Foundation, WECU, Whatcom County, the Jamestown S’Klallam, Muckleshoot, Swinomish, Stillaguamish, Nooksack and others. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen secured $450,000 in federal funding for additional educational programs, equipment and furnishings.