BOZEMAN — Montana State University will launch the American Indian Hall building project with events set for Friday, March 29, at the building’s location on the lawn south of Hannon Hall.
Walter Fleming, head of the MSU Department of Native American Studies, said that, in keeping with Native American values and the sacredness of the Earth, the events celebrating the beginning of the American Indian Hall project have been labeled a “ground blessing” rather than a ground breaking. The ceremony is open to the public and will begin the university’s 44th annual American Indian Council Powwow weekend.
“The importance of holding ceremonies on the site of the American Indian Hall is more than symbolic,” Fleming said. “It represents our thanksgiving to the Earth for her gifts, and we ask forgiveness for harming her as we build. Also, with the ground blessing ceremony, we ask for divine protection for all who walk into this space.”
A formal ground blessing ceremony is set for 3 p.m. Henrietta Mann, MSU professor emeritus of Native American studies and Cheyenne prayer woman, will offer a prayer. Tony Incashola, Salish spiritual leader and a member of the MSU Council of Elders, will lead a traditional smudging ceremony in which sage is burned to purify and cleanse an area. A round dance will follow.
MSU officials announced late last year that funds had been secured for the university’s American Indian Hall, a building that will serve as a home to MSU’s Native American community as well as a bridge between American Indian culture and other cultures on campus.
First proposed in 2005 by architect Dennis Sun Rhodes, an MSU graduate and enrolled member of the Northern Arapahoe Tribe, MSU secured the majority of the funding for the building in October with a pledge of $12 million from the Kendeda Fund. In announcing the pledge at Indigenous Peoples Day, MSU President Waded Cruzado called the building “a promise kept and a dream fulfilled.” Several other pledges followed, including an ASMSU pledge for $1 million. In December, Jim and Chris Scott of Billings and the Terry and Patt Payne family of Missoula each gave $1 million respectively to complete the $20 million campaign.
The new 25,000-square-foot facility is planned to open in 2021. It will house the Department of Native American Studies offices, classrooms for use by all students and an auditorium for lectures. Also planned are rooms for tutoring, counseling and advising. Sun Rhodes and his Great Horse Group of St. Paul, Minnesota, will serve as a consultant on the project, working with ThinkOne architects of Bozeman and TSP architects in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Currently the American Indian Student Center is located in a heavily used 1,100-square-foot room in the basement of Wilson Hall, the same place it has been since Wilson Hall opened in 1974 and when there were fewer than 25 students who identified as American Indian. This fall, 776 American Indian students were enrolled at MSU. The university expects to reach an enrollment of more than 1,000 American Indian students by fall of 2020.
“We know that one key to the retention of native students on a campus like ours is if they can develop a sense of home in this new environment,” Fleming said. “The American Indian Hall will be not just a home away from home, but something of a homecoming, as the Gallatin Valley has always been a part of tribal homelands.”