The elders, who came to MSU from all seven Montana tribes, learned of the plans for the 11,000 sq. ft. center at the inaugural Council of Elders meeting, convened by MSU President Geoff Gamble and Dr. Henrietta Mann, an Indian scholar and special assistant to the president.
"When I came here as president, I had a vision. I had hopes of doing something significant (for Indian education)," Gamble told the group of more than a dozen Indian elders that met on campus for nearly two days this week. "You are helping me realize that dream. There are some good things happening here, but we have a journey ahead of us. We have some work to do, but we have already taken the first steps of that journey."
Some of that work will be to raise more than $5 million in private funds to build the proposed Indian student center, which has been championed by Dennis Sun Rhodes, an MSU graduate in architecture and now a renowned Indian architect based in Minneapolis, in cooperation with Jim Dolan, noted Bozeman artist and Sun Rhodes' former college roommate. Sun Rhodes is a member of the Northern Arapahoe Tribe from Wyoming's Wind River Reservation.
Walter Fleming, director of MSU's Center for Native American Studies, said Sun Rhodes has proposed a center that would closely resemble his design for the American Indian Resource Center built several years ago at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. The design would be altered to reflect Northern Plains Indian culture. For instance, the oval great hall in the original design would be transformed into a circle to reflect the tepees used by Montana tribes and the importance of the sphere in local tribes. The center would have meeting rooms, a kitchen, hall and classrooms. It would not house faculty of MSU's Native American Studies Center.
The plan also calls for a sculpture garden. Dolan would donate a piece of his artwork to establish the space.
Gamble wanted to know whether the elders agreed with the plan, and if they thought it was a good idea, whether they had suggestions about cultural aspects of the proposed building.
Tommy Thompson of Heart Butte, a representative of the Blackfeet, called the plans "a worthy endeavor. It would be marvelous." Thompson, whose own background is in education, suggested that there be space in the building for Indian spiritual ceremonies "for we are a spiritual people."
Russell Stands Over Bull from Pryor, a Crow, called the plan "exciting. It goes right along with our vision ... that the university is committed to Indian students. They would have not just a room where there is space, but a special space."
Louis Adams of Arlee, a member of the Salish tribe, encouraged planners to incorporate the Indian history of the Gallatin Valley into the plans. "This valley was used by all tribes in the area," he said.
Gamble said while plans are preliminary, possible sites for the proposed building include an area to the north of Wilson Hall or another near Hamilton Hall. He said that current estimates for costs of the building are $5 million, although he suspects that the actual costs at the time of construction will be more. Gamble said he and Mann would be on the team that will raise private donations for the building.
Lodges of another type were also discussed during the meeting. The elders said they believed there were many positive things occurring in Indian education on the MSU campus, despite a recent defacing of the MSU Indian Club tepee outside Wilson Hall.
"This incident can be turned into something positive," said Stands Over Bull, who urged the members of MSU's Indian Club to perform some sort of community service in response. "Volunteer at the senior center, raise money for families of prisoners. You guys are leaders. You represent the student body. You cannot afford to have a chip on your shoulder."
Minerva Allen of Malta, a member of the Assiniboine tribe from Fort Belknap, commended MSU for the formation of the Council of Elders as well as many of the plans the university has for Indian education.
"I think you will be setting precedent for other colleges," Allen said. "They will come to you to learn about some of the things that you are doing now. This will get back to Indian Country and they will send their students to you. This will bloom and grow so that kids from our communities will want to come and put more meaning into their studies."
Gamble said he, too, believed the council was worthwhile.
"Your combined voices provide a viewpoint that we couldn't get any other way," he said.
Contact: Walter Fleming (406) 994-3881