Recognizing “Place” through the Indigenous Walking Tour

As we mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we continue to remember the stories of historical disenfranchisements as well as the resilience of the Native American people who first inhabited the lands of the University of Washington.

During UW Law’s recent Orientation Week, four Indigenous Walking Tours were offered to faculty, staff and students, following two offered in the past academic year. The Indigenous Walking Tour emphasizes “Place,” a concept rooted in storytelling about the Indigenous knowledge systems tied into the natural landscape all around the UW campus.

The in-person tours are hosted by Owen L. Oliver, a member of the Chinook people of the Lower Columbia River and the Isleta of the Southwest Pueblos who completed his undergraduate studies in American Indian Studies and political science at the University of Washington in 2021. Oliver’s father, professor emeritus Martin E. Oliver, taught American Indian Studies at UW for 30 years. His multi-medium artwork, Raven’s Journey, hangs in the Husky Union Building (HUB), which was renovated in 2012 with a call to Native artists to submit art proposals that would tie the modern space with the traditions of the original caretakers.

The Indigenous Walking Tour came to UW Law through the advocacy of Native American students. “It all started with the Native American Law Student Association (NALSA) in Fall 2021,” remembers Kayla Fencl, Assistant Director of Student Life. “The group approached me asking if we could display the stops on the Indigenous Walking Tour in the [William H. Gates Hall] Galleria so I worked with them to print out and hang the tour down the hallway.”

From there, NALSA took information about the tour to Professor Bill Covington, then Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), and the law school arranged to schedule tours as part of DEI programming.

“Dawn Bell has been heavily involved with scheduling them for students and staff,” Fencl said, “and now we have a great relationship with the tour creator, Owen Oliver, and bring him in as much as possible to take community members on the tour.”

Indeed, the relationship between UW Law and the Indigenous Walking Tour continues to deepen. One of the Orientation walking tours included over 20 UW Law community members, accompanied by Oliver, who now lives in Southern California but traveled to Seattle to host the multiple excursions. Each tour participant received a booklet, also available online or at the University Book Store. The content focuses on Indigenous education and learning; each tour stop description includes historical and community context.

Of seven campus stops on the tour, one is directly adjacent to the law school, namely a work of public art outside the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture titled The Guest from the Great River. In the spring, blue camas flowers dot the natural area between the law school and the Burke Museum. Oliver relates an old story about members of a tribe who mistook the camas flowers as bodies of water from a distance. Upon arrival at closer range, they discovered fields of blue flowers dotting the landscape.

The Indigenous Walking Tour begins right at The Guest from the Great River, 10 canoe paddles (3-D printed models cast in bronze), followed by a matriarch skipper paddle at the stern. Owen invites visitors to visualize a canoe coming out of the Columbia River, also known as “the Great River,” one of the largest in North America, discharging into the Pacific Ocean. The Guest from the Great River serves as a welcome onto campus, “and spatially pushes you into the Burke’s collections” where there are artifacts and treasures of Native artists’ work. The Burke includes a portrait of Suquamish and Duwamish Chief Si’ahl, the namesake of Seattle.

The second stop on the Indigenous Walking Tour is of the Intellectual House. Modeled after a Coast Salish traditional longhouse, the Intellectual House has hosted many UW Law events and gatherings, including our Diversity Week reception and numerous panels.

In an attempt to force assimilation in 1870, four years after Chief Si'ahl's death, the U.S. government destroyed his home, known as "Old Man House," the largest longhouse on Coast Salish lands. 145 years later, the Intellectual House opened at UW in 2015.

“It took years upon years to reach agreement and fights upon fights to reserve a space for Native people to be on campus,” writes Oliver in the walking tour booklet. “With that in mind, throughout the decades of having the Intellectual House as a dream, each and every piece was thoughtfully examined and decided upon amongst the tribal community and Elder consultant teams. On the UW campus, I challenge you to find a building with the same intentions that the Intellectual House provides.”

Dawn Bell, who has scheduled the last six Indigenous Walking Tours for the law school through her work with the DEI office and the office of Student Life, hopes that new and returning students will find their place in the community of UW Law. In particular, the first two campus stops on the tour point toward the UW Law values of embracing diversity, community and our shared identity as advocates for justice.

The symbolism of the canoes as a connection to water, and longhouses as a gathering place where stories and conversations can begin in our community, are fitting as UW Law celebrates the gathering of faculty, students, staff and alumni on campus with a new academic year.

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