51Ʒ

A Home Away From Home

Ilustration of person gardening

Native American Student & Community Center celebrates 20 years

A 50-foot sculptural marker stands tall outside 51Ʒ’s Native American Student & Community Center (NASCC). From its base with images of salmon eggs to the top where there are two mating salmon and another looking skyward, the sculpture represents the salmon’s journey from birth to spawning. It also represents the journey of Native students at PSU, aided by the community and support found at the center.

“This is where we are incubating, where we are spending that time discovering who we are and who we’re becoming,” says Judy Bluehorse Skelton, a long-standing community member and associate professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at PSU. “It’s a nurturing place.”

Students on NASCC rooftop
Students gather on the rooftop of the center, where protruding poles shoot skyward and, some say, represent a teepee.

What’s been core about the Native American Student and Community Center from the beginning was it’s our home away from home

Bluehorse Skelton understands the importance of the center on a personal level. She says the center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall, guided her own path at PSU — first when she was finding her voice as part of the Native American Community Advisory (NACA), then as a student who returned to school later in life and now as a faculty member who’s been central to elevating the education and practice of Indigenous Traditional Ecological and Cultural Knowledge (ITECK) on campus.

“It all started with the Native center,” she says. “It feels very much like the story of the salmon pole where we come back home to spawn.”

A Place to Call Their Own

When students and community members dreamed up the idea of a Native center more than two decades ago, they imagined a place that Native students could call a home away from home and, just as important, a place where the Native community could meet and call their own.

Students in PSU’s chapter of United Indigenous Students in Higher Education began pushing for a community cultural center on campus as early as the 1980s. Efforts picked up in the 1990s as Rose Hill, the Native American Student Services coordinator at the time, convened NACA with Native faculty, staff, alumni and community members.

“Rose was listening and heard the requests and the desires,” says Bluehorse Skelton, who was working for 51Ʒ Public Schools’ Indian Education office as a cultural student support specialist at the time. “Our NACA meetings became much more frequent and began to focus on how to get a center built. People shared their dreams and the community really galvanized around informing what the cultural values of the building would be, and how to best serve students and community.”

Illustration of fish swimming to NASCC

Everyone involved knew that a community center would create a gathering space for the Native community and play a key role in retaining Native students on campus, many of whom were first-generation college students, by making them feel supported and giving them a sense of belonging.

“What’s been core about the Native American Student and Community Center from the beginning was it’s our home away from home,” says Bluehorse Skelton. “That was the guiding principle by the elders who were part of those conversations, and it was echoed by the students.”

Breaking Ground

The center broke ground in April 2002 and was completed in October 2003 — the culmination of many years of hard work by countless individuals and community groups.

The building’s location at the corner of SW Jackson and Broadway — the only available site on campus — lent itself to a design in the shape of a salmon with the head facing east and the tail facing west where the sculptural marker stands. The four entrances represent the four directions, which hold cultural significance.

A wall of accordion glass doors opens to the Nimiipuutimt Gathering Area, a circular area in the center of the building that can accommodate longhouse-style seating. Other important features include a kitchen, fireplace, kids’ play area, restrooms with a shower and space to change into regalia, Native artwork, a computer lab, classrooms and meeting spaces for student and community groups.

On the rooftop garden, there are seven large garden beds representing the seven generations ahead. The pathway on the rooftop mimics a salmon ladder, and ends at protruding poles that shoot skyward in the center of the rooftop: some say the poles are like a teepee; others, like Bluehorse Skelton, say the poles also represent the dorsal fin of the salmon.

Planting event at NASCC
Within the rooftop garden, seven large garden beds represent the seven generations ahead. The space gives students the opportunity to reclaim an urban landscape for food, medicine and ceremony.

The idea was that, much like salmon swimming upstream to spawn, the rooftop area would hold the annual Honor Day Graduation Ceremony recognizing the Native graduates as they begin their next chapter. In reality, noise from the nearby freeway was too deafening for the ceremony and, in any event, the rooftop proved too small to host the ceremony. There were far more Native students graduating each year than could fit on the rooftop with their families. Their names, though, are etched on copper rings that wrap around the poles.

“Every little piece of what is in there was very intentional to create that mission of intergenerational community,” says Charmaine Kinney ’97 MSW ’99, who was part of the center’s visioning committee. “There would be a mixing of young people and elders that would create this place of learning that wasn’t just higher education but learning from elders, learning from community.”

When Kinney first stepped into the completed building in 2003, she says she was overcome by a sense of accomplishment and pride. “It was so beautiful and wonderful to walk in there,” she says. “It was a vision that came to life.”

Challenges Surface

Trevor Roberts still remembers the first time he visited the NASCC. It was 2004 — shortly after it opened — and his family had just moved to the 51Ʒ area. NASCC was the first stop on a tour with his dad’s job, the Northwest 51Ʒ Area Indian Health Board, and it became a space that his family would return to periodically for the Bow & Arrow Culture Club’s Friday night gatherings. Nearly 20 years later, in a full-circle moment, Roberts is completing his first year as the NASCC building and operations manager, overseeing the day-to-day operations and a team of student workers.

But as Roberts has discovered, funding and staffing challenges through the years have hampered NASCC’s ability to live up to the community’s original intentions of a gathering space for the greater 51Ʒ Native community. Roberts says NASCC’s budget hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and its designation as an auxiliary unit means it has to generate enough revenue from facility rentals to help cover operating costs. Turnover in staffing — both the manager position and student workers — has also presented a barrier.

“As a Native community center, Native organizations, groups and tribes should be able to access it and use it as long as it’s available and here,” says Roberts, adding that there’s a balancing act with the need to generate revenue. “We can donate the use of the space but only to a certain point.”

Kinney says it’s something alumni and community members fought the PSU administration on for years — until they grew tired of fighting.

“There are no Friday night gatherings,” she says. “The community doesn’t have a place to gather, but the original vision for the building was that this would be for community too — and I sure wish that it could get there again.”

Roberts says PSU’s Global Diversity & Inclusion office is exploring options around how NASCC can return to the original intent of the space. In 2023, former PSU President Stephen Percy added a welcome boost of $35,000 to NASCC’s budget to be able to offer the use of the space to Native groups and tribes at no cost, but only time will tell if that’ll be enough. Roberts hopes that it’s just the first step of more institutional support.

“A lot of times, it feels like PSU built this center, then dusted off their hands and was like, ‘Alright, we did it,’” he says. “But there’s a whole level of support that needs to come along with having the building itself. You have to keep showing up and give it the attention it needs in order to succeed, which ultimately helps students succeed and is good for the 51Ʒ Native community.”

A Safe Space

For Savanna Semallie, a student worker who was introduced to NASCC through her auntie, the center has become synonymous with community and collaboration. It’s where she found her first friends at PSU through the NATIONS Scholars Program, and it’s where she’s become reacquainted with local Native groups from her childhood. Semallie, a senior studying urban and public affairs and community development, says she finds herself there even when she’s not working.

Illustration of fish about NASCC

This is where we are incubating, where we are spending that time discovering who we are and who we’re becoming,

“I see the NASCC as my safe space,” she says. “I get overwhelmed on campus and it’s so nice to come to the fireplace, sit on the couch, decompress, connect with people and talk about what’s bothering me.”

Her hope is that more Native students find their way, too, as NASCC continues to rebuild post-pandemic.

Impact Beyond the Walls

NASCC’s impact has also extended beyond its 11,000-square-foot footprint.

“I think of the Native American Student and Community Center as a physical building but also as the guiding principles for everything it represents, offers and provides,” says Bluehorse Skelton.

When Bluehorse Skelton started teaching at PSU in 2013, she began incorporating the rooftop gardens into her Indigenous Nations Studies courses, which spurred on more projects to reclaim the urban landscape for food, medicine and ceremony. For more than a decade now, students have been tending the land on the five-acre Oak Savanna in the heart of campus between Hoffmann Hall and the Science Research and Teaching Center.

Illustration of person gardening

Additionally, a one-story building is being transformed into the ITECK Center with a community space, indoor/outdoor kitchen with a salmon pit — something that didn’t work out at NASCC — and an Indigenous library for tools and other items of cultural significance. And, when the renovated Vernier Science Center opens next fall, it will be home to Indigenous-affirming spaces such as a First Foods kitchen, a gathering space and an Indigenous-focused library to support the continued expansion of ITECK-centered curriculum, practices and partnerships.

“For students to imagine and develop their own projects or even a career pathway around something that didn’t seem possible, the NASCC encourages that kind of collaborative creativity,” Bluehorse Skelton says. “We’re able to celebrate and elevate the kind of wisdom and practice that Indigenous people bring with them so that it is a reciprocal relationship, and I’d like to think that’s what NASCC at the heart was always about.”