Montana State University architecture graduate Dennis Sun Rhodes is credited with the feather roof design for the American Indian Hall. (Provided by MSU)
Montana State University will hold a grand opening Saturday for its new $20 million American Indian Hall, with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland among the dignitaries who plan to be in attendance.
Walter Fleming, head of the Department of Native American Studies at MSU-Bozeman, said it’s exciting to host Haaland, a Pueblo of Laguna tribal member and the first Native American secretary of a presidential cabinet. He said she will meet with members of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council on her visit.
Some 1,300 people have RSVP’d to come to the opening of the building, in the works for more than a decade, Fleming said. The event Saturday will start shortly before 10 a.m., with a procession from the old American Indian Resource Center to the new structure.
“We’re excited to be able to show it off, and it’s definitely a looker,” Fleming said.
Jake St. Sauver of the ThinkOne architecture firm in Bozeman said a feather roof over the main gallery space is the main eye-catching feature, a concept attributed to MSU architecture graduate Dennis Sun Rhodes. St. Sauver also said it’s essentially a round building without many straight walls, and art was integrated into the design from the beginning.
“A unique thing about the building is it’s a LEED platinum building, which we are all very proud of,” said St. Sauver, of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Certification.
Fleming said there’s no question it’s a Native-inspired building, with the eagle feather. He said it also will have art from Robert Martinez and Bentley Sprang, a drum room where students can smudge, a kitchen because a lot of Native activities involve sharing food, and a play room that allows parents to keep their children in sight while they get tutoring or do other work in the building.
Speakers also will include Henrietta Mann, a nationally recognized tribal elder enrolled with the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and MSU professor emeritus in Native American Studies. Mann was MSU’s inaugural Endowed Katz Family Chair in Native American Studies. Other speakers include MSU student Georgeline Morsette representing the current American Indian Council.
Dennis Sun Rhodes, MSU architecture graduate and member of the Northern Arapahoe Tribe, will speak about his inspiration for the building’s design. MSU’s American Indian Hall was first proposed in 2004 by Sun Rhodes, who now lives and practices architecture in St. Paul, Minnesota, and sculptor Jim Dolan of Bozeman, who met Sun Rhodes while attending MSU and who has been a longtime friend.
A news release from MSU describes the building as a bridge between American Indian culture and other cultures on campus. Fleming said the American Indian Hall will be attractive to potential faculty, and it gives current faculty the chance to work more intimately with students.
“We have 811 Native students for the fall 2021, so we feel like it’s a good opportunity to strengthen our ties with our students,” Fleming said.
The building didn’t get off the ground quickly. Fleming said it was first proposed in 2004, but it didn’t always feel like a sure bet over the years.
“It had sputters and spits in terms of moving along,” he said. “At one time it was a viable project, and then we had a change in leadership at the foundation, and then it sat idle for a while and then it was resurrected.
“There was a point where you just don’t believe it until you see it. Particularly because it’s been since 2004 when it was first proposed. So there were moments when I didn’t know that we would ever see it open. We have now.”
He said his department will move into the building over the holiday break, and classes will be held there come 2022.
In 2010, the University of Montana commemorated the opening of its Payne Family Native American Center. UM describes the center as the first facility in the nation built to accommodate a Department of Native American Studies and American Indian Student Services.
“We toured that building as we were planning and stole a lot of great ideas,” Fleming said of the center on the Missoula campus. “And the Payne family is one of our contributors, and we’re very grateful they saw the value in our project.”
The site for the building on the eastern edge of Centennial Mall was selected in 2005. MSU received major portion of funding to build the American Indian Hall in 2018 when the Kendeda Fund committed $12 million as the lead gift for the $20 million building. With additional donors that included the Associated Students of MSU, Jim and Chris Scott of Billings, and the Terry and Patt Payne family of Missoula, the project was launched in 2019 with a ground blessing on the site.
Swank Enterprises was the general contractor on the project, and the architect was ThinkOne Architecture.
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