A Living Culture Connected to the Land

Date Posted: 02.02.2017

By Dakota Keene, Dustann Jones

Wanapum is a living culture. The Wanapum have lived along the banks of Chiawana (Columbia River) near Priest Rapids for countless generations; Coyote created the river to care for the Wanapum people, a “River People.” During the period of white settlement, their isolation and policy of friendship helped to preserve their lifeways: traditional language (a Sahaptin dialect), religion (Washani), crafts and cooking. These essential cultural elements live on today and are experienced at the new Wanapum Heritage Center.

Sacred Landscape
A self-described “simple people,” the Wanapum put emphasis on place and gathering. The new heritage center occupies a site near the traditional Wanapum village, P’na, and the current day Priest Rapids Dam. This location provides important visual connection across the river to the sacred Umtanum Ridge beyond. The heritage center’s gathering spaces, pedestrian circulation, entry drive, museum building and parking were carefully and compactly sited with the goal of preserving the mature sagebrush steppe landscape as well as celebrating the connection to the river that has sustained the Wanapum since time immemorial. The building form weaves solidity and light, from a protective repository enclosure that references traditional cliffside cave storage spaces to the glazed Welcome Area that evokes traditional fishing lanterns.

Marking Place
The ancestral lands of the Columbia Basin have sacred meaning to the Wanapum as the seasons of the year draw them along the Columbia River for gathering foods, hunting and connections with other nearby tribes. It is impossible to understand the Wanapum culture without understanding their inextricable relationship with the natural world and, more specifically, the landscape that is now known as the Columbia River Basin.

As a way to mark this important connection to the larger landscape, as well as honor the Wanapum tradition of entering a building from the east, an important line and pathway was drawn across the site. As community and visitors gather along this taut pathway, the path becomes incrementally wider as it approaches the building. Interpretive moments are located along this line, telling the stories of the larger landscape through path markers that reference both geologic flows and locations that hold significance to the Wanapum, such as the white clay that marks the location of the midwinter dance or the basalt that references the ice age floods and the ‘spirit power place’ at the Saddle Mountains. In the former example, the Wanapum gathered the material for this path marker themselves as it is located in a sacred place.

Each juncture where the secondary paths meet the main path is marked in the language of the Wanapum. Six seasons are acknowledged along the East Path in Sahaptin with lit markers. Extending from those points are ethnobotanical plantings that hold significance to the Wanapum during the season that is marked. These interventions in the landscape bring the cultural heritage experience into the site and allow the story of the Wanapum to extend beyond the walls of the building.

Community members and visitors enter the building through a cedar-clad vestibule and into the steel and glass Welcome Place beyond. The materials and color from the exterior entry path are representative of the compacted earth floor at the center of the traditional Wanapum longhouse and this extends into the Welcome Place, seamlessly blending the landscape experience with the welcome experience. This welcome space functions as both a reception area and ceremonial end point for the eastern entry path. This terminus is marked by a seven-part curved glass sculpture with abstracted ceremonial “drums.” A concentric light-well overhead adds emphasis to the locus.

Simple Design, Simple Palette
As the entry drive gently swings into the entry sequence area, a curbless welcome plaza allows the drop-off of and special parking for Elders and also provides an area for gathering before proceeding into the Welcome Place. An arc of lit bollards demarcates the vehicular zone. On the river side of the Welcome Place, a simple terrace faces the Columbia River with breathtaking views of the Umtanum Ridge; it is a place for meals and gathering near the river that has sustained the Wanapum people since time immemorial. The River Terrace is held on the river side edge by lit benches that invite visitors to pause and experience the expanse of sagebrush steppe between the building and the Columbia River.

Materials express a restrained palette that reflect the landscape itself. At first look, the color, materials and texture of the surrounding landscape appear constant and monotone, but upon closer exploration are revealed to be richly nuanced with shocks of colorful lichen and textured with many species of native plants that are still gathered by the Wanapum today. Seasonal changes on the site range from a beautifully stark blanket of white snow in the winter with buckwheat and sage poking through, to a riot of wildflowers and edible-root-bearing plants in the spring. The planting palette for the restoration zones simply replicates the native plant palette of the existing site and creates a continuous plane that expresses the idea that the project is secondary to the powerful landscape. In a few intentional locations the native plants have been concentrated into planting beds that contain the shrubs, grasses and forbs that are important to the Wanapum or are gathered during that particular season. For this project, the Wanapum gathered specific significant plant material from remote sites to be planted in these areas.

In Wanapum culture, wood is used very sparingly as trees are rare in this landscape. The wood that was used traditionally was collected from the Columbia as tree snags floated down the river. To that end, wood was used sparingly on the site as infill at the Welcome Plaza bollards and topping the concrete seat walls at the River Terrace. The bright yellow-green color of the lichen that attaches itself to rocks all over the site is expressed in the colored resin infill panels of the custom lit bollards and lighting along the East Path. Along the pathway and at the Welcome Plaza, the colors of the concrete, crushed rock surfaces, and path markers are warm earth tones, designed to blend with the larger landscape.

Environmental Sensitivity
Preservation of the existing sagebrush steppe was an overarching goal for this project, so creating a tight footprint for the project was of great importance. Sagebrush protection fencing was used in lieu of tree protection fencing, grading was kept to a minimum and the entry drive was cut as narrowly as possible. Stormwater is expressed through vertical channels in the building repository walls and outlets to flush basalt runnels that connect to infiltration galleries throughout the parking area and on the river side of the building. Naturally drought tolerant native plants were used exclusively.

Project Background
The new Wanapum Heritage Center is a collaborative effort between the Wanapum People of Priest Rapids and the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) to tell the story of the Wanapum in a living cultural center. The 50,000 sf building houses the permanent exhibit and repository as well as the transparent Welcome Place, which houses the facility’s more active visitor and community-based functions. The project received an Honor Award from the Washington Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (WASLA).