Heritage center comes to life at Priest Rapids
The new $15 million Wanapum Heritage Center at Priest Rapids Dam is more than a museum.
It is a building that holds the legacy of an entire culture within its walls.
Museum Director Angela Buck, in her remarks last week to a crowd gathered to celebrate the opening of the heritage center, said the center will be a place where visitors will come to learn more about the Wanapum culture.
“Today, so many things, so many important words, will be echoed through this building,” she said. “We want people to understand who we are and where we come from.”
However, the building also will be a living center for the remaining members of the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids, who are working to preserve and protect their culture, traditions and identity.
“Through time and change, things have been taken away,” said Angela Buck. “And through this heritage center we will work together to have some of those things come back.”
More than 200 people gathered a week ago at Priest Rapids Dam, the ancestral grounds of the indigenous Wanapum people and new home to the long-awaited heritage center. The ceremony opened with a blessing and song from Chief Rex Buck Jr., who is also a project specialist for Grant PUD. Area tribal members as well as Grant PUD officials and state dignitaries were among those who joined in the ceremony.
Just south of Mattawa off of Highway 243, the center is the product of some 15 years of planning and the collaboration of the Wanapum Band and Grant County PUD. Construction on the site and its 50,000-square-foot facility started in August 2012. Costs for construction were $11.35 million and exhibit construction costs were another $4 million, according to Grant PUD, the owner of the facility.
Angela Buck, who is Rex Buck’s wife, said when things got tough over the years – when it didn’t look like the heritage center would ever open – her husband would not let her give up.
“He told me, ‘You need to finish what we started because it’s for the children,’” she said. “And now today the foundation has been built for them.”
Cutting the ceremonial ribbon and marking the opening of the heritage center was tribal elder Irene Cloud, the oldest living member of the Wanapum Band of Priest Rapids. Cloud lived the first 10 years of her life in a traditional tule mat house on land that was eventually covered when waters of the Columbia River rose with the construction of the dam.
In the museum is a large photo of Cloud and two of her sisters as children. And among the displays is a beaded bag Cloud made in the 1950s. Made partly from deer hide, the bag is decorated with a beaded deer and four flowers.
“I am very proud of it,” Cloud said of the center. “It’s for the children.”
The museum portion of the heritage center makes up about a third of the building. It includes both permanent and temporary exhibits that display not only the history of the Wanapum people but also how they live today. Among the displays are a tule mat house and a dugout canoe. The museum portion of the buildings also includes a theater and a viewing area of the nearby Columbia River. The annual Archeology Days and other events will be held at the new center.
“There is 12,000 years worth of history in the building,” PUD Commissioner Dale Walker said during the ceremony.
The rest of the facility is a cultural center, with offices, a library and artifact collection area, and space for large group activities and demonstrations. There are also rooms designated for living culture programs, including traditional language classes.
Rex Buck has lived near his ancestral lands all his life. Priest Rapids was a sacred place to his family. When the Wanapum Band gathers today, there are about 75 men, women and children, he said.
“It’s our responsibility to be here,” he said.
In his remarks to the crowd, the chief reminded listeners that the sunlight is the continuum that has seen his people through times of tumultuous change. As long as people continue to come together, the light will give good things, he said.
“It will give us good things as long as we come together as we are today,” he said. “As you go through the new heritage center, you’re going to see what our people went through. No matter how difficult it got, they always looked to that light… that said ‘We have to take care of the things that are important to us.’”
— By Jill FitzSimmons, firstname.lastname@example.org