For months, University of Montana students, faculty and staff have watched the Payne Family Native American Center take shape, but in reality, people nationwide are following the progress of this building.

"They are all very excited about the opening," said UM tribal liaison Linda Juneau, who recently returned from the National Indian Education Conference where other colleges said they are looking to UM's Native American Center as a model for their campuses.

"Montana has created a lot of excitement," she said.

With 98 percent of the construction complete, only minor electrical work remains and the landscaping, which is weather permitting. The chain link fence will likely come down mid-April, and the dedication ceremony is scheduled for May 13, the Thursday before UM's spring commencement.

The building is meant to honor Montana tribes and Native American students on campus, although it is open to all on campus. Everything from the landscaping to the shape of the building to the east-facing entrance was done with purpose and Montana's 12 Indian tribes in mind.


The newest addition, occupying the last bit of green space on the Oval, is also the first certified energy-efficient building at UM.

Ensuring energy efficiency and sustainability also meets cultural goals, said Daniel Glenn, a member of the Crow Tribe and principal of Glenn & Glenn Architects Engineers, PLLC. Glenn was the design architect. A&E Architects, with offices in Missoula and Billings, were the architects of record.

"One of the most important aspects from the Native standpoint is the fact that it's doing minimal damage to Mother Earth," Glenn said.

Eighty-five percent of the construction waste was diverted from the landfill, said Todd Stenerson, project superintendent with Jackson Contractor Group of Missoula. The bathrooms even include showers - to encourage biking and walking.

Rocks dug up from the site were used as retaining walls in place of concrete. And UM encouraged contractors to purchase materials locally to reduce the carbon footprint, said Jameel Chaudhry, the university's project manager.

The handicapped-accessible building will house the Native American Studies department and American Indian Student Services. It is home to four classrooms, one conference room, 12 office spaces, a student lounge and student meeting rooms.


The building was designed around the concept of a 12-sided dodecagon rotunda, one side representing each of the dozen tribes in Montana. The name of each tribe is listed in a circular fashion around the rotunda.

Parfleche patterns representing each tribe are etched and stained into the floor. A wall of windows allows for a panoramic view of the Oval, Main Hall and Mount Sentinel.

It's the heart of the building, and it seemed appropriate that it face the heart of the campus: the Oval, Chaudhry said.

Standing in the rotunda is reminiscent of a tepee or sweat lodge, with a circle on the floor constructed partly from a salvaged larch tree cut on site, and a skylight in the ceiling. Logs salvaged from the Clark Fork River near the historic Bonner sawmill hold the building erect.

A long, skinny eastern-facing skylight represents the slit in the buffalo hide of a tepee that provides air and light, and the main entrance to the building faces east. Not only is it traditional practice to honor the rising sun, but often plains Indians would face their tepees east to protect their homes from the prevailing westerly winds, Glenn said.

While a wall of windows facing the Oval seems counterintuitive to the idea of energy efficiency because of the loss of heat, windows allow natural light and good views, which increase work productivity. Plus, west-facing windows will help heat the rotunda in the winter, Chaudhry said. It's a balancing act, he said.


University officials and architects consulted every tribe in the state, soliciting input about how the building should look and feel. The goal was to find universal symbols of importance shared among all Montana tribes, Glenn said.

The circle is universally recognized and a theme throughout the building, he said. It's symbolic of the circle of life and the interconnectivity of all things. It's not only the shape of tepees and sacred lodges, but it's also the shape of the moon and path of the stars and sun.

There was some debate over how to make the Native American Center blend with the rest of the buildings on campus while still making it uniquely and boldly Native American. The orange-red bricks didn't sit well with some Indian elders, whose ancestors were hauled off to government-run boarding schools constructed with brick much like those used in other UM buildings.

Architects went with a red concrete block with a rough outer edge to make it look more like rock, Chaudhry said, but still blend with the other brick buildings.

Standing in the foyer of the new Native American Center, Juneau can't help but feel more at ease. Maybe it's the sunlight shining through the large windows or the earth-tone wall colors or the Salish floral Bitterroot pattern that runs along the floor - close to Mother Earth.

Whatever it is, "there's a calming effect," she said. "It's meant to feel like home."

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at


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