Wanapum heritage shines with new light

MATTAWA If the October sun seemed to shine a little brighter this week on this golden expanse of grass-and-sage cut through by the cold waters of the Columbia River, it had good reason to.

More than 200 people gathered here Thursday to get their first look at the new Wanapum Heritage Center, a museum, meeting place and exhibit hall that captures that culture, heritage, and unfiltered voice of the Priest Rapids Band of the Wanapum Indians.

Chief Rex Buck reminded his guests that the sunlight is the continuum that has seen his people through times of tumultuous change.

“Light will continue to be light. 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.’”

Just south of Mattawa off of Highway 243, the $20 million center is the product of some 15 years of planning and the collaboration of the Wanapum Band and Grant County PUD.

The 50,000-square-foot building also houses office space, a library, meeting and storage for the band’s collection of artifacts.

Adaptation to change and the promise of children are recurring themes in the circular hall of permanent and temporary exhibits.

“We are Wanapum,” reads a passage at the exhibits’ entry point. “We never signed a treaty. We never fought a battle. We have always looked after the land, and the land will always look after us. We have always been here. And we will always be here.

The “Newcomers” depicts change brought by the arrival of the U.S. Army and the construction of the Hanford nuclear power plant and the PUD’s Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams.

The projects nibbled away at the “river people’s” once vast ancestral homeland that ranged from south of the Tri Cities to Vantage and limited their access to traditional meeting places.

One poignant feature is a portion of chain-link fence covered with warning signs – “Danger, High Voltage; “Restricted Area;” “Do Not Enter Without Approval;” “Notice: No swimming, No fishing.”

Visitors who enter another exhibit, called “Chiwana” or “Big River,” – the Wanapums’ name for the Columbia – are confronted with an entry wall papered with the image of bulrush reeds.

The barrier contains a lengthy passage that alludes to past hardships and the continued challenges faced by future generations. “Honor the kids,” it reads in part, “They’re the ones that are going to have to do great things, really great things.”

Walking around the barrier, visitors observe a wall of glass with panoramic view of the sage slopes and the Columbia – a living exhibit.

The museum is more than sepia photos and times long passed. Color photos show smiling children and teens, some in football uniforms.

Another area uses technology – computer tablets – to allow visitors to tap icons of photos of band members of all ages to hear their stories.

Throughout the center, the Wanapum draw upon their “unwritten laws and beliefs” to juxtapose the past and present of a people who now number about 75 and maintain their traditional ways in a community built on PUD property on the Columbia’s western shoreline across Priest Rapids Dam.

“It’s been quite a journey,” says Angela Buck, wife of Rex and director of the Heritage Center museum. “We still live by the unwritten law. You want people to know that the Wanapum are here. That we still practice the culture and traditions and way of life as much as we can and remember. I can’t say this center is just for the Wanapum. It’s for everybody. Everybody who wants to learn.”

She added, “Today, our children are in a fast-paced world. I’ve seen how happy they are coming through the exhibits, and I was, ‘Wow. Just wow. This place is going to help them.’