The dedication of Wassaja Hall began Thursday with the sound of drums and a song sung in Comanche by the OtterTrail drum group, from the Peoria Tribe in Oklahoma. The dedication of the new student residence hall, held in the Student Dining and Residential Program Building due to inclement weather, is a celebration of the legacy of Wassaja, later known as Carlos Montezuma, who in 1884 became the first Native American to graduate from the University of Illinois, said Alma Sealine, the director of University Housing, the first of six speakers at the event.
Bernadine Burnette, the president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, addresses the crowd gathered at the dedication of Wassaja Hall.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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“Wassaja was captured as a young boy, purchased by a Chicago photographer, educated by an Urbana pastor and his family, attended the university in his mid-teens, served as the senior class president, became one of the first Native American doctors and then became an active advocate for Native American rights,” Sealine said. “His story is filled with determination, grit, perseverance and an enduring love for his home, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona.”
Eight of the guests from the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation attending the event are direct relatives of Wassaja, Sealine said. “We are truly honored to have members of the Yavapai Tribal Council present at today’s dedication.”
Wassaja, later known as Carlos Montezuma, was the first Native American to graduate from the University of Illinois.
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“In addition to helping us honor diversity, naming the residence hall also strikes me as beautifully poetic, since I understand that Wassaja’s name translates to ‘beckoning,’” said University of Illinois Board of Trustees Chair Edward McMillan. “This new residence hall, and all our on-campus housing, ‘beckons’ our students to come together in campus communities, to meet and mingle with those from all over the world; to learn from one another; to be supported and challenged by other residents; and to make some of the most powerful memories of their undergraduate experience.”
University of Illinois System President Tim Killeen said that the important role that residence halls play in making the U. of I. a premier university should not be overlooked. “Higher education is meant to develop graduates who are engaged citizens, thoughtful and analytical, able to interact with others with understanding and compassion, and work for social justice,” he said. “That is precisely what happens in our residence halls. A community like that found at Wassaja Hall enables students to become leaders and better articulate their core values.”
Living in residence halls helps students interact with those who are different from themselves, Killeen said. Students learn about conflict resolution, time management, appreciation of diversity, community standards, sustainability and leadership.
“There is power in that experience,” he said.
Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson thanked Jack Collins, the former director of University Housing, who was involved in the early stages of planning for the project. She also thanked the members of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. “It’s truly our honor and pleasure to have you,” she said.
She called attention to the importance of involving students in the project. “Wassaja Hall was designed by students, with students, for students,” Wilson said.
Sealine also emphasized the role of students in the creation of the 504-bed hall, which opened ahead of schedule and under budget. The hall is located at 1202 S. First St., Champaign, part of the Stanley O. Ikenberry Commons. Students chose the color scheme for the building’s interior and the common area furniture. They specified several sustainable features, including recycled content carpet and countertops, 120 solar panels and wood paneling recovered from abandoned birch trees harvested in the 1800s.
“These students are creating their own legacies at the University of Illinois in the aspiring spirit of Wassaja,” she said.
Jamie Singson, the director of the Native American House on campus, was responsible for doing much of the research on Wassaja’s life that led to the construction of the hall in his name. He was grateful that the historical documents regarding Wassaja had been preserved. “Most of what we know about Carlos Montezuma are letters from Wassaja,” he said.
Wassaja worked tirelessly on a national level for the rights of Native Americans, Singson said. “I really want to emphasize his work for social justice.” Wassaja helped found the Society of American Indians, the first organization created by and for Native Americans to advocate for their rights. Singson also recognized all of the tribes that were forced to leave the state of Illinois in the past.
Bernadine Burnette, the president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, said she deeply appreciated the recognition given to Wassaja, a very important person in the tribe’s history. She is a fifth-generation descendent of Wassaja. “Thank you for the honor on behalf of our family and those at Fort McDowell,” she said. “It’s been long overdue to recognize Wassaja.”
When the tribe was threatened with removal from Fort McDowell, Wassaja worked to keep the land in the tribe’s possession, also establishing water rights. “Without Wassaja, there probably wouldn’t be a Fort McDowell,” Burnette said.
“Because of Wassaja, Fort McDowell places a high value on education,” she said. “Even though we are a small tribe, we can move mountains.” The health center at Fort McDowell is named after Wassaja, in recognition of his work as a doctor, and the tribe has three scholarships in his name to three Arizona universities, she said.
Burnette presented a gift from the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation to the University of Illinois, which Wilson revealed to be a beautiful woven basket. It was created in the 1950s by a woman in the community, Burnette said.
Sealine also thanked the members of the Yavapai Nation who were in attendance: Burnette, Karen Ray, Calvin “Roddy” Pilcher Sr., Madonna Luna, Martha Comacho, Margaret Bennett, Delphine Reina, Claudette Rivera and Clissen Lewis. She recognized other partners in the project, including Facilities and Services, FGM and Mackey Mitchell Architects, Turner Construction and Art in Architecture.
Ceremonies concluded with the OtterTrail drummers singing the “Honor Song.” The group includes Al Santos, a member of the Arawak tribe; Ronald Monossey, a Comanche; and Paul Attocknie, of the Peoria tribe. Attocknie is attending classes at Illinois online and hopes to come to the campus to complete his college education.
For more information about Wassaja, visit the University Housing website. A documentary of Wassaja’s life, created by Big Ten Network staff at Public Affairs, is also available online.