Hibulb Cultural Center – Is It Worth a Look?



Last week found Bryn and I up at the Tulalip Resort for my birthday. I always do enjoy a brief getaway, even moreso at Tulalip. Of all the Native-owned/operated casinos near Seattle (that I’ve been to), this is my favorite. Hibulb Cultural Center opened almost two years ago in August of 2011. The center includes a gallery with a permanent exhibition about the history of the Tulalip Tribes, a gallery with a temporary exhibition (currently about military service), a 50 acre Natural History Preserve, a Longhouse, a Research Library, and a Gift Store. I’d been wanting to go visit even before it opened since I really became interested in Native cultural programming for museums and exhibits of artifacts back in college. Somehow, it didn’t happen until last week. In retrospect, I enjoyed my visit, yet I don’t think I was missing out on much by not having seen it sooner.

The exhibits and facilities are housed in a beautiful new building. Apparently the center and preserve cost about $19 million to build. Bryn was actually also excited to visit since he keeps seeing billboards in Seattle for Hibulb. The building is lovely and the exhibits are interesting, but as a stand-alone destination, it feels like something is lacking. It is obvious that this is a great resource for the Tulalip Tribes to collect and teach about their culture. A fairly big chunk of the buildings appear to be devoted to classrooms, which I assume are frequently utilized by Tulalip and other youth programs. If you are, however, a tourist looking for a fun museum to visit, you may find your experience lacking.

The main exhibit is housed in a large gallery with lots of visually interesting and slickly-built displays. There is a lot of information and I found it to be well presented along with a nice selection of objects. There was a clear connection between the artifacts shown and the natural environment that the various tribes lived in. One observation–and it is not intended as a criticism–is that many of the objects are not as finely crafted or showy as the typical “Indian” arts that the public is used to seeing in the Pacific Northwest. Those visitors who are aware that much of the art and artifacts we see advertised locally as “Northwest Coast Native” are actually from tribes farther north in British Columbia or Alaska will not be surprised or disappointed. Any tourists drawn to make the drive from Seattle after seeing a billboard will likely have a different set of expectations.

A temporary exhibit called Warriors: We Remember is in the attached second gallery. This was a very large room with a sculptural video installation in the center and images and information on all of the walls. I liked it, and found it in line with similar displays I have seen at other tribal cultural centers that honored tribal members who have served in the U.S. military. It did make me want to know more about the warrior traditions of the various tribes prior to and during colonization by Europeans and Americans though; I felt that there wasn’t much context about where this “warrior” spirit originated from. Approached as a memorial tribute, however, the exhibit works perfectly well.

The longhouse was really nice, I loved the strong smell of cedar when you are standing inside. The contemporary electric “firepit” in the center under glass was a fun interpretation and the decorative poles flanking a large video screen were among the more compelling pieces on display in the center. Canoes of varying sizes and several cases filled with stone artifacts were out in the large airy hall connecting all of the spaces together. The gift shop didn’t have much on offer beyond the stereotypical trinkets and souvenirs. It was a Friday afternoon when we went, and we were the only two visitors for the entire time we were there.

Overall, I didn’t mind my visit since we had received free passes from the front desk upon our hotel stay at the Tulalip Resort. But with an adult admission price of $10 per person, I would probably have felt differently if we didn’t have the passes. Considering the size and scope of what is on display, I’m surprised that they are asking that much for admission. I also find it interesting that, of the tribal cultural centers/museums I have visited, it is usually fairly apparent that a lot of money has been spent in envisioning and building these places, but they also often feel like they have been plunked down without a defined sense of purpose. Again, this could appear differently depending on what activities are taking place when you visit.

In my opinion, Native museums/cultural centers often seem to embrace the Western model of a museum in which to collect, protect, and house objects, but do not always have a clear sense of who the museum is built for. Is it for tribal members? Is it for youth education, whether tribal or not? Is it for tourists? is it for the general public? I love a well-designed space as much as the next person, but I can’t help feeling like so many of the exhibits I visit, whether at tribal museums or large public institutions, end up having this strange tension between trying to teach about living cultures that have survived and changed drastically in the last few centuries and trying to entertain an ignorant dominant society with artifacts from a seemingly exotic culture. Building multi-million dollar cultural centers sounds really awesome as an accomplishment and for a press release. But what are they supposed to do?

My verdict? If you’re in the area, check it out. But if you are considering making a special trip just for Hibulb, I would recommend waiting until you can combine it with some of the other entertainment or shopping activities that are located nearby.