NESPELEM, Wash. – Though black plumes of smoke unfurled from the charred remains of the Colville Reservation’s Headquarters on Monday, tribal members just across the street from the ruins lifted a symbol of hope.
Shawnee BearCub and her family built a teepee in honor of their lost history, providing a place of prayer and safety for members of the tribe.
“It’s resilience in the face of adversity,” BearCub said, hoisting the teepee sticks in the air Monday afternoon.
Fire razed the tribe’s headquarters at 1:15 a.m. Monday. It was the second fire in the past year that leveled an important cultural center. The tribe’s longhouse burned in December when a heater malfunctioned. Religious and cultural items including beaded regalia were lost.
Matt Haney, deputy director for public safety for the tribe, said even though firefighters arrived within minutes, fire had engulfed and destroyed the headquarters.
Investigators have not identified the cause of the blaze yet. The fire continued to smolder Monday afternoon. Colville Tribes Fire Cmdr. Chris McCuen said the entire structure dropped into the basement of the building, making it difficult for investigators to determine an origin or a cause.
Arson crews and tribal police were at the scene, but Haney said it’s too early to determine whether the fire was intentionally lit. Firefighters were able to stop the fire from reaching the nearby U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Firefighters worked to keep the blaze contained well into Monday afternoon and evening. All that remained of the three-story structure was a blackened pit in the ground.
This is the first time since 1975 the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are without a central government office, according to a news release. The building housed the Colville Business Council and other administrative offices, leaving about 40 tribal employees without an office. No one was in the building at the time.
The fire destroyed important documents, as well as many cultural and historical items, Haney said.
“There was so much history stored in the building,” he said.
Ricky Gabriel, a member of the Colville Business Council, said the loss of government documents and computers will impede their ability to operate efficiently and administer services.
“The tribe really feels this right now,” Gabriel said.
Fortunately, many documents were backed up and can be accessed.
The tribe has already found a temporary office at the tribal legal offices.
“We’ve lost two very important structures within the community,” BearCub said.
In spite of the recent losses, BearCub said she’s doing her part, however small, to help the community move on from the tragedies. The teepee has been in her family for generations, and she said it will serve as a place of hope and prayer for those mourning the building.
The teepee represents the cycle of life, she said. Just like the administrative building, it can be taken down, but rebuilt, she said.
“My spirit guides me to do these things,” she said.
The building is a tremendous loss to the community, and council members are upset that the building is gone, Gabriel said. He adds, though, that there’s only one way to move from here: forward.
“The building isn’t alive and doesn’t love,” Gabriel said. “People do.”