Construction on the Pacific Northwest Indian Center, a slightly conical cylindrical structure meant to pay tribute to the Native American tepee, began in 1968 near Gonzaga University.
The PNIC was founded in 1966 by the Rev. Wilfred Schoenberg, a Jesuit who dedicated his life to writing the history of Catholics in the Northwest and the Native people who were here before them.
Schoenberg, the son of a grocer, was born around 1915 and grew up in Spokane. He met pioneer Jesuit Joseph Cataldo, an early missionary to the Spokane and Nez Perce tribes. Schoenberg attended Jesuit training in Sheridan, Oregon, and was ordained in 1951. He would spend his career teaching school and studying regional history.
Schoenberg said PNIC goals were “to foster Indian studies, to preserve Indian culture and to develop Indian leadership.” In the Pearson building at 12 S. Division St., the Jesuits, historians and tribal members who ran the center began planning for their own museum and scholarly research center.
Architect Henry J. Swoboda designed the conical five-story building made of prestressed concrete panels. Money ran short in 1970 and fundraisers struggled to find the money to finish the main building. Federal economic development dollars came through in 1973, and the center opened in 1974.
For the next 15 years, the center, renamed the Museum of Native American Cultures (MONAC) in 1976, amassed a substantial collection of historical artifacts and Indian art but never attracted enough visitors to be self-sustaining.
Schoenberg left the center in 1980. He died in 2003.
Throughout the museum’s existence, Schoenberg sought help from local tribes but couldn’t give Native leaders the control they desired. Resentment in the Native community simmered, but was overshadowed by the severe lack of funding.
The museum board hoped that someone would take over the center. Eastern Washington University offered some help. Gonzaga helped pay off debts and eventually bought the building, but not the collection.
MONAC closed down in 1991 and turned its collection over to the Cheney Cowles Museum, now called the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
In 2016, Gonzaga remodeled the building, now called the Schoenberg Center, into classrooms for medical students in the regional health partnership between GU and the University of Washington.
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