The Tacoma Culture Center in Freighthouse Square has been open only since November, but already it is proving to fill a big need for local Native American communities. Owned by the non-profit Consultants for Indian Progress in Tacoma and operated by Toby Joseph (Apache, Navajo, Seneca and Ute), his wife Shannon (Cowichan) and their family, big plans are in the works for the center to be a comfortable gathering space for youth, families and Indians of all tribes.
According to Joseph, the Tacoma Culture Center represents a big first for the city. “This is the first Indian owned and operated attempt at a cultural center,” he said. “We’re Indians living in an urban area and we need somewhere to gather. The best we’ve ever had was the Tahoma Indian Center and I raise my hands to (its founder) Joanne Staples – no individual has ever done as good an effort to have something for naming ceremonies, gatherings and all sorts of things.” Joseph also credits the former Native Quest bookstore for helping to set the foundation for a place like Tacoma Culture Center to open in Tacoma.
The center offers a wealth of possibilities for tribal communities to be together – youth programs, talking circles, movie nights, multi media education and much more. Every Saturday there are storytelling, drumming and craft workshops to participate in and on Friday nights at 6 p.m. there is an open mic to share songs and tell stories.
Perhaps most striking is the massive collection of books the store has for sale on its shelves – hundreds of titles on topics ranging from history, legend and lore, to art, culture, children’s stories and more. Joseph inherited the collection from the late Billy Conway, the visionary founder and leader of the Four Directions Cultural Center, who passed away on Sept. 21, 2014. With 35,000 books in the collection, Toby Joseph has plenty to work with to launch the Tacoma Culture Center and to fill a resource library a few doors down.
“I’m grateful for people like Billy Conway who, through the Four Directions Culture Center, thought I’d be a good caretaker,” Joseph said of the book collection. He credits many elders for helping and inspiring him, like Jim Agawa, former director of the Tacoma Indian Education program, and Rose High Bear, executive director of “Wisdom of the Elders” which records and preserves traditional cultural values, oral history, prophesy and other messages of guidance from indigenous elders in order to regenerate the greatness of culture among today’s and future generations of native peoples.
“I raise my hands to her because, without Rose Highbear…and my connections, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today,” Joseph said.
A storyteller, videographer and producer with certification in video production training as a graduate of Bates Technical College, Joseph has been active in area Native communities most of his life. He grew up living and playing in the caves around Garden Of The Gods in Manitou Springs, Colo. at the base of Tava, Sun Mountain (Pikes Peak) with his parents and grandmother. In the late 1970′s, with the last of the Indian relocation efforts of the U.S. Government, they were relocated to Tacoma where Toby has lived ever since. He and wife Shannon raised 11 of their own children and are foster parents as well.
“I always make sure I put out how much I love the Puyallup Tribe and what they’ve done. In the ‘70s, when my family came here, if it weren’t for families like the Satiacums who really took my parents and showed them how to navigate here and even gave us a place to stay, we would have been homeless and lost,” he said, “so foundational is my love for the Tribe and with my (Puyallup) grandchildren now this is my community. Yet in my community there aren’t the services and places for people to connect in the way that in my head I envision,” which led him to get involved in a project like Tacoma Culture Center. First, however, he had to overcome some serious health issues including two bouts of meningitis.
“I had to reorient my life and slow down and this is a part of what, for me, is important in life. I’m looking at how I can build this culture center and for me the foundation for that comes from culture and what I’ve learned along the way. For me, culture and who I am are most important – it’s the spiritual grounding that everything else comes from.”
He says that none of it would be possible without his family and friends. “I can do what I do because I have a ton of people that are community family assists,” he said. Community support has been uplifting for Joseph in his new venture, particularly from women in tribal communities. He said the matriarchal ways of women have had a big, positive influence on him, offering lifelong friendships that have blossomed into beautiful things. For example, Kaja Women Warriors healing circle has been instrumental in supporting Joseph in his quest to build community unity and strength.
In looking to the future of Tacoma Culture Center, Joseph posed a question for local Native communities to ponder: “How do we have a presence here that will promote micro-enterprise, artistic expression, cultural space and a gambit of things that would include the Native community?” He mentioned Tacoma’s Asia Pacific Culture Center as an example of a dedicated culture center that not only benefits Asian communities but the broader community too. This is the sort of vision he has in mind for Tacoma’s Indian population, but he needs the community’s continued help to get there.
“If I’m going to put out anything like a call to action, it’s for people to come down and see how they can take ownership. If I can get 100 people to contribute $10 a month, all of our bills would be taken care of here. If I could get 1,000 people to contribute $10 a month I’d have enough to run programming out of here that Tacoma has never seen.”
To keep up on the latest happenings at Tacoma Culture Center, “like” them on Facebook. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.