About Wassaja

About Wassaja Hall

University Housing's newest residence hall has been named Wassaja for the birth name of Carlos Montezuma, the University's first Native American graduate and a leader in advocating for Native American rights. Wassaja Hall opened to students fall 2016.

Wassaja was born in 1866 in the Arizona territory; his named (pronounced WAHS-ah-jah) means “beckoning” in his native Yavapai language. As a small boy, he was stolen from his family and later sold. He spent his early childhood on the road performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He was purchased by an Italian photographer, Carlo Gentile, who changed his name to Carlos Montezuma. They lived together in Chicago, where he started school.

In 1884, Wassaja was the first Native American to graduate from the University of Illinois, and later became one of the first to earn a medical degree. He was the first US individual of color to graduate from Illinois, and, we believe, the nation. After working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a reservation doctor and witnessing widespread poverty and bureaucratic corruption, he fought tirelessly for Native American rights and citizenship. When his own Yavapai tribe faced removal from their ancestral home, he went to Washington, D.C., to fight for and finally secure their land and water rights, setting a precedent for other Indian nations. 

As part of the initial naming process, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Tribal Council was approached about the residence hall. The Yavapai Tribal Council endorsed the naming of the hall, and also received support for using the name from Wassaja’s family descendants. 

To learn more, watch the documentary "Carlos Montezuma: Changing is Not Vanishing."


Wassaja Art Installation 

As part of the State of Illinois’ Art-in-Architecture program, Wassaja Hall features a public art installation that reflects and celebrates the legacy of the hall's namesake. Illinois artist Lynn Basa was selected to create the work, which she has titled "The Path Home." Below are some of the artist’s statements.

Wassaja’s life path was challenging and unconventional, yet he navigated it with intelligence and a moral compass that led him to the University of Illinois and then back full circle to his native land. The title of this artwork, “The Path Home”, refers to Wassaja’s incredible personal journey and to the home-away-from-home that Wassaja Hall will offer to generations of Illinois students a century after Wassaja himself walked the campus.

Baskets made of weathered steel will be internally lit at night to act as beacons leading to the entrance of the residence hall. The pattern cut into the steel has been deliberately kept simple as a way of respecting that the symbols found on Yavapai artwork belong only to them.

The baskets grow larger the closer one gets to the residence hall, representing the strength Wassaja gained along the path of his life. The path functions symbolically and as a composition that can be seen from the windows of the residence hall rooms.

 Read more about the artwork here.