A Case for Indigenous Design Education

Surdna Foundation
Indigenous Design Planning Institute.

Universities can empower the next generation of architects, planners, and landscape architects in Native American design and planning.

Little is written about the ethical, methodological, and epistemological approaches to community design and planning by indigenous American communities. Historically, the mainstream professions have overlooked these in favor of Euro-Western practices. 

Indigenous design and planning is informed by an emerging paradigm that uses a culturally responsive and value-based approach to community development. As generations of people have lived over time in the same place, they have evolved unique world-views. Adherence to values such as stewardship and land tenure have tempered the immediacy of exploitative practices and reactionary planning. Leadership balanced the immediacy of action (short term) with a comprehensive vision (long term).  

Indigenous communities have the additional need to make their projects culturally viable. Their contributions have too often been dismissed as inconsequential to the evolution of “great” building traditions in the Americas. Often relegated to anthropology and the study of quaint vernacular traditions, accomplishments in indigenous architecture and planning have been consigned to anonymity and obscurity. 

One explanation might be the prevalence of public perceptions that consign tribal people to stereotypes. The ubiquitous image-making around traditional archetypes like those of the Plains tepee, the Arctic igloo, and the Navajo hogan are examples of forms that continue to resonate in American popular culture, whether for good or for bad. 

The narrative of indigenous design is replete with references to spiritual and cultural forces that are more profound than any individual’s intervention. Natural and spiritual forces determine the blueprint for design. Designations, symbols, and meanings represented by indigenous people are the primal elements of a cultural toolbox. This certainly was the case for prehistoric architecture and, by and large, it’s the case for contemporary indigenous design and planning as well. 

As tribes gain expertise, they have become more cognizant of new technologies and ways that better serve to integrate their own unique needs. Diversity was and continues to be the hallmark of indigenous cultures. By some estimates, at the time of first European contact with people who were living in the lands that would later become the United States of America, there were 40 million inhabitants who spoke 1,800 different languages. Roughly 180 native languages continue to be used in the United States. By this rough yardstick, both America’s diversity and culture is still invested in what happens in Indian country — the self-governing Native American communities throughout the United States. That includes its architecture, art, music, and philosophies.


Retaining Cultural Identity

New Mexico is home to 23 tribes. Some 220,000 American Indians/Alaska Natives were counted in the 2010 U.S. Census. This accounts for approximately 11 percent of New Mexico’s population. This is also roughly equivalent to the percent of trust lands belonging to the tribes. As the tribes see their populations shift away from their traditions and toward urbanization, there is a heightened urgency to develop community environments suitable for retaining their cultural identity.

Indian country has been diminished to reservation lands and, in some instances, urban Indian neighborhoods. It is easy for mainstream society to skirt around or go through these places without giving the slightest regard for their importance in the region’s economy, culture, and politics. The only “Indian experience” most people have is that of the Indian casino.

Indian governments have a unique status. Federal recognition is not an anomaly: It is the result of centuries of contact with and resistance to outside incursion. The trust relationship evolved through the exchange of Indian land for perpetual entitlements in education, health, government, and law enforcement, to name a few. It affords tribal governments the right to pursue their own course of development, equal to any other sovereign entity. 

The passage of the 1975 Indian Self Determination and Educational Assistance Act heralded what can be considered the era of contemporary indigenous architecture and planning. Tribal governments were empowered to contract and operate their own education, public health, and social services. Public laws were amended to allow tribes to take over their own community planning efforts. 

Within a decade of the passage of this act, infrastructure needs for many tribes skyrocketed. As tribes opted to contract their own services, capital investment programs spurred a construction boom. Provisions established in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 further spurred the growth and development of tribal communities. For tribes fortunate enough to negotiate state gaming compacts and strategically located next to urban centers, the infusion of gaming revenues was tremendous. Backlogged projects that had languished due to lack of federal funding were supplemented with tribal funds and brought to fruition. 

Previously unfunded mandates, like those in cultural resources, saw new developments. Tribal museums, cultural offices, and visitor centers sprang up throughout Indian country. Developed at first as points of welcome and as interpretations of tribal life, many of these buildings house objects and artifacts returned as a result of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

One unique aspect of tribal lands is their unburdened encumbrance of state codes and regulations. Many tribes have developed their own construction standards and are actively engaged in comprehensive land use planning. They have expressed a desire to integrate sustainable practices and self-reliant solutions in such practices. Today, they have substantial and growing demands for qualified architects and planners in their revitalization and rebuilding efforts.

Empowering the Next Gen

How can universities empower the next generation of architects, planners and landscape architects in indigenous design and planning?

One response has been the establishment of an Indigenous Design and Planning Institute at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning. 

The Institute is intended to educate and empower faculty, students, practitioners, and community leaders to establish culturally responsive community development. Its tribal-based engagement will nurture mutual learning through collaboration and the sharing of innovation. It will create a place within the school where an interdisciplinary learning framework will pursue indigenous community development that is holistic and embodies the health and social well-being of a people. It will accomplish this by establishing a design and planning curriculum that is informed by indigenous theory, practice, and research.

There are tremendous needs in physical infrastructure that remain unfulfilled. As in many other parts of the world, these inadequacies are challenging practitioners to think outside the box as well as influencing new styles of development. In a metaphorical sense, good indigenous design and planning strives to be more than the sum of its parts. Whereas mainstream architects tend to evaluate successful buildings on elements such as style, function, and form, indigenous architects and planners measure the form’s cultural meaning and social purpose. It is less about the final outcome than it is about the active process used to get there. These are lessons that must be taught in schools of architecture. 

In the long run, it is envisaged that the Indigenous Design and Planning Institute will benefit indigenous and non-indigenous students, practitioners, and tribal community leaders. Its mission is to educate about indigenous design and planning by engaging faculty, students, professionals, and community leaders in culturally responsive practices. As opportunities for professional employment continue among tribal, local, state, and federal departments, it is necessary that regions like that of the American Southwest attend to indigenous design and planning interests. Indeed, for many regions of the world community, it is no longer an option.

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Organizations Referenced

Indigenous Design and Planning Institute at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning

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