Indigenous architects on finding creative ways to make the most impact

Of the many challenges affecting architecture today, the lack of diversity in the field is one of the most glaring. Amid a broader cultural reckoning with race—like Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an initiative to repair the harms of colonialism—there is wider recognition that the industry needs a jolt of new thinking in order to create spaces that will better serve and reflect the people who use them. One way this is happening is by integrating Indigenous knowledge into projects. Just one problem: There simply aren’t enough Indigenous architects out there to fulfill the need.

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An interior view of Smoke’s Centennial College A-Block expansion. (Riley Snelling)

While Indigenous architects represent a small fraction of the field—less than half of a percent of AIA members are of Native American descent—their services are in extremely high demand. “There is so much work with Indigenous communities and for Indigenous clients and there just are not enough Indigenous architects who practice in that realm,” said Tamara Eagle Bull, the founder of Encompass Architects and the first Native American woman in the U.S. to become a registered architect. “Moreover, many Indigenous clients do not know about Indigenous architects or do not realize the importance of having an Indigenous design professional involved in their project—or that it’s even an option.”

Many Indigenous architects describe a similar dilemma. This has led them to creatively structure their practices in order to make the most impact they can, which often means partnering with larger, non-Indigenous firms. While this can lead to successful and rewarding outcomes, it’s often a delicate arrangement since stakeholders are coming to the table with conflicting values. AN spoke to a handful of Indigenous practitioners to understand the nuances of this work and how they ensure that their projects remain aligned with their core vision.

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Sam Olbekson’s firm, Full Circle Planning, expanded the Minneapolis American Indian Center. (Courtesy Full Circle Planning)

Knowledge Share

These collaborations are happening for good reason: Tribes have more agency. “Having control over architecture and land and being able to pay for these projects is relatively new in our community,” said Sam Olbekson, a citizen of the White Earth Nation of Minnesota Ojibwe and founder of Full-Circle Planning, a studio in Minneapolis. “There’s a lot of pent-up design knowledge and excitement that we’ve all been waiting to get out there.”

Right now, Olbekson is collaborating with ten other architecture firms on buildings in both urban and rural contexts with budgets ranging from $4 million to $20 million. He prefers to keep his studio small, which enables him to work more closely with tribal communities. He’ll frequently work with his clients on RFPs, finding funding, or helping them sharpen their ideas from “Hey, we need a building” into something more specific. “I feel my value right now is to be on the front end, leading with the eventual owner on visioning, ideas, programming, and financing to help get the projects going,” Olbekson said. He is like a mediator, acclimating his clients to the building process and translating their values into terms that their future architect will understand.

The hope is that nothing gets lost or muddled in translation, and by staying close to the people at the center of a project, he’s able to meet his clients where they are. Often, this means taking the time and having the patience to work with clients who are dispersed—a logistical hurdle that bigger firms might not even bother with. “Large, non-Native architecture firms are not as used to the nuances, challenges, and joys of working with tribal councils and tribal communities,” Olbekson added. “Seeing a building full of people participating in the culture in a way that is truly authentic and really comes directly out of their own voices is much more rewarding than just simply trying to design something that looks cool.”

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David T. Fortin Architect’s concept for the Indigenous People’s Space in Ottawa. (Wanda Dalla Costa Architect, Smoke Architecture, David T. Fortin Architect, Winnie Pitawanakwat)

Building Community

For David T. Fortin, an Ontario-based architect and a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, being in community with other First Nations people is one of the most rewarding aspects of his work. “You have people sitting in a room, and some of them open up their hearts and are really invested emotionally,” Fortin said. “Sometimes you’re very lucky to hear a traditional story, but then you have to find a way to honor that story.” He knows that these stories have cultural resonance, so he becomes protective when a prospective partner firm is interested in working with them. He asks a lot of questions, which mainly focus on making sure communities are meaningfully involved and not just there for surface-level reasons. When that happens, “everybody feels better about themselves, but actually nothing changes for First Nations peoples,” he cautioned. “We as designers activate politics ,and some of the stuff gets fairly convoluted.”

Working in a nonprofit is one of the ways that Joseph Kunkel—a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and principal at MASS Design Group who runs the firm’s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab in Santa Fe, New Mexico—believes that he’s able to hold true to his values and thinks that the nonprofit structure attracts mission-driven collaborators. Like Olbekson, Kunkel’s team often works on the predesign and predevelopment phases of a project, which is often defining the narrative and determining what a project even needs to be. Because of this dynamic, Kunkel doesn’t think of his clients as clients, per se; the term he uses is “partners,” a distinction that helps his projects—which currently include a child care center, the reclamation of ancestral burial grounds, and a bio-data bank—stay true to their values. “In the architecture profession, old white males tend to tell tribes they know best and come into saying ‘This is what you need’ rather than it being a conversation and a partnership,” Kunkel said. “And I tend to see that as bad architecture. It’s not reflective of the community; it’s reflective of the all-knowing architect.”

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An exterior view of the patterned facade on Smoke’s Centennial College A-Block expansion. (Riley Snelling)

Centering People, Not Architectural Ego

The difference between what’s elevated in the field and what might better serve Indigenous communities is another recurring tension. Theodore Jojola, an architect, planner, and professor at the University of New Mexico, said that this gets in the way of more impactful design. Instead of “placemaking,” which is a typical framework for architects, Jojola advocates for “place knowing” to ensure that design reflects the community it’s in. “There is a wealth of ideas and concepts that can be drawn from local places and people who have lived experience and who essentially have developed their own kind of worldview,” he said. “The schools of architecture and planning are still somewhat under the notion of status quo that’s always been to copycat the ‘starchitects’ of the world. There are structural elements that are very pretty and monumental from that standpoint, but do they sustain meaningful engagement and interaction?”

There’s a sense that architects are designing for other architects when they’re working on projects for Indigenous communities, which potentially presents another values mismatch. “Architects are conditioned to value our work more if it wins awards,” Eagle Bull said. “Most Indigenous architects do not seek out awards; they are quietly doing the work on all projects, most of which are not glamorous.” She added that her firm is often up against larger non-Indigenous practices that frame their accolades as a competitive edge. “Years of colonial influence makes it difficult for leadership to stand by Indigenous firms.” In an environment where the number of awards an architect has equals “quality” in the profession, Eagle Bull observed that “the reality is that these signal if a firm can afford the time and effort it takes to submit—something that most Indigenous firms do not have the staff or overhead to do.”

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Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture’s plan for the Navajo Technical University’s new Chinle Campus. (Courtesy Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture)

Structuring Egalitarian Partnerships

Tamarah Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation and founder of the Albuquerque, New Mexico–based Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, is keenly aware of this accolade-seeking dynamic. “You can sense when people are there for ‘award-winning architecture’ or because the project is X million dollars,” Begay said. She avoids collaborations with firms that seem to care more about their image than serving their clients. “I’m very selective because I’ve seen larger firms just use the Native American firm as a token to get the job, and I do not do that,” she said. Instead, she prefers to oversee design and strategy and lean on larger firms to complete time-intensive technical work, like quality assurance on drawings and BIM management. “I tell them, ‘You’re our support architect,’” she added. “And it took some time for some of those larger firms to understand that.”

Some architects are now outgrowing partnerships with larger firms. Elada Smoke—who is an Anishinaabekwe from Obishikokaang and the founder of the Ontario-based Smoke Architecture—decided that her firm would no longer take what she calls “design-assist” roles. “It’s a valuable ask, but we can’t offer it any longer, because they offer a very low-level fee and it was costing my staff the same amount of effort—in fact more—because they weren’t in a leadership role on the projects,” Smoke said. “We want to contribute to the overall character and function of the place so that those Indigenous teachings from our ancestors, which are really powerful, get embedded in the bones of the building.” In order to do this, Smoke recently scaled her firm up to 14 people—from just 3 in 2019. Now, she feels comfortable leading a project with a $20 million construction budget.

There is a hope that one day fewer partnerships with larger firms will be needed. One way that will happen is by having more Indigenous people at all levels of the architecture industry, from developers to contractors, designers, and beyond. “Every time I do an interview, I put a call out to Indigenous young people to consider the building industry as a career choice,” Smoke said. “We all want you to join us because we desperately need help. Please, come work with us.”

Diana Budds is a New York–based design journalist.

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