Design, Place and Indigenous Ways: Working with Local Communities

December 1, 2016, Department, by Dr. PennElys Droz, David Jaber and Scott Moore y Medina

2016 December Social Equity 410

The role of design in enhancing communities — shaping our spaces and landscapes to meet an array of needs — cannot be understated. Challenges lie in making the benefits of design broadly accessible, even to those who can least afford it. We, as the community of planners, architects, land managers, designers and engineers, need to find ways to make our skills available to a wider range of communities.

Perhaps one of the biggest favors that architects, engineers and planners can do for themselves, and for the communities with which they work, is to take a step back and understand the history of these places, including where community healing must occur. There are those whom history has favored through war, colonization and economic advantage, yet all people need places to live and work. After many years of wealth transfer and in the face of an ever-shrinking class of clientele able to afford enlisting the skills of professional designers, etc., these fields are waking up, groggy-eyed, to a new reality.

Our intent — and, we would hope, the intent of the vast bulk of the design community — is to create adaptable, innovative, healthy, strong, resilient and hopeful places to live, play, pray and work. To do this well requires several things:

  • Cultivating real humility and understanding that we, as planners, engineers and architects, do not know everything or have all the answers
  • Active listening and learning
  • Respecting the inherent knowledge of different worldviews
  • Understanding who is not yet at the table and inviting them into the circle
  • Carving out valuable spaces for meaningful exchanges of ideas and knowledge to occur

At Blue Star Integrative Studio (BSI), our practitioners strive to embody these perspectives at a very fundamental level. Our work with rural, tribal and historically under-resourced communities weaves in these qualities, while leveraging the privileges we have as architects, planners and engineers to create broadly shared benefits.

Remembering Indigenous Design
A good community engagement process starts with striving to learn. For parkland managers, Native American communities are particularly relevant to the learning process. Native nations are adjacent to many parks and open spaces, and those lands comprise many of the areas where traditional harvesting — of foods, medicines, basketry materials and other crafts materials — takes place.

In the Lakota language, the word for “economy” and “environment” is the same word, symbolizing the deep connection between the continuation of life and the giver and sustainer of life — nature herself. What does this tell us about our own views of economy and the natural world? In most indigenous languages, there are no words for “sustainable” or “regenerative,” but there are words for “living life” and “respecting all of creation.” How connected are we to the life-giving systems that sustain us if we must make use of nouns describing the type of world in which we hope to live, instead of how we are actually living?
If language itself doesn’t always support our efforts, the communities we serve can help. As one Lakota tribal elder once reminded a team of architects and planners at a community meeting where the topic was sustainable design: “You are funny with these ideas. We had self-sufficient, interconnected communities for thousands of years, and it worked. It has only been the last 200 years we got off track. But, if we did it before, we can do it again.”

Remembering also means remembering what it means to be indigenous. Indigenous systems of design and engineering are deeply place- and relationship-based. Indigenous peoples are faced with the challenge of maintaining and strengthening land tenure, health and nationhood, while providing creative and innovative development opportunities for their people. This work is being done in spite of the legacy of physical, socio-cultural and economic colonization — a testimony to the resilience of native peoples.

Working with Native Communities
Many grassroots organizations and community groups throughout native communities have been working to create innovative pathways that cultivate the resilience of native nations. In alignment with this work, BSI and its partners use a community-directed, culturally based indigenous design approach that is grounded in indigenous culture, the relationship of people to their homeland, their relationship with each other, and standard design techniques and tools. This approach can be applied to infrastructure, architecture, landscape design and whole-systems community design.

The foundation of this design approach is intimate observation and relationship building with the local ecology, including the human social and cultural relationships that are part of that ecology. Examples of ecological design include working with native wetland ecology to purify wastewater while cultivating wildlife habitat, creating community layouts that integrate and enhance the ecological and social health of the beings that inhabit the region, and designing homes and buildings that are responsive to the local climate to enable efficient heating, cooling and lighting, while utilizing locally sourced, nontoxic and natural building materials. Indigenous ecological design adds to this by using culturally founded observation and learning practices, and the unique cultural values and cosmology of the people as the foundation of design, in combination with scientific data.

Indigenous nations are socially diverse. In order to pursue strong, unified, nation-building development pathways, it is critical to engage with and be guided by all sectors of society, whether they actively maintain traditional practices or not. To succeed requires openness and a willingness to do the hard, time-consuming work of building trust, communication and participation.

It is also critical to come with an understanding of the history of attempted cultural annihilation through missionaries, boarding schools and other programs undertaken within indigenous nations. This past has a powerful legacy. The violent oppression of native peoples and traditions has left a mark within indigenous societies that must be addressed to support resilient design. Further, development and infrastructure within indigenous territories has been largely externally imposed through negotiations with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, corporations and private contractors. This legacy of colonization can be seen in responses of fear, hesitancy and skepticism that are common from indigenous peoples who are asked to share their visions for the future. It is challenging for people who have been told for generations that their knowledge and practices are lesser and primitive to be asked to participate in practices for contemporary development.

In order to transcend this discomfort, design visioning sessions should be organized and led by local people with known integrity, and be guided by spiritual leaders. If direct, consistent involvement by well-respected spiritual leaders is not a possibility, avenues should be created to ensure their input and involvement at key decision-making points.

BSI has found that hosting open, facilitated meetings, organized with wide outreach, can be an effective practice to facilitate a unified perspective among diverse groups. These meetings can begin with prayer to create openness and clarify the intent of the process and should also involve multiple roundtable discussions with community members and the design team. Key questions identified by BSI include: 

  • What values inform your [native nations’] identity?
  • How do these values inform your visions of the [project, program, development]?
  • How can this [project, program, development] support and put into action these visions and values?

These questions and format can effectively open dialogue to find a unifying foundation and develop strategies of how to learn together.

For developers, planners and design communities that seek to take the indigenous approach in a genuine and meaningful way, the task before them is not small. There can be a real shift in worldview required. Much of the work lies in simply entering into projects from a place of real respect, realizing that many of the answers are within the community and that, indeed, you can’t unlock the answers solely from without. The skillsets of the planning community, valuing deep stakeholder engagement, can be helpful in this way. Also helpful is drawing on the traditions embedded within virtually all cultures, including those of the design team: Elder respect, generosity, hospitality and gratitude.

Dr. PennElys Droz is Executive Director of Sustainable Nations. David Jaber is a Director at Blue Star Integrative Studio. Scott Moore y Medina is Principal Architect at Blue Star Integrative Studio.