FORWARD: Issue #4: Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country
Art + Memory
The preservation of narratives in Native America
Given current initiatives that seek to memorialize Indigenous peoples of America, how can artists, designers, and thought leaders learn from one another to build a complete picture of the massive cultural loss these communities have undergone, while also conveying the pride and hope that they have depended on to survive and persevere?
How can the incorporation of art both create a better understanding of community for Native people and provide opportunities for significant cultural sites to better frame an often one-sided narrative for Natives and non-Natives alike? And how might communities leverage American Rescue Plan Act funding as a way to heal?
Architecture and design play a crucial role in shaping our public spaces and in creating the vessels that hold the narratives, stories, and histories that enable discourse around those spaces. Thoughtfully designed memorials are one important form of these vessels. The process of memorialization is, of course, more than a way to honor the dead, and more than the collection of stories told from different perspectives and embodying different memories. It’s a way to draw meaning from those stories by building them into comprehensive, accurate, and multi-voiced narratives. And while Indigenous communities have an infinity of stories of displacement and loss to be told, each memorial should also serve to provide an image of survival, placing the tribes that have persevered in a compelling and dignified light.
Architecture and design play a crucial role in shaping our public spaces and in creating the vessels that hold the narratives, stories, and histories that enable discourse around those spaces.
For every memorial location that is considered an entryway to Indigenous histories, designers must ask, Why here? Why this project? What can visitors glean from every individual feature, every individual prompt for thought and reflection in this memorial? And what do those features and prompts mean for a population that has been displaced while other communities have been allowed to flourish?
Monuments and Buildings
When a monument stands in a public square, it memorializes a person or event and sends a signal to those passing by that they should approach with reverence. Yet some monuments honor causes that should by no means be revered. In 2020 many monuments of the Confederacy were removed in response to the demands of social movements, part of a public reckoning that identified them as more harmful than inspiring.
Similarly, in Santa Fe in October 2020, a peaceful protest turned into the public toppling of the Santa Fe Obelisk, which was erected in the late 1860s to commemorate Union soldiers who fell during the Civil War. On each of the obelisk’s four sides was an etched panel, the first of which commemorated the Union itself with a forward-looking sentiment: “May it be perpetual.”
Two of the remaining inscribed panels called out separate battles won over the “rebels.” In 1908 and again in the 1930s, groups fought to have the word rebel changed to Confederate, as they deemed the r-word offensive to their Southern sensibilities. In both cases the alteration was denied. The last panel was etched, “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with savage Indians in the territory of New Mexico.” This most problematic panel has long been deemed offensive, by both Native and non-Native communities.
In the 1950s and ’60s many local Native and non-Native community members argued that the panel should be changed, or the monument should be removed altogether. In 1974 the word savage was chiseled off the stone by an as yet unidentified person. The word was not replaced.
Local Indigenous leaders long saw the monument as offensive. By October 2020, after months of empty promises from government to remove it and other such monuments, a crowd of protestors took action and toppled the obelisk. “This isn’t just something we incited or [that arose] through the community,” said Autumn Rose Billie (Taos Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo, and Diné), cofounder of Three Sisters Collective. “These have been issues and conversations that have been talked about at our grandmothers’ tables.”
In early 2021 the City of Santa Fe responded to the toppling by approving a resolution to host community conversations about the issues that surround the event—issues summed up as culture, history, art, reconciliation, and truth (CHART). According to the City of Santa Fe website, “The goal of the CHART process is to foster mutual understanding of shared values among individuals and groups with diverse backgrounds, not simply to decide about monuments and statues.” However, by the end of 2021, only $265,000 has been approved for a project that involves complex programming, including the hiring and training of multiple facilitators. So CHART is still in the development stage, and the community has neither closure nor a clear way forward.
Objects like the obelisk embody something, make a statement, and force that statement upon anyone who approaches them, in some cases provoking negative memories. The obelisk, like many monuments to the Confederacy, controlled the space around it to the detriment of a people. Though changing the fourth panel could potentially have helped, the monument had already caused harm by its mere presence, and that’s what provoked the call for its removal.
The Santa Fe Obelisk was erected in the late 1860s to commemorate Union soldiers who fell during the Civil War. On each side was an etched panel. 2020 photo by Susan Troutt / flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.
By October 2020, after months of empty promises from government to remove it and other such monuments, a crowd of protestors took action and toppled this obelisk. Temporary plaque at the site in 2022. Photo by Netherzone / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.
A monument panel with the offensive term savage chiseled away. 2017 photo by Greg Gjerdingen / flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.
Where and how do we begin to tell the memory of a place in a way that reflects more than the mythology of a dominant group?
Redesigning a public space, such as the square where the obelisk was toppled, demands an investigation into history. What is appropriate to memorialize in a public space in Santa Fe? What might a memorial that frames Union victory and Confederate loss look like when considered through an Indigenous lens? Where and how, in other words, do we begin to tell the memory of a place in a way that reflects more than the mythology of a dominant group?
A monument is erected as a means to communicate a memory. Buildings, however, are another matter. They’re built to allow actions to happen, communions to occur, people to gather. Another conversation is taking place among Native and non-Native community leaders about how to offer more complete histories through memorialization in buildings throughout Indian Country—buildings that have complex and often grisly histories. Architects and designers can develop new ways to communicate these histories—because they can change what the building is doing, altering the action that occurs within it programmatically.
We must reframe the narrative point of view from westward expansion to surviving oppression.
Take the case of several forts erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Great Plains to increase the military presence while the transcontinental railroad was being built. There are demands from within the community to tell the complete story of what happened in these federal buildings—how these places affected Native and non-Native lives and how they shaped and altered access to the land around them. In order to memorialize these spaces properly, we must reframe the narrative point of view from westward expansion to surviving oppression.
United Tribes Technical College
Acknowledging Japanese American internment on Indigenous lands
Location: Bismarck, ND
Artist Role: Representing the bonding of cultures, communities, and individuals while honoring a site’s layered history
Partner Organization: MASS Design Group
A view looking southward over the college campus at the former fort site, showing a sliver of the Missouri River in the upper right corner. Photo courtesy UTTC.
On a grassy stretch of what was once the wide-open prairie sits the United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), a 230-acre site in Bismarck, North Dakota. A short distance from what was once Fort Lincoln, Apple Creek turns to meet the Missouri River. In 1863 this creek was crossed by peaceful Dakota and Lakota tribes looking for safe ground while being pursued by US troops. A school run by five tribal nations has been open on the site since 1969, one of three dozen tribal colleges and universities in the nation. Eighty-seven buildings of what had been Fort Lincoln were ceded to these Indigenous leaders, along with 106 acres of land. Its five-decade history means that UTTC has outlasted all previous iterations of how Fort Lincoln was purposed and repurposed by the government.
Erected at the turn of the 20th century, Fort Lincoln originally consisted of 30 buildings, all brick structures, used to mobilize troops heading to the Philippines and to border disputes with Mexico. After these conflicts it was used to house and prepare soldiers for World War I. In the late 1920s and early ’30s the fort served as regional headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a Depression-era work program.
However, the site pivoted from military preparation to incarceration when, from 1941 to 1946, portions of the fort were cordoned off for human confinement. A 10-foot-high cyclone fence was erected, barbed wire was installed atop the fence, and the area was fortified with guard towers, transforming the fort into an internment camp. During these years upwards of 4,000 men were held at Fort Lincoln after being detained by the FBI. Both Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese ancestry were held at the fort, along with German and Italian POWs.
By 1948, the property shifted again, becoming a headquarters for the US Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of North Dakota’s Garrison Dam and Lake Sakakawea (a move that flooded thousands of acres of tribal lands along the Missouri River). By the late 1960s, negotiations were in process to cede the fort and surrounding land to tribal leaders.
Today the buildings represent something very different from what they once did—the cooperative efforts of a collective of five tribal nations who are intent on preserving the legacy of Indigenous peoples, but who are also committed to pointing out the commonalities between what occurred here in the 1940s and their own painful histories.
As part of its commitment to the education and advancement of Native and non-Native students, UTTC strives to improve understanding about the ill-treatment of many groups of people in America and to help bring about healing for those who suffered unjustly. The Fort Lincoln space, like most any other place in what is now the United States, could memorialize the removal of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands. But the college decided to shine a light on the history of the fort as an internment camp, mainly for Americans of Japanese descent.
Fort Lincoln Internment Camp entrance. Photos courtesy UTTC.
Fort Lincoln internment camp fence and guard towers.
Fort Lincoln internment camp entrance.
Deed transferred to United Tribes in 1973
Japanese American citizen internees at Fort Lincoln.
The Acknowledgment of Injustices
When MASS Design Group was approached to commemorate those who were interned at Fort Lincoln, their first step was to look at the history of how the prisoners ended up here. Just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the first 400 Japanese, mostly noncitizens suspected of espionage, were interned and placed into wooden barracks. In 1942 Roosevelt would mandate mass incarceration for Japanese Americans—first-generation immigrants, who were denied citizenship by law; Japanese immigrants, who were also denied citizenship; and second-generation Japanese Americans, who were American citizens by birth. The process of removal began in late February 1942. Japanese Americans throughout the West Coast were given little notice, often only a week, before having to report to temporary detention centers like Fort Lincoln.
The government’s War Relocation Authority forced the Japanese Americans to answer a loyalty questionnaire. The questions were disguised as steps toward release, but instead sowed division and distrust. Two questions asked if the respondent was loyal to the United States, forcing an impossible and dehumanizing choice upon Japanese Americans—obediently declare a loyalty that should never have been questioned, or protest the violation of your rights by answering “no-no” and be deemed disloyal. Many of the men at Fort Lincoln were so-called “no-no boys,” having expressed their disgust with relocation by their negative answers.
The displacement and other life-altering circumstances brought about by wartime incarceration would affect the Japanese American community for generations to come.
Ganbatte is one of the most common words in the Japanese language. Most easily translated as “do your best,” it is also a call to triumph over adversity. During internment, ganbatte came to mean resisting injustice. The “no-no boys” represent the spirit of ganbatte. This spirit of resistance can also be seen in the ongoing fight of Native American communities for sovereignty, civil rights, and cultural agency. This commonality was strengthened when the tribal leaders took on the challenge of uplifting a story of injustices done to another minority.
Designing the Memorial
The proposed design takes its cue from the craft of kintsugi, a process used in Japanese ceramics to mend broken pottery with gold-dusted lacquer. The bond created in this practice becomes a physical record of what has happened to the piece and a new and dignified element of its identity going forward. The design of a memorial wall incorporates kintsugi as a gesture representing the bonding of cultures, communities, and individuals at a shared ceremonial and communal space. At the same time, it gestures to the spirit of ganbatte—perseverance through brokenness, continuity in spite of the smashing blows of historical injustice.
Though this was a center for injustices unrelated to the tribes, their acknowledgment and ownership of this narrative is impactful.
For the memorial at UTTC, first the goal is to convey the story of the Japanese American experience at Fort Lincoln and to carry forward the spirit of ganbatte across generations and cultures. More broadly, however, there is a bigger opportunity to catalyze a vast reconciliation process around intersectional and sustained systems of oppression in America. Though this was a center for injustices unrelated to the tribes, their acknowledgment and ownership of this narrative is impactful. “This is important work,” says Dr. Leander McDonald, president of UTTC, “to recognize what happened not only to our Japanese American relatives but also to ourselves. This memorial will show that we’re still here, that we’ve survived, and that now we need to move ahead.”
The system of oppression at play links the Japanese and the tribal nations, and with this memorial they can confront the ugly legacy of this place through shared empathy, empowering the space through memory. At its best, this public acknowledgment will link these histories, while memorializing the injustices both communities experienced.
The grassy expanse in the center of the tribal college campus was originally the Fort Lincoln military parade ground. In 1970, it was transformed into the college's powwow grounds. The large circular arbor has framed the annual dance competition and celebration of tribal culture for more than 50 years. Drone photo from the 2021 UTTC International Powwow. Photo by Greg Messer, courtesy UTTC.
The Northern Cheyenne Healing Trail
Memorializing migration, acknowledging massacre, finding opportunity for healing, and reconsidering how we recount historical perspective and borders
Location: Crawford, NE
Artist Role: Creating a new, Northern Cheyenne–owned narrative through a trail that represents the precolonial space and speaks to the will and resilience of tribal leaders
Partner Organizations: MASS Design Group, Chief Dull Knife College, Northern Cheyenne Breakout Committee
Cost: National Park Service planning grant award amount: $149,500 The final cost to completion will be higher.
Design team site visit at the Northern Cheyenne Healing Trail, in Nebraska. Fort Robinson, now a National Historic Landmark, sits between Sioux and Dawes Counties in the northwest corner of Nebraska. The imprisonment and subsequent breakout of the Cheyenne is not among the historical facts shared with visitors there. In designing a memorial (in process), the team is considering how to recognize the entire picture of the site. Photo courtesy MASS Design Group.
Fort Robinson, like many sites in the United States, frames its history within the context of western expansion; it’s a milestone in a narrative of progress and of the discovery of new land to which European settlers could stake a claim. From both design and storytelling perspectives we are forced to reckon with this settler-colonial historical context while attempting to explore the experience of Indigenous peoples affected by that encroachment. By unpacking and reclaiming the narrative of westward expansion, Indigenous voices can regain control of a history that has, by and large, been framed by the white “owners” of that narrative. To reframe it requires that we envision a borderless/stateless account of place, while also taking into account the boundaries created by the westward expansion of white settlement, and the effect of those boundaries and settlements on the lives and narratives of those who lived there before there were boundaries.
By unpacking and reclaiming the narrative of westward expansion, Indigenous voices can regain control of a history that has, by and large, been framed by the white “owners” of that narrative.
The first transcontinental railroad was built between 1863 and 1869. Its construction prompted ever-greater numbers of people to settle in the West and to export the region’s natural resources to the booming cities in California, the Midwest, and the East. At sites like Fort Robinson, this story of railroad expansion is too often told in terms of “progress,” with the brutality left out. And Fort Robinson has left a brutal legacy.
As the Union Pacific cut its way westward across the Platte Valley in 1865, its workers grew fearful of what they called "the Indian menace." Certainly, the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho maintained a presence on what had once been their ancestral homelands and prime hunting land. While chiefs ordered their warriors to stay away from the railways, they were not always obeyed, and the railroad received its share of harassment. This led to an increased sense of the railroad’s vulnerability and fears that it could be compromised, which spawned a greater military presence at strategic posts throughout the plains.
By the 1860s, Native Americans had signed away the rights to much of their land in treaties with the federal government. By the time of railway construction, decades of mass immigration by settlers had already destroyed large swaths of the countryside, forcing buffalo herds to migrate elsewhere and forcing the tribes that remained to disperse in search of food. But the railroad was probably the single biggest contributor to the loss of the bison, which was particularly traumatic to the Plains tribes, who depended on it for everything from meat for food to skins and fur for clothing, and more.
Tribes increasingly came into conflict with the railroad as they attempted to defend their diminishing resources. Tribes of the Plains found themselves at cultural odds with the whites building the railroad and settlers claiming ownership of land that had previously never been owned. In response, Native Americans sabotaged the railroad and attacked white settlements supported by the line, in an attempt to reclaim the way of life that was being taken from them. If they were not taking aim at the railroad tracks and machinery, they were attacking the workers and absconding with their livestock. Ultimately the tribes of the Plains were unsuccessful in preventing the loss of their territory and hunting resources. Their struggle serves as a poignant example of how the transcontinental railroad could simultaneously destroy one way of life and usher in another.
Morning Star, a prominent Cheyenne leader, fought beside Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the war for the Black Hills, made famous in the white world as Custer’s Last Stand. He and his band were forced to surrender to the US Army in 1877 and were relocated to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. The Cheyenne repeatedly petitioned to be able to return to their sacred Black Hills homeland, but were refused, so Morning Star helped to lead an escape. Three hundred Cheyenne fled north, then split into two bands. The band led by Morning Star, which would become the Northern Cheyenne, was attacked by an army patrol in the Sand Hills of Nebraska and brought to Fort Robinson, where they lived as virtual prisoners until the Interior Department ruled that they had to be returned to the Indian Territory.
This provoked a second escape. Soldiers pursued; the Cheyenne set up a defensive perimeter and in the battle that followed, many of them were killed and the rest imprisoned. Only eight Cheyenne, including Morning Star, managed to escape to the Pine Ridge reservation in the Black Hills.
Designing the Healing Trail
Fort Robinson, now a National Historic Landmark, sits between Sioux and Dawes Counties in the northwest corner of Nebraska. The imprisonment and subsequent breakout of the Cheyenne is not among the historical facts shared with visitors there.
If you were asked to design a new entryway into the Indigenous history of this place, you might consider what it would look like to follow a different path, to create a new, Northern Cheyenne–owned narrative. You might create a trail that represents what this space looked like before the railway, and specifically speaks to the resilience of Morning Star and Little Wolf and their unwillingness to return south. Such a trail is, in fact, in the planning stages.
But how do you represent a journey bisected by a massacre? How do you acknowledge that massacre and honor its victims?
But how do you represent a journey bisected by a massacre? How do you acknowledge that massacre and honor its victims? How can the ground where so much injustice took place offer an opportunity for healing? In short, how do you recount the total picture of Fort Robinson? You could add places for formerly ignored histories to be told and passed down to future generations. Places for reflection on the pain of that history and healing from it. Places of transition, where the journey begins and ends, and multiple points of entry.
The challenge of this memorial is that it requires a reconsideration of how we handle history and borders
The challenge of this memorial is that it requires a reconsideration of how we handle history and borders, to help us better understand not only the journey of the Cheyenne and the events that led to a massacre, but also how these events led from disaster to rebirth, from a massacre to the creation of a proud group called the Northern Cheyenne.
Discussions with the community about the design of the memorial are underway, but nothing has been finalized. There’s a hope that the basic design, a trail, will result in much more than a simple walking path; that it will provide plenty of space for contemplation. There need to be places along the trail where those walking it can simply look out onto the surrounding plains, framing the lands with a new understanding of their histories—reframing them, in fact, as a borderless place. (After all, Nebraska as we know it now is an abstraction that encompasses sacred lands, and for those who dwelt on those lands, boundaries were meaningless.) From these stops along the trail, visitors could see the land for what it is, while imagining what it may have been and what it still can be.
A Note About Native History and Its Tellers
America has landscapes that are scarred with painful untold stories—stories of those who lived through unimaginable terror and made nearly unthinkable sacrifices. Their suffering and loss has not been individualized, and thus has never been fully understood. This is particularly true of the battlefields on the Great Plains. The histories here have not been told in a nuanced way and contain a multitude of perspectives that have yet to be gathered and fully understood as a whole.
It’s important to realize that any “tribal history” is actually made up of a whole variety of stories, many of which are shared verbally and passed on by individuals and tribal groups from generation to generation, a process that may alter each story over time.
The various bands of the Sioux nation, for example, have their own versions of the massacre at Fort Robinson. The story retold here of Morning Star’s Cheyenne band is only one of many narratives. In fact, even when places like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian make well-meaning efforts to tell these stories, the complexities of tribal histories and cultures are further muddled by attempts to combine them into an overarching national narrative. We need to gather a variety of these stories to document a fuller scope of Native cultures and histories from different cultural and spatial perspectives. And since elders are important carriers of this spoken history, as well as torchbearers of Native culture in many other ways, it’s vital to care for them, particularly in times of community crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.
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FORWARD: Issue #4
Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country
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