FORWARD: Issue #4: Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country
Native communities need equitable housing —and that means more than houses.
Unequal access to care and an already dangerous housing crisis plague Indigenous communities in the United States. Given the numbers, we might assume the lack of housing in Indian Country would lead to severe homelessness, but it’s actually more often an issue of overcrowding. Cultural and communal values lead many tribal communities to shelter those in need, ballooning single-family house populations to unhealthy levels. This has led to increasingly dire risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising concerns especially for the health and survival of elders, who are so often cultural and tribal leaders.
In 2014 the Housing Assistance Council, a national nonprofit that supports affordable-housing efforts in the rural US, declared that there was an immediate need for 200,000 units of housing in Indian Country. The cost of this would be close to $5 billion. An increase in traditional mortgage lending to tribes would begin to solve this housing problem, bringing money to the table while also creating a valuable housing market where there currently isn’t one. Under the current federal funding model, it would take approximately 120 years to close the 200,000-unit Native housing gap.
But these numbers don’t tell the whole story, and the argument that housing alone will create change is problematic. It tends to reduce the problem to an isolated issue—building—and ignore the many other factors in play. Supplying housing by itself has never been, and will never be, successful, because the problem is larger than that. In many plans, the only buildings erected or proposed for erection on Native land are affordable-housing units, which don’t attract banks and other sources of investment because they’re viewed as poor risks. The only viable source of funds, then, is the federal government, and federal funding has only one goal: building houses. But the housing needs of Indian Country go beyond bricks and mortar. Indigenous peoples need more uplift than mere shelter can provide—and here is where design comes in.
Design isn’t just drawing up plans for builders to execute. Powerful, purposeful design can help those who live in the community to prosper in many ways beyond shelter.
Design isn’t just drawing up plans for builders to execute. Powerful, purposeful design can help those who live in the community to prosper in many ways beyond shelter. Creative design thinking and close listening to the cultural and spiritual needs of Indigenous communities can make planners more effective at addressing housing insecurity, because that insecurity is more than physical. The opportunity in Indian Country is to build culturally relevant, equitable developments that are both sustainable and place-specific, providing clear opportunities for community uplift.
The construction of housing should be seen as a vehicle for economic development as well. Tribal builders, developers, and craftspeople should be employed on the projects, so that money earmarked for housing flows into the community and a skilled and unskilled Native workforce is developed. It will also ensure that projects reflect local Indigenous values.
Scroll down to learn about three creative projects that are helping communities thrive on these principles.
Thunder Valley Regenerative Community Development Initiative
Addressing multiple generations to preserve culture through community-specific design
Location: Porcupine, SD
Artist Role: Upholding a seven-generation concept with design that respects the desire for shared community space as well as access to amenities
Partner Organizations: Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, Ferguson Pyatt Architects
Tatewin Means, executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, explains that healing is at the center of the organization’s work. “We can talk about the determinants of health, but in order for our communities to thrive, we need to talk about healing. We are healing from decades of intergenerational trauma, healing our relationship to Mother Earth. We need to heal our built environment and physical structures too.”
In 2011, Thunder Valley acquired 34 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Regenerative Community Development Initiative focuses on community planning, building design, recreational space design, wayfinding and environmental sustainability for this land, currently home to 19 families.
It’s just one of Thunder Valley’s eight initiatives, each contributing to a holistic approach toward healing, hope and liberation for the Lakota people.
This healing can happen, says Kimberly Pelkofsky, Thunder Valley’s director of Design and Planning, when families and children are “connected to a community with opportunities for play and enjoyment and safe homes to grow up in with good indoor air quality and access to natural light.”
“We are building a community from the ground up, including housing, recreation, education, and spiritual spaces. The aim is to build a unique place that is intentional and comes directly from the Lakota perspective.”
Community center and playground. Because Thunder Valley takes a multi-generational approach, young people are an important part of the organization’s community development efforts
Solar panels and passive solar heating—big south facing windows—as well as other sustainable energy infrastructure are all part of the community’s effort to heal humans’ relationship with Mother Earth.
Our ancestors thought about us seven generations ahead. Now, our part of the story is picking up that legacy and carrying it forward so that future generations have the ability to be Lakota and thrive.
Thunder Valley Bunk House. Each of their home's entrances face east, reflecting the importance of greeting the rising sun each morning.
As Means puts it, “The Lakota people have always been here. Our creation story is connected to this place. Our ancestors are buried here, and it’s our duty to maintain those stories and connections. Reconnecting to our language and local lifeways is fundamental to our path forward as individuals, families, and as a Lakota nation.”
Thunder Valley is weaving Lakota values and lifeways into the development from the ground up. The organization’s community engagement process continues today as it works to update the master plan created in 2011.
Building a truly Lakota community means looking to the past, present, and future for wisdom and inspiration. All of the home’s entrances are built facing the east, reflecting the importance of greeting the rising sun each morning, and mirroring the way tipis were constructed, in circles of seven with a communal space in the center. Passive solar heating and other sustainable energy infrastructure are part of the community’s effort to heal humans’ relationship with Mother Earth.
Because Thunder Valley takes a multi-generational approach, young people are an important part of the organization’s community development efforts. This means creating an onsite Lakota immersion school, a Food Sovereignty Initiative that features youth programs in a community garden, and more.
“We have the opportunity to create spaces that are tailored to what the community wants—spaces that can help connect people with their identity, with how they really live their lives, and begin to heal the disconnection that can happen when, for example, people are separated from their family structures,” says Pelkofsky.
This process brings unique challenges, including finding funding for and maintaining crucial infrastructure. The reservation’s water allocations were set in the ‘70s and haven’t been updated since. Gathering community input has been more challenging during the pandemic.
In addition, says Pelkofsky, “This work doesn’t happen overnight. Community development is at its core a process of planting seeds for future generations.”
“Our ancestors thought about us seven generations ahead,” says Means. “Now, our part of the story is picking up that legacy and carrying it forward so that future generations have the ability to be Lakota and thrive.” Despite any challenges, “We have to always keep that long view at heart.”
Wa-Di Housing Project
Location: Kewa, NM
Artist Role: Supporting healthy studio space while respecting the desire for shared community
Partner Organizations: Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority, New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, AOS Architects
Photo by AOS Architects.
In Santo Domingo Pueblo (aka Kewa Pueblo), the Wa-Di housing project focused on a need to not only supply housing, but to provide artists with safe studio space. In these houses, studio spaces were an integral component for the type of community the buildings were built to serve: a flourishing community of artists. A common problem for artists working from home is the danger of the particulates they breathe in from various materials and processes (paint, working with wood). In an artist community, this can become a serious communal health issue. Generous studio spaces filled with light and supplied with proper ventilation were as important a part of the buildings as living spaces.
The units were placed close together, respecting the tribe’s historic preference for density, and they’re within easy walking distance of amenities. An important element in the development is a 3,000-square-foot community center with a large multipurpose room for social events, a computer lab, a playground and basketball court, and daycare facilities. Wa-Di is designed to accommodate population growth and to support a variety of programs that enrich the community and celebrate the Pueblo's cultural heritage.
Kewa Pueblo Trading Post. Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design With Love: At Home in America.
Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design With Love: At Home in America.
Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design With Love: At Home in America.
Artist Robert Tenorio lives and works at Santo Domingo. Photo by Noah Webb.
Kewa Pueblo resident John Lovato. Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design With Love: At Home in America.
Kewa Pueblo residents Aliza and Cianna. Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design With Love: At Home in America.
Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design With Love: At Home in America.
COVID Block BVR (Big Valley Ranchería)
Leveraging CARES Act funding to develop responsive community housing
Location: Lakeport, CA
Artist Role: Supporting community uplift through design that values renewal and dignity
Partner Organizations: Connect Homes, MASS Design Group
Village features include a flood resistant "island" approach allowing for homes in a FEMA 2’ flood zone. Gathering and activity areas include space for outdoor education, gardening, meals and events. Renderings are intended for conceptual purposes. Images courtesy MASS Design Group.
The historical narrative of Indigenous people in North America can be framed by the concept of displacement. A people who once populated the entire geography of what is now the United States currently has control of roughly two percent of the land, in the form of reservations. For many, Indian Country is haunted by its history and plagued by death and poverty. Perhaps the most prominent symbols of this version of the Native condition are the double-wide trailers found all across the Great Plains.
Year after year, in response to natural disasters or the urgent requests of tribes suffering housing loss or shortage, FEMA has installed these trailers. Built to be temporary, and with no thought to the future, they’ve come to represent decay rather than renewal.
But there’s an opportunity to do better with responsive housing—housing created in response to crises. We can abandon the double-wide paradigm and provide a sense of security and community uplift with housing that is dignified and sustainable. Builders like Connect Homes are creating new prefabricated structures that incorporate beautiful design with sustainability and environmental accountability.
That’s one main reason that Connect Homes was selected for this project, creating elder housing for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California. CARES Act funding was leveraged to create these units. With these handsome and solid structures, modular housing is suddenly transformed from a mere response to negative events into something desirable and future-facing. There’s a worldwide need for prefabricated housing, but it’s rarely been created by a company that can build modularly, transport nationally, and go beyond a focus on mere construction into genuine community uplift, as Connect Homes can.
This could become a model for rapid-response recovery housing—helping communities that have seen their homes destroyed recover with dignity.
Quality efficient home designs are a model for near-term development anticipated by the tribe.
Construction in process. Phase one homes are on their foundations with water and sewer connected. The team is awaiting final electrical utility connections before starting the final phase of construction, including decks and ramps.
This could become a model for rapid-response recovery housing—helping communities that have seen their homes destroyed recover with dignity—as well as longer-term housing for rural and tribal communities across the country, alleviating the housing pressures that afflict them.
Of course, bringing in prefabricated housing doesn’t offer the same kind of economic uplift—offering good-paying jobs to community members—that creating buildings from the ground up might. But these structures do add value to communities, rather than blight them and reduce housing values in the surrounding areas, as single-wide mobile homes tend to do.
Ground opening ceremony.
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FORWARD: Issue #4
Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country
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