FORWARD: Issue #4: Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country
From the Guest Editor
The Wa-Di Housing project in Kewa, NM supports healthy studio space while respecting the desire for shared community. Photo ©HarryConnolly.com, from Design with Love: At Home in America.
Designing for Justice and Human Dignity
Considering design, art, and architecture by elevating voices and cultures from our Indigenous communities
by Joseph Kunkel
Indian Country is a web of complexity: there are currently 574 federally recognized tribes, which account for just over one percent of the total population of what is now the United States of America. It is a profound achievement of these tribes and cultures to have lived without conformity to, and assimilation with, white America—a testament to a culture of sovereignty and self-determination.
It is a profound achievement of these tribes and cultures to have lived without conformity to, and assimilation with, white America—a testament to a culture of sovereignty and self-determination.
When I reflect on my career thus far, and when I work on the built environment in general, I find myself thinking about the nuances that have allowed me to understand Indian Country. Most of what I am calling to mind is not the architecture and design that we see day to day; it is placeless-ness. It is the rich, nuanced culture, and the ways in which they separate their land.
Today, as an individual practicing architecture and planning who works in Indian Country, and a professor within our Western-oriented education system, I find myself pivoting between two different yet related worlds. I connect the two as best I can: I allow things I’ve learned from practice to shape the courses I teach, and I use lessons and ideas I’ve acquired in the classroom to reconsider how my design colleagues and I can help improve the everyday lives and experiences of Indigenous people living in extreme poverty, both in and outside of Indian Country.
The perspective shared in this issue has been developed over a decade of professional practice, but is also a reflection of ideas that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s the product of multiple points of view, based on the knowledge that I’ve received from members of my grandfathers' generation, and on interpretations from both a Native and a non-Native perspective.
Our society has a responsibility to seek these perspectives, to elevate the voices and cultures of our tribal communities across these Indigenous lands which now make up the United States, and to incorporate their shared histories, stories, and heritages.
Construction of a straw bale house. "These load-bearing straw-bale homes represent a climate-appropriate, super-insulated response to the Northern Plains’ winter conditions,” according to research from MASS Design Group. Photo by Michael Rosenberg, courtesy Nathaniel Corum.
Our society has a responsibility to seek these perspectives, to elevate the voices and cultures of our tribal communities across these Indigenous lands which now make up the United States, and to incorporate their shared histories, stories, and heritages. What is presented in this issue and these specific works is a small sample of what I see as exemplary.
The work happening in Indian Country showcases how tribally led and non-tribally led organizations are lifting up Indigenous ways of thinking, represented through design and the arts. My hope is that we as a country can all do a better job of listening—not only to our Indigenous populations, but to all of our under-represented communities—when we consider design, art, and architecture.
The question is not what is the cost of architecture, but what is the cost of not having architecture?
—Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health
Bottom image: Wa-Di Housing, AOS Architects + Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, 2016
As you read through the accounts of this work, please take a moment to remember those who have been forgotten, because the wisdom of our ancestors will help us create a more honest and unified present. It will also help us create a more unified country.
We can do this through the power of art and design—actually, through the power of human expression, which lies at the heart of art and culture. Art is one of the world’s most powerful mediums because it represents the connection between personal ideals and communal values. The more we elevate the understanding of these ideals and values through American Indian art and culture, the better positioned we will be to increase a sense of understanding between our Native and non-Native communities. Only then will we be able to create spaces for healing, places for love, and a future that reflects the best in this ongoing experiment we all call the United States of America.
My hope is that we as a country can all do a better job of listening, not only to our Indigenous populations, but to all of our under-represented communities when we consider design, art, and architecture.
Principal, Director, SNC Design Lab Santa Fe, NM, USA
Joseph, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, is the director of MASS Design Group's Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a community designer and educator, his work explores how architecture, planning, and construction can be leveraged to positively impact the built and unbuilt environments within Indian Country. Joseph’s early work focused on the research of exemplary Native American Indian housing projects and processes nationwide. This research work has developed into emerging best practices within Indian Country, leading to an online "Healthy Homes Road Map" for affordable tribal housing development, funded by HUD’s Policy Development and Research Office.
From 2013 to 2016, Joseph led the development of a 41-unit low-income housing tax credit development, which started with an Our Town grant funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and led to an ArtPlace America grant award.
In 2019, Joseph was awarded an Obama Fellowship for his work with Indigenous communities. He also received a 2018 Rauschenberg SEED grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and a 2019 Creative Capital Award. Joseph is a Fellow of the inaugural class of the Civil Society Fellowship (a partner of ADL and the Aspen Institute) and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Most recently, Joseph was awarded the 2021 inaugural Elaine Johnson Coates Award by the University of Maryland’s Alumni Association.
with Joseph Kunkel, Jeremy Liu, and Angela Two Stars A FORWARD series panel discussion about how the built environment can lift up a community's notions of art, culture, and place. How can we center artists and culture bearers alongside designers to overcome bureaucratic racism in the design field? Design impacts peoples’ lives. Let’s talk about it. Joseph Kunkel is the director of MASS Design Group‘s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab and citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Joseph also served as the guest editor of FORWARD Issue 4. Jeremy Liu, an award-winning artist, social impact strategist and real estate developer, served as the featured essayist of FORWARD Issue 4. Angela Two Stars, an artist, curator, and director of All My Relations Arts, is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. This conversation was held via Zoom on Thursday, June 2, 2022 Watch the Recording on Forecast's YouTube channel.
Please consider a donation to make events like this possible.
Sign up for our Public Art Update to receive monthly insights on what's happening at Forecast and in the fields of public art and creative placemaking. You can also follow along behind the scenes with our consulting team in our quarterly Making Change and learn how we work on projects our team is leading nationwide.
FORWARD: Issue #4
Redefining Sustainable Design in Indian Country
© COPYRIGHT 2022 FORECAST PUBLIC ART ISSN 2768-4113