Lifestyle & Culture

The Indigenous Female Architects Shaking Up the Design World

Native American people have not had a whole lot of representation in the world of architecture and design in recent years---which is exactly what these three students want to change.

08.08.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by ISAPD
Photo by ISAPD

In late 1969, 89 American Indians, collectively known as the United Indians of All Tribes, set out on a mission to take hold of Alcatraz Island. Only a handful made it past the coast guard blockade, but they were enough to begin a 19-month occupation that, at its peak, counted 400 active protesters.

Why? Long before the island was a feared federal prison, it had belonged to indigenous people, and the protesters were claiming access to that which they felt had been unfairly taken away from their ancestors.

The occupation was ultimately ended by force and the island has never transferred away from US Government control. But for many, the Alcatraz occupation constitutes the first time the world paid attention to the Native American cause, sparking both a wave of indigenous civil disobedience and ‘Unthanksgiving Day’, an annual celebration of the rights of indigenous people.

And now, to celebrate the occupation’s 50th year anniversary, a group of students at Yale University are honouring the birth of the “tribal sovereignty movement” with an exhibition of work by contemporary Native American artists called “Making Space for Resistance: Past, Present and Future.”

The exhibition aims to not only challenge assumptions what a museum space feels like, installing materials like horsehair and pine needles in the room, but also to function as a “present-day memorial” for missing and murdered indigenous women.

Charelle Brown, Anjelica Gallegos and Summer Sutton, three Native American women studying at Yale University’s architecture department — as an undergraduate, post-graduate and PhD candidate, respectively—are behind a new group called the Indigenous Scholars of Architecture, Planning and Design (ISAPD).

The group aims to increase the “knowledge, consciousness and appreciation of Indigenous architecture, planning and design” at Yale’s School of Architecture, then later across society as a whole.


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Making Space for Resistance: Past, Present, Future – ARTIST FEATURE – . Meet artist Adrian Standing-Elk Pinnecoose from the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Pinnecoose graduated from the University of New Mexico with his Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and his Master of Science degree in Architecture: Computational Ecologies. As a contemporary artist, he is known for producing innovative pieces that explore and push forward the limits of computer-generated design. . . “My culture, my identity, my values are intertwined into the fabrication of my art to begin the conversation of opening doors for the next generation of Indigenous artists. I am simultaneously looking back to the past and forward to the future in order to highlight the qualitative aspect of my heritage and weave those meanings into my designs. Though static, my pieces become fluid, able to transcend the bounds of time and place.” . Pictured is @asepdesigns at the @heardmuseum Guild Indian Fair and Market where his work placed first in Mixed Media and honorable mention in Cutting Edge. . #curatedbyisapd #adrianstandingelkpinnecoose #artist #indigenousartist

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“We’ve been planting seeds throughout our time here to create a more inclusive atmosphere for the indigenous perspective to be taken seriously and even made part of the curriculum,” Gallegos told Architectural Digest.

On Instagram, ISAPD shared a comment from one artist whose work will be featured in the upcoming exhibition. “My use of florals is important because it honors our small relatives as well as my ancestors who used nature to express who we are as Anishinabe,” she writes. “I am only able to create new pieces of art because I recognize the importance of those that came before me.”

The exhibition and social focus is not a strange deviation for architecture students. The discipline has always been about more than just buildings and shelter: It’s about who, historically, has the right to do things on the land. It’s about how we respect and provide for communities from different socio-economic backgrounds.

Other initiatives have focused on architecture with a similar agenda. Michael Ford’s Hip Hop Academy links together rap musicians and planning officials with young people to “think critically and dream fearlessly” about the neighbourhoods and communities they live in.

In an interview with ByDESIGN, the three ISAPD women said that a larger indigenous knowledge and presence in architecture, using different experiences and design methods, “will draw new elements and answers that mainstream architecture has never seen before.”

They also offer advice to current and prospective students for managing the pitfalls of an architecture degree.

“Remind yourself sometimes there isn’t a whole lot of precedent for the work you are envisioning for yourself, but this is not a reason to confine yourself to ideas of architecture and planning of non- Indigenous or what white professors are teaching,” Brown said.

“Follow what excites you.”

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