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Indigenous designers have been exploring how design can be used to increase tribal sovereignty.


Indigenous designers, artists, and activists

Our history books and government

The United States alone, and its access to proper housing, infrastructure, and education are badly damaged by this collective oblivion. Our history books and government, which have not adequately fulfilled land treaties with Native American tribes signed centuries ago, have either taken these items from them or neglected them.

According to the Navajo Housing Authority, more than half of the structures on the reservations are either in disrepair or need extensive renovations, and 39% of the housing is overcrowded. According to reports, twenty percent of these dwellings lack connection to public electric service and thirty percent lack access to a public water source. For the few Indigenous homes that do have access to water, proximity to tailings and toxins from a history of land extraction has an influence on water quality, resulting in significant inequities in public health.

United States’ colonial history and its impact

The dismantling of the machinery of the United States’ colonial history and its impact on tribal sovereignty requires more than changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day or adding Native American Heritage Month to the calendar; fortunately, Indigenous architects and artists have already begun this work.

Chris Cornelius, founder of Studio: indigenous, seeks to educate others about Indigenous existence via his architecture. Cornelius, who grew up in housing provided by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, also known as HUD Houses, has first-hand knowledge of how Indigenous input was excluded from solutions for reservation living, and he notes that the HUD house model appears to have been replicated across North America.

This uniform planning lacks a grasp of how tribal climates differ and how to include community involvement; according to him, little consideration has been given to how Indigenous families may utilize their space for ceremonial, governance, or for commerce. “When we disregard design, we disregard cultural and environmental responsibility,” says Cornelius. This influenced his architectural approach, which stresses indigenous lifestyles and guiding concepts.

Cornelius argues that respecting how housing complexes are deployed combats the past disregard for HUD homes on reservations. In a prototype, he imagined this year titled Not My HUD House, the architect investigates the indigenous lifestyle elements that his home lacked, such as a porch, a fire pit, and a view of the night sky.


Community Schools in Franklin and Wisconsin

Cornelius has also directly applied this strategy to the educational system. In reality, his first major undertaking was the Indian Community School in Franklin, Wisconsin, which aimed to counteract a past in which “education was exploited as a colonial and assimilation instrument.

” Reflecting on the United States compulsion of Indigenous students to attend boarding schools, cut their hair, change their names, and abandon their religion and language, the school he co-founded with Antoine Predock more than two decades ago prioritizes indigenous principles in everything from the naming of spaces to the design of the school’s architecture. “We eliminated all institutional names,” explains Cornelius. “Instead of the cafeteria, it’s named Feast; instead of the lobby, it’s called Community; and instead of theater, it’s called Drum.”

Cornelius reclaims space via a design that recognizes and emphasizes indigenous existence in his work. It demonstrates that what the invaders stole—a highly effective political and economic system, abundant land stewardship, and a relationship- and community-oriented culture—is here to stay.

Tammy Eagle Bull the first Native American

The aforementioned 574 tribes of the United States each have its own set of customs, languages, and systems of administration; they are also a permanent feature. According to Tammy Eagle Bull, the first Native American to become a professional architect in the United States, many architects make the error of confusing the demands of Indigenous peoples while attempting to collaborate with tribes.

Because of this, students at Design Build Utah in Bluff are extremely deliberate in their interactions with local clientele. Before committing to a 24-week program that focuses on designing and constructing an inexpensive house for a Navajo Nation person, this year’s cohort spent a year attending classes on public interest design and how to reject a legacy of white saviors in regard to housing solutions on reservations. After spending 12 weeks last summer developing a prototype with the assistance of locals offering input through interviews, eight students set out to construct a home for their customers without “any preconceived beliefs or stereotypes about Native culture,” as student Tom McKean described it.


Still, Point aims to induce a sense of tranquility in a client who has lived apart from her family for fifty years in numerous residences. It has an entryway that serves as a greenhouse, a patio roof, an outdoor kitchen, concrete flooring that stores solar energy as heat, and a foundation composed of inexpensive materials that non-architects can learn to deal with more readily. They have even worked with the customer so that she may extend her house in the future if she desires or needs it. 

In addition, once they complete the project in December, the group will publish a “building journal” that describes the materials used, construction drawings, and expansion plans—basically an open book to the project—so that others (local residents, organizations, or businesses) can implement similar reservation solutions.
In order to provide Indigenous communities with equal opportunity, it is not only essential but crucial to make blueprints broadly available and to develop frameworks that can be replicated throughout reservations.

The community’s response to the state of New Mexico

According to Preston Sanchez, a Senior Attorney for Indigenous Justice at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, this refers to legal frameworks. Sanchez is now attempting to enact The Tribal Remedy Framework to address the iconic white supremacist adage “murder the Indian, save the man” and the terrible impact of assimilation on Indigenous kids. “It is the community’s response to the state of New Mexico and the system’s inability to appropriately educate pupils and meet their needs equitably,” he adds.

The act mandates state investment in community centers and tribal libraries with access to resources such as tutoring, high-speed internet, and high-quality technology in order to close the gaping resource gap between kids living on reservations and their peers. Without this, Indigenous kids are forced to travel vast distances for supplies or attend schools that do not meet their requirements. According to Tammy Eagle Bull, “the average indigenous community receives a new school every 60 years or so; these schools are well beyond their planned life.”

Victor Lopez-Carmen

Victor Lopez-Carmen, an MD candidate at Harvard whose career includes the White House and the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, underlines the importance of health care for the flourishing of indigenous communities. He continues, “The Indian Health Service receives less funding than any other government-run health care service.” Native Americans have the highest mortality rates for 15 of the top 16 main causes of death in the United States. 

This stems from the displacement of Indigenous tribes from their native lands and subsequent relocation to lands with less fertile soil, preventing them from cultivating food as they had before, as well as the mass killing of their primary food source, buffalo, by invaders. According to Lopez-Carmen, the remedy to disenfranchisement lies in both revitalizing community gardens and recruiting more Indigenous people into the medical industry.

According to Lopez-Carmen, indigenous health is taught in just 11% of U.S. medical schools. This lack of representation has contributed to the perpetuation of ignorance, which artist and self-proclaimed scientific storyteller Amelia Bearskin intends to counteract via her work. “I frequently use the adage that the future is already here; it’s just not fairly distributed,” she says. Thus, water will one day be a problem for all of us, but today the global Indigenous are bearing the majority of the load.



Having survived the exploitation and contamination of their ecology, one in ten Native Americans lacks access to potable water and basic sanitation. Through her initiative Talk to Me About Water, Bearskin is constructing climate lounges that will pop up in public spaces—libraries, museums, art weeks, and conferences—to convene passers-by around the fundamental role water plays in climate restoration and, consequently, in the restoration of reservations. Combining water sound baths with embodied land practices, Bearskin is educating the community on the importance of water to tribal sovereignty.

Indigenous leaders in design, art, and activism are refusing to accept colonial erasure across housing solutions and enhanced education pipelines. Edgar Heap of Birds, whose most recent work is on display at the Hannah Traore Gallery in New York, asserts, “[The United States] spends a lot of time knowing other nations more than [their] own native reality.” We are not subjects but rather citizens. Preserving all parts of indigenous culture should be at the center of all effective solutions. Whether via legislative frameworks or design school programs, the Indigenous Cultures Institute’s philosophy, as articulated by Bobbie Garza Hernandez, is a movement pillar: “We’re simply trying to assist the community to appreciate the importance and beauty of their indigenousness.”

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