Honoring North America's first architects, and working toward change

Tammy Eagle Bull, FAIA

Tammy Eagle Bull, FAIA, is an advocate for culturally relevant and responsible design, and a recognized leader in the realm of contemporary Native American architecture. A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Eagle Bull channels her 30 years of experience through Encompass Architects, her Lincoln, Neb., firm.

Indigenous people were the first architects in North America. Yet, our contributions have largely been ignored in Architectural History classes. Most accounts of North American architecture start at colonial architecture with brief mentions of Chaco Canyon or some burial mounds. This woefully incomplete summary does no justice to the thousands of years that the indigenous people have successfully lived and thrived on this continent, and the world for that matter.

The most immediate way to honor this legacy is to add it to the required curriculum in architecture schools. We need to teach our future architects that this country’s architecture since colonialization is only a fraction of the entire history. By providing a frame of reference to the wealth of culture that existed before “discovery,” it will hopefully help architects gain a better understanding of land stewardship and get away from the conquering mentality that is prevalent in US history.  

A land acknowledgement statement has become more common and is a great way to ground ourselves prior to a meeting or event with a simple acknowledgement that wherever we are in the US, we are on traditional land of an indigenous people. The statement doesn’t try to extoll guilt or blame, but is meant to get participants to think and accept our shared history. Land acknowledgement statements are a quick, powerful and enlightening way to recognize the impact of our indigenous people. It is most important for architects to make this statement as we are impacting the land with every project. We should understand that the land had many uses prior to the establishment of cities, states, and the country. People existed there for thousands of years, and that should be recognized.  

The architecture profession has said the right things for many years but has not achieved inclusivity. A statement from the top does not automatically translate to systematic change. Recognizing there are many other facets of diversity -- including sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, and many others --  I speak of diversity and inclusivity from my lens as a Lakota woman. When firms can stop touting their diversity is when we have achieved an inclusive profession. When people stop being shocked that I am an architect and that there are other Indigenous architects we have achieved an inclusive profession. When I stop being the only woman in meetings or the only minority in meetings and when it stops being pointed out to me, we have achieved an inclusive profession.

Unfortunately, there are no quick solutions, lists of tasks or behaviors to follow to achieve inclusivity. If it were that easy, we would be there already. Being a diverse organization or profession is more than the quantity of minorities or women. It is about experiences, acceptance, opportunity, treatment, and many other hard to define aspects.

However, I will say one of the simplest actions is to stop pointing out all the diverse people. I cringe when I meet a firm leader and the first thing they tell me is how many people of color they have or how many women they have in leadership. While those things are good, it’s better to recognize the talents or qualities of a person, not the color of skin or gender as the primary reason for their employment or existence in the firm.

Imagine how it would be someone said this: “This is Joe, he is our white, male employee” or “This is Jim, he is the first white male we hired. He is fitting in really well with everyone else” or “Tom, how does it feel to be the only white male in the room?” Those are statements that I have heard referencing myself or other people of color or women.

Stop pointing us out; we already know we are the only one or one of a few. Stop pointing us out as if our achievements are more than could be expected from our race or gender. Inclusivity is about not just being asked to the game, but about being asked to play. Recognize women and people of color earned their place and deserve to be there on merit.

Achieving an inclusive profession will take time. It needs to start at the bottom and be supported by the leadership. Exposing children to the profession with appropriate role models, encouraging interest from students, providing opportunities for scholarships or grants will help diversify the universities. Supporting different family and cultural needs in the workplace will help keep more diverse people in the profession. Providing opportunities for advancement will bring inclusivity to firm leadership. The real change has to come with attitude and beliefs of people. Not everyone wants diversity or inclusion. That’s why it has not been achieved yet. That is why we are still fighting for social justice in 2020.  

Image credits

Tammy Eagle Bull, FAIA

Encompass Architects, p.c.

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