Featured Member - Tammy Eagle Bull, AIA

As both president of her own firm and a Native American architect, Tammy Eagle Bull has a unique perspective on designing for the needs of oft-ignored Native tribes.

Tammy Eagle Bull, AIA, is president of Encompass Architects in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a former president of AIA Nebraska. She is also a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, which offers her unique insight into how to design for Native clients. Despite being committed at a young age to wielding the power of design, Eagle Bull would not be where she is today without a committed father who explained the positives and potential negatives of architecture, along with financial assistance from AIA’s Diversity Advancement Scholarship.

My dad had wanted to be an architect since he was in high school. He grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and his father, a tribal leader, once said, “One day, our tribe will be in a position to rebuild and change our situation, and we are going to need architects and lawyers to do it.” But when my father went to his non-Native counselor at school, the counselor said, “The best you can hope for is to be a teacher.” So he became a teacher, and had a wonderful career, but he always regretted not becoming an architect.

When I was young, he saw that I had a knack for design, for drawing, for thinking in 3D. He would tell me stories about architects who would show up to the reservation and—without asking questions—interpret for themselves what the local culture was: A turtle-shaped building, a buffalo-shape building. He explained all the negatives that can come from poor design; afterwards, design that makes a positive impact became my singular focus.

Because part of his job was working with financial aid officers, he helped me find the AIA scholarship and others that would make school a real possibility. What the AIA scholarship did for me was allow me to move toward that dream; this scholarship plus two or three others allowed me to pay for school all the way through.

We made a decision at Encompass early on: we are not going after awards. Unless the client specifically asks, we don’t submit for awards; that’s not how we measure success.

During a lecture a few months ago, a student asked me, “As a Native American architect and as a female architect, which one comes with the most issues?” My gut response was: being a female. When people hear that I am Native American and an architect, I almost always get a positive reaction. But when I was at a job site a few weeks ago, the superintendent could not seem to move forward without my gender getting in the way. He was commenting on my shoes, how I was dressed. I am the owner of a company with 30 years of experience; let’s talk about the building.

When we started doing tribal work—which is where I knew I would end up—I wanted experience in other areas first. Because I’ve seen Native American architects get out of school and think, “I’m a Native architect so I’ll get a lot of work by being native; I’ll start a firm.” They would find enough work, mostly little projects, but they didn’t have the know-how to handle big projects. When a school or any multi-million-dollar project came up, they were never qualified. When we started our company, we started with a $20-million project. We can handle any project a tribe might have.

Because there are so many issues within tribes—poverty, drugs, unemployment, addiction—it is necessary to understand how to design buildings that fit in that world. Culture is the main element to consider; whether it is gas station or government building, the tribes always want culture to be a part of it. A lot of non-Native architects go to tribes and expect them to open up and share everything right off the bat; it’s disrespectful. Knowing how to ask those questions in a respectful way is key.

When I was at a job site a few weeks ago, the superintendent could not seem to move forward without my gender getting in the way. He was commenting on my shoes, how I was dressed. I am the owner of a company with 30 years of experience; let’s talk about the building.

For many tribes, projects are few and far between; it’s very rare that they get a project funded. A school is a once-in-a-lifetime building for them. They’re often so worried that the money will go away that, unless you push them through it, they will not want to rock the boat. Sometimes, when they are working with a non-Native architect, they’re not gonna criticize the design initially because they’re afraid to upset the process.

As architects, we tend to focus more on the design itself. I think that’s negatively affected tribes for a long time, because architects will come onboard and see an award-winning design in the making. “All this culture, all this inspiration; I’m going to win an award for this.”

When I started Encompass, I visited many of the tribes to talk about their experiences with other architects. Many people said, “We don’t want architects coming here to win awards. We had people show up looking for awards, and now the building they designed doesn’t work for us.” I would research these buildings and they were indeed award winners, but they didn’t satisfy the clients.

We made a decision at Encompass early on: we are not going after awards. Unless the client specifically asks, we don’t submit for awards; that’s not how we measure success. And that’s been greatly appreciated by our tribal clients. They know we’re here for them, and we aren’t going to make design decisions fueled by what we want. —As told to Steve Cimino

Image credits

Featured Member - Tammy Eagle Bull, AIA

Tammy Eagle Bull

Porcupine School Media Center - Tammy Eagle Bull

Encompass Architects

Star Quilt pattern - Tammy Eagle Bull

Encompass Architects