Decolonizing Colonial Structures | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Decolonizing Colonial Structures

By Joseph Kunkel on November 11, 2020
Wa-Di Housing Development, Santo Domingo, NM ; Joseph Kunkel
Joseph Kunkel

Joseph Kunkel, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, is the Director of MASS'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 2013-2016 Joseph lead the development of a 41-unit Low-Income-Housing-Tax-Credit development, which started with an Our Town grant funded by the National Endowments for the Arts, and led to an ArtPlace America grant award. In 2019 Joseph was awarded an Obama Foundation Fellowship for his work exploring how to create transformational change through design processes that align with indigenous values and honors the worldviews of indigenous populations within North America. Joseph is a Fellow of the inaugural class of the Civil Society Fellowship, a partnership of ADL and The Aspen Institute, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

In Indian Country, we almost never use “I.” Everything—from what we own to the way we express opinions—is in reference to the collective. So it makes sense that the most powerful cultural leaders are the ones that come from a place of humility and community; who work to lift up the voices of others, rather than themselves.

When it comes to architecture, Indian Country has traditionally been dominated by individualistic ways of thinking. This has not served us well. An estimated 30 percent of Native households are over-crowded, with 90,000 families homeless or underhoused. More than half of Indian Country is geographically isolated, making it difficult to access jobs, education, and healthcare off the reservation. As a result, rural communities often have no choice but to rely on the federal government for assistance, which has proven time and time again to be inadequate.

The problem is that historically, the systems imposed on us have not respected our cultural traditions. But on the occasions that we have been empowered to design our own, amazing things have happened. We’ve been able to leverage our own resources and capabilities in a way that not only works for us, but benefits those off the reservations as well. 

In Phoenix, for instance, the non-profit Native American Connections owns and operates 459 affordable units of transit-oriented and sustainable housing, enabling residents to easily access jobs, hospitals, education, and other services. The result is a self-sustaining system that lifts up tribal populations while working within the framework of a traditional development model. 

In Tacoma, Washington, the design firm Environmental Works, which at the time was led by Daniel Glenn, a citizen of the Crow Nation, partnered with the Puyallup Nation Housing Authority to develop “Place of Hidden Waters,” a twenty-unit affordable tribal townhouse complex that marries modern function with traditional elements, like a partially-covered courtyard that emulates the longhouses used by the Puyallup tribe. 

Multiple stakeholders—including the housing authority, community, and architect—were engaged from the beginning of the design process, and the result was an affordable, culturally-responsive development that set a standard for green housing nationwide, achieving LEED Platinum certification and winning numerous affordability and sustainability awards. Place of Hidden Waters is an exemplary model not only in regards to tribal housing, but also for contemporary society as a whole. 

These are just a few examples of what can happen when we’re given the freedom to take charge of our own systems. But we still have a long way to go. Beyond empowering our communities, it's up to cultural leaders to identify colonial structures and deconstruct them from within, building back a change that reflects the voice of the community. In the context of architecture, we need to reimagine how buildings are created, in terms of both the process of building them, and who they are meant to serve. 

Architecture students are universally taught to valorize Beaux Arts and Bauhaus styles, both of which are defined by order and efficiency. In the West, these attributes are paramount. But as Native people, our priorities are different. When we think about archi-tecture, then, we need to ask ourselves who it’s for: Is it the individual or the community? And depending on the answer, how might it look different? 

A successful leader decentralizes authority and puts it in the hands of everyone around them, lifting up a community’s sense of culture and place. This model isn’t limited to Indigenous communities. Black Lives Matter, which has catalyzed real, seismic change throughout the country, is a diffuse organization that emphasizes collective might over individual figureheads. Historically, Civil Rights leaders have been targeted by authorities, the idea being that silencing them will silence the movement. But when the movement is in the hands of the individuals who power it, there’s no limit to what can be achieved. 

As cultural leaders, it’s up to us to bring Indigenous perspective to leadership by empowering others to take ownership themselves. In this way, everyone can be a leader.

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