The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design, by Christina Mahut

October 16, 2020

[Reading List]

The Image of the Indigene and Semiotics: Cultural Ventriloquism

Events such as the “Viens Commission,” relentless instances of exploitation through cultural appropriation and, more recently, the death of Joyce Echaquan due to racist hospital staff bring to light the failure of our system regarding Indigenous populations. How is this racism constructed? And how can designers and planners use their agency to prevent the further perpetuation of this inequity? Respect, safety, adequate housing, and health care, to name a few, are fundamental human rights, but systemic racism impedes these, generating inequity. By challenging the current role of the architect and redefining participatory design, we can enable a paradigm shift towards the eradication of hierarchies between cultures, and between designers and users.

Terry Goldie attempts to understand the relationship between the Indigene and settler, or native and white, by analyzing how the Indigene is represented in white literature. In doing so, he “skillfully reveals the ambivalence of white writers to indigenous culture through an examination of the stereotyping involved in the creation of the image of the “Other.”As humans, we cannot help but draw lines when confronted with differences or diversity. Semiotics, the study of signs and how they are formed, explains this idea: “The Indigene is a semiotic pawn on a chessboard under the control of the white sign maker.”2 The attempt to control and contain the “Other” results in biased, inauthentic images. This is deeply problematic, as many look towards these stereotypical, culturally inappropriate representations of the Indigene, formed by imperialist perspectives, rather than engaging with indigenous populations themselves to understand said communities.3

Another important concept that Goldie develops is “standard commodities.” These are “the few basic moves which the indigenous pawn has been allowed to make” within the semiotic field of the Indigene.4 They are poles of fear and temptation, positive and negative stereotypes: sex, violence, orality, mysticism and the prehistoric. The last is particularly relevant as it reveals the settler’s tendency to view Indigenous culture as “true, pure and static.”5 The Indigene image becomes one of the historical artifacts with little connection to contemporary life, rather than as an active and ever-evolving people with cultural value anchored in modernity. Goldie also highlights a predominant desire for Indigenization: the aspiration by the settler to become more native.6 In doing so, the non-native has two instincts: erase or incorporate the Indigene in the settler’s own culture. Both concepts become important areas of study in understanding the interventions of non-native designers in Indigenous design projects.

Embedded Hierarchies: When the Desire to Control Leaves a Culture Powerless and Stuck

Gabriel Arboleda problematizes this duality between the native and white by juxtaposing it to design, opposing the designer to the user, and underlining issues of high-design, “attemptive planning” and top-down methods of architecture.7 He attributes inadequate and insensitive outsider solutions of social design to the prevalent hierarchy embedded in western civilization ideals and design values, where the architect and building form, stand above the process and end-users.8

While the participatory design is identified as a plausible solution to these design challenges, Arboleda points out that there are many ways to control and manipulate participation to render it futile, ultimately coercing a seemingly horizontal design process to keep the designer on top.9 Thus, there must be a shift from the standard “designed with” the community to a more equitable “designed by” the community, indigenous or others. Arboleda believes that “the first step in the proposed bottom-up approach is to understand poverty [and other indigenous needs] as people experience it rather than as the designer assumes it to be.”10

Interpretation of cultural needs and experience by an outsider is too often informed by the images generated within art, literature, and popular media. This leads to cultural appropriation issues; whereby, inaccurate narratives of sustainability, traditional housing materials, primitive techniques, and natural symbols are promoted and crudely misemployed by white architects in design proposals.11 Tamara Eagle Bull, Canadian Indigenous architect, claims that if a narrative is propelled without consultation of a tribe and without holding meaning for this tribe, it is simply inauthentic and disrespectful.12

From Genius to Facilitator: Participatory Design in Which the Designer is just Another Participant

The paradigm shift enabled by the blurring of the designer’s role, planner or researcher allows for indigenous communities to be at the forefront of the design process. When “people are treated as active citizens and therefore seen as partners and active co-creators in the design process,” the Indigene becomes encouraged to move freely and evolve.13 Whereas, a top-down process may produce an inauthentic indigenous object that is the product of a designer’s decisions, the radical positionality shift that Arboleda suggests allows for the emergence of new Indigenous housing typologies and architectural languages, generated by the communities themselves.14 Eagle Bull asserts that when a culture can speak for itself, it can thrive and become an active part of society.15

It is important to mention that community engagement practices and holistic participatory design have always been intrinsic to Indigenous planning and design. They are not new while they may seem radical to western architects. Theodore Jojola, professor and member of The Indigenous Design and Planning Institute (iD+Pi), describes Indigenous designers as follows: “They are facilitators, not imposers of authoritative solutions. They inspire and work toward improving the quality of life for its constituents. They are obligated to see through a course of action or, at the very least, assist the community in building local capacity. Ultimately, they heal deep cultural wounds by assisting the community in reclaiming its culture and heritage.”16  It is important to realize that we have much to learn from current indigenous practices and these cross-cultural partnerships. Quoting American historian Sander Gilman, Goldie asserts that the line between us is dynamic and shifts with our representation of the world.17 We must actively engage in making that representation authentic and ethnographically sensitive.

Arboleda coins the term “ethnoarchitect,” redefining the designer’s role as an advocate of “the people’s perspective on their problems” and “their perspective on design.”18 In questioning and molding our role as architects to this definition, we may finally achieve meaningful and representative integration of these communities and enable respectful coexistence while avoiding cultural appropriation practices within the built environment.


Terry Goldie, “Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literatures”, ed. revised (McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1993), 272.

Terry Goldie, “The Representation of the Indigene,” in Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1994), 232.

Ibid, 233.

Ibid, 235.

Ibid, 236.

Ibid, 235.

Gabriel Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” Journal of Architectural Education 74 (2020), 17.

Ibid, 17.

Ibid, 16.

10 Ibid, 17.

11 Ibid, 18.

12 Tamara Eagle Bull, “Stop Appropriating my Culture,” Architecture Magazine, April 4, 2019.

13 Marques, Bruno, Greg Grabasch, and Jacqueline McIntosh, “Fostering Landscape Identity Through Participatory Design with Indigenous Cultures of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand,” Space and Culture (2018), 2.

14 Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” 22.

15 Eagle Bull, “Stop Appropriating my Culture.”

16 Theodore Jojola, “The People are Beautiful Already: Indigenous Design and Planning,” Cooper Hewitt, February 16, 2017.

17 Goldie, “The Representation of the Indigene,” 233.

18 Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” 23.­

4 responses to “The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design, by Christina Mahut”

  1. michellebrais says:

    These readings initiated a reflection for me on how we perceive Indigenous communities. What is most striking to me is this notion that they are still considered pre-historic. Somehow, as time passes, they do not modernize in our minds. If they are living in a low-tech society, it is most likely because we are depriving them of access to modern life. It is in fact because of the poverty that they live in that they make do with the limited resources that they have. Maybe in some ways we want their culture to be unphased by North American and European influences in order to continue othering them. We do not acknowledge how much of our culture is in theirs and conversely, how much of our culture stems from theirs. Also, putting their participatory planning practices on a pedestal, for me, seems like a type of othering. It gives me the impression that we should not be involved in their systems. We would just get in the way and they should be left to their own devices. Instead, the readings propose an approach which with I agree: we should be sharing methods and fostering mutual learning. Particularly, we should get involved, foster solidarity, and most importantly share resources to help build an inclusive and more equitable modern world where Indigenous people are an integral part of the social, professional and institutional fabric.

  2. Ke Yan Ye says:

    Terry Goldie’s article ‘The Representation of the Indigene’ makes an important observation on the historic white operative value of systems of naming and classifying that formed the process of ‘othering’. It is astonishing for me to realize that equal and fundamental rights to housing, safety, health care and respect for Indigenous people are still facing this social reflex (or complex) to draw a line between the self and the other when confronted to differences and diversity. In a way, the very existence of participatory design that doesn’t recognize the users as being fully capable of identifying their own problems and possible solutions reveals the problem of the authoritative ‘creative genius’. This is where Gabriel Arboleda’s idea of the ‘ethnoarchitect’ is crucial to reject the cycle of the seemingly horizontal design process that keeps the architect ultimate decision-maker. The fact that the project with the Guyanese indigenous villagers led to the realization that access to water was more important than housing proves once again that the shared cognition between the villagers and the architect is really what led to the success of this community design process. I think problem-solving is highly valued in architectural education and a deep re-evaluation of this role needs to be done to make a significant impact on our society.

  3. Muhammad Awan says:

    Thank you for the great articles Christina and Aamirah. The process of how you work with the community is every bit as important as the architectural outcome. Unfortunately, the reality of this dynamic is far from this ideal state of equilibrium. Furthermore, in practice, history should be used as a springboard and framework to envision the future, however, when it comes to Indigenous planning history, it seems to have been simply relegated to the realm of history class (if even that) without contemporary application. Meanwhile, it has been clearly outlined by First Nations Governments and even the Public Health Agency of Canada that the ability of Indigenous communities to map, document, analyze and apply Indigenous knowledge to land use planning is primordial. Therefore, it is a matter of meeting them where they are, and designers need to recognize that the community is entrusting them with their story, which comes with a great deal of responsibility to honor that story beyond surface level cultural appropriation. I want to conclude by re-iterating Aamirah’s point that it is about the “beauty of the process rather than the beauty of the object.” The outcome of this process is not just a physical form, it is community building and developing trusting relationships that last beyond the end of the project – this has the potential to significantly enrich professional practice and communities. From an economic/business point of view, this process provides a sort of ‘insurance’ to the design, because it has a true stamp of community approval and is less likely to face pushback later on. Therefore, community engagement is not just a moniker or a step to simply check-off, it is the foundation of every project and must be treated as such not just in professional design practice but in pedagogy as well.

  4. Zoe Goodman says:

    Thank you Christina and Aamirah for your thoughtful essays and informative readings. Goldie’s description of the indigene as historical artifact with little connection to contemporary life particularly struck a chord with me. This surface level research and desire to become ‘native’ that Goldie also touches on is prevalent in architectural practice and education today. The poor incorporation of indigenous narratives in contemporary design is reaffirmed by Tamara Eagle Bull in Christina’s essay who claims that if an indigenous narrative is integrated into design without consultation of a trine it is inauthentic and disrespectful.

    This surface level integration of indigenous design reminded me of observing and ignoring “Grammar” which Anne Whiston Spirn talks about in her book The language of landscape. She explains Grammar is “a living pattern reflecting both timeless rules and the contingencies of time and place.” She argues design that reveals and agrees with deep context is likely to be more functional, economical and importantly more sustainable over time than design that disregards it. I found Arboleda’s thatched roof vs. zinc roof example which Aamirah touched on to be a particularly good example of going past this view of indigene as historic artifact, observing deep context to design more successfully.

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