Reflections on Indigeneity in Architectural Education, by David Fortin

January 19, 2021

When the McEwen School of Architecture (MSoA) opened its doors in 2013, I recall a respected Indigenous architect wondering out loud if it was appropriate to share sacred teachings with mostly non-Indigenous architecture students. It was a good question. At the time, the curriculum of the MSoA was being developed in response to Laurentian University’s “tri-cultural mandate,” itself focusing on the three largest cultural groups in northeastern Ontario (English, French and Indigenous). Inspired by a vision for a community-driven and placed-based architectural pedagogy, the program’s Founding Director, Dr. Terrance Galvin, and the inaugural faculty embraced the opportunity to develop a curriculum that would not only offer electives in Indigenous topics and teachings, but where Indigeneity would be central to our school’s overarching ethos. At the time, this was radical.

Eight years later, and five years since the Calls to Action were announced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the topic of Indigeneity has quickly emerged across the country as a seemingly broadly endorsed commitment to decolonizing the built environment through design. As late as the early 2000s, only a few radical thinkers in architecture – most of them Indigenous – considered Indigeneity as anything more than a history lesson. However, in a global condition of a quickly warming planet, growing economic disparity, and general social unrest, the value of Indigenous teachings is suddenly being identified as something much more fundamental. The most important question now, it seems, is how to fold Indigeneity into architectural education in a way that is appropriate? This remains a very good question.

Given our collective experiences at the MSoA, the following 5 points are some personal reflections in response:

  1. The concept of “architectural anthropology” is obsolete. In all cases, Indigenous topics in architecture should be informed, led, and benefited by First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and peoples. There is a common Indigenous aphorism that states, “Nothing about Us without Us.” Indigenous peoples are not test subjects; they are potential partners and colleagues. The first priority is thus to build and maintain institutional relationships with local and regional Indigenous communities in a reciprocal way that prioritizes their benefit. Every academic needs to read Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Wang’s “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” before heading down the wrong path.
  2. The goal should never be to aestheticize mainstream architectural production with Indigenous visuality. Not only does this quickly lead to cultural appropriation and send a misguided message that anyone can adopt Indigenous cultural symbols and teachings as they wish, it undermines the other points.
  3. Indigenous topics need to be taught or guided by Indigenous peoples. As far as we are aware, the MSoA is the only architectural program to have Elders and Knowledge Carriers as central to the day-to-day life of the program and their office is intentionally the first one presented when entering the Main Office. Their presence emphasizes that their input is valued beyond a guest lecture or smudging ceremony. They are available to advise faculty and students on multiple topics related to their academic and personal pursuits and are a part of the school’s community. Furthermore, opportunities for Indigenous academics and students need to be carefully considered and promoted in programs to allow for their voices to lead the way.
  4. Indigeneity in architectural education requires buy-in from the entire community. Faculty and guests must be humble enough to recognize that their academic credentials and professional experiences can be inadequate and they must be prepared to question their own preconceptions. This is one of the most challenging aspects of implementing Indigeneity into postsecondary programs. It is, by nature, disruptive to conventional architectural pedagogy, and it is a form of disruption that is not always easily understood nor embraced. It also requires unique support such as funds to compensate Elders and teachers, proactive recruitment and retention of Indigenous faculty, instructors, and students, and travel to and from communities.
  5. Indigeneity in universities must be respectful of its unique spiritual dimension. There are countless consistencies between Indigenous teachings and the pursuit of a more sustainable and equitable future for all, but there often remains a definitive schism between the sacredness of the teachings and the mostly secularized way architectural discourse has evolved. For this reason, there will always be a limit to the direct reach of the teachings in environments with multiple cultural perspectives and differing ontologies. This does not diminish the value of Indigeneity in architectural education but rather emphasizes that the goal is not to somehow train non-Indigenous students to be Indigenous. Like other art forms, Indigenous design requires Indigenous designers with lived experience, thus, this would not only be unrealistic, but deeply misguided. However, the Elders often state that the teachings are for everyone and they can have a profoundly positive impact for everyone who invests themselves.

I often recall a question raised by an Elder repeatedly during the first Indigenous design studio that I taught at the school in 2017 as students struggled to begin their design process. He asked them, “What grounds you?” This urged them to look inward to address their initial design queries while reconciling their self-doubts. Similarly, in 2020, Blackfoot architect and Anishinaabe Elder Douglas Cardinal’s 2020 graduate studio at the MSoA asked students to first understand and be proud of who they are and where they come from, and to start their design process in a way that honours their ancestors, the women of the home, and Mother Earth as their first priorities, not reductively serve the expectations of an increasingly uniform global design community. This has remained a consistent emphasis of Indigeneity in the school – honouring the notion of places and their ecologies, their stories, and their histories, and seeking out deeper relations with those places, and the rich cultural diversity woven into them.

Thus, the inclusion of Indigeneity in architectural discourse at the MSoA involves many layers linked to the above observations, along with many others. For instance, our multiple Indigenous instructors and faculty have taught studios and courses not strictly ‘themed’ on Indigeneity because Indigenous architects cannot be narrowly labelled by their cultural identity as their only form of expertise and value. The same understanding must be afforded to Indigenous students who may be interested in design topics not tied directly to their cultural heritage. Meanwhile, the program’s pedagogical approach must also support non-Indigenous students who seek out Indigenous-based research and community-based initiatives. In addition, international students and other underrepresented identities often feel empowered by Indigenous teachings that strengthen their own sense of agency and resistance.

It is clear that after eight years of attempting to embed Indigeneity into the pedagogy of our entire program, we are still learning on a daily basis what it means for architectural education overall and the various challenges our aspirations present. What seems clear is that it took hundreds of years to reach the colonized state of design we remain largely immersed in, and we can therefore only expect it will similarly take generations for us to fully break from those shackles. As a profound example of this, there is simply no Anishinaabemowin translation for the word ‘architecture.’

What we can do is walk forward together, slowly and respectfully, listening and learning to those who can guide us along a different path that would make all of our grandmothers and grandchildren equally proud.

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David Fortin is an Associate Professor and Director, McEwen School of Architecture, Laurentian University.

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