The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design

Week 14 The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design

Curated by Christina Mahut and Aamirah Nakhuda

October 16, 2020

Required readings

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

Goldie, Terry. “The Representation of the Indigene.” In Post-Colonial Studies Reader,
edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 232-236. London: Taylor &
Francis Group, 1994.

Further readings

Bell, Avril. “Authenticity and the Project of Settler Identity in New Zealand.” Social
Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology 43 (1999): 122-125.

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

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

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).

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.­

The Image of the Indigene and Participatory Design, by Aamirah Nakhuda

October 16, 2020

[Reading List]

Pawns on the Chessboard

The characterization of the Indigene as the “Other” arises from the imperialist longing for an authentic identity rooted in the land, consequently bounding the Indigene within a semiotic field created by white signmakers. Terry Goldie compares these boundaries to a chessboard, where the cultures and practices of the Indigene fall under a static set of symbols, restricting movement to prescribed areas upon a single field of discourse, one created by British imperialists.1 White culture then chooses to either incorporate the Other through stereotypical adaptations and literature or reject the Other through alienation, by reframing the history of a nation to begin with the white man.2 These strategies are described by Avery Bell as “the settler appropriation of indigenous authenticity to give substance and distinctiveness to their own nationalist identity claims.”3 White indigenization is thus a method of appropriating the distinct native identity to ensure that any “othering” only occurs to the Indigenous population.

In describing cultural appropriation within the context of the design practice, acknowledging it as inherently an appropriation of an interpretation of culture reveals the tendency to default to stereotypical motifs and symbols when designing for non-whites. For the Indigene, this means subjection to an architecture of misrepresentation and simultaneous devaluation of their existence. Moreover, Indigenous architecture is deemed obscure, frozen in time to be studied only in the context of vernacular tradition.4 Relegation to the past prevents the Indigene presence from seeping into the design of the future. Lack of recognition for their true identity maintains the Indigene’s image as the Other even when it comes to creating spaces for serving the needs of their communities.

Humanitarian Design and the Saviour Complex

When vulnerable communities are placed on the sidelines, they are discredited and portrayed as incapable of imagining and enacting solutions to sustain themselves. Poverty-stricken regions fall victim to band-aid solutions, often due to assumptions of the experience of poverty rather than meaningful engagement with the affected populations. In some cases, the saviour complex emerges, whereby designers use disaster and poverty as opportunities to implement form-focused solutions with aesthetic appeal, achieving praise and distinction along the way for “tackling” such dire and complex social issues. In “Beyond Participation,” Gabriel Arboleda highlights the role of the starchitect in perpetuating the use of “normative tools of high architectural design” to address issues of poverty, but often failing to meet the objectives initially promoted.5 He lays the example of Shigeru Ban’s log houses, designed for Ecuadorians after the 2016 earthquake, but ultimately never coming to fruition.6 False promises abandon communities trusting external sources to deliver the resources necessary for their survival after facing hardship. At the same time, reliance upon the designer as the saviour feeds the existing hierarchal nature of the design industry, thus maintaining a separation of people into the Other. Similarly, innovation is attributed to Euro-American ideas, ignoring the layers of contributions made by non-whites to the history of architectural design and barring them from further influence. White ideas cannot translate into non-white contexts without the participation of the communities at stake. Otherwise, they risk stereotyping the practices of the people involved. Arboleda describes how Western depictions of Indigenous life in Guyana emphasize traditional materials such as thatched roofing. In reality, the Indigenous Guyanese population favours the use of more modern materials for their homes, namely zinc sheeting.Zinc sheeting provides clean surfaces for rainwater harvesting, a need discovered during community assessments, and which later became the focus of the housing development project in Guyana.8 Creating opportunities for community participation can drastically alter thoughtlessly conceived design objectives to build for the people rather than the ego.

What Does Participation Mean?

Participatory design in the traditional sense is understood as a shift from design “for” to design “with.” While this change is significant in dismantling the architect’s perceived authoritative presence, it continues to reinforce the designer as the translator, receiving input from the community and manipulating it to fit into the desired narrative and architectural design.9 According to Arboleda, the true meaning of participation can only be realized by a subsequent move to design “by.”10 The designer becomes both a facilitator and a participant, helping to materialize the community’s ideas. Networks that establish connections replace hierarchies and encourage active participation of communities in the public realm. This bottom-up approach addresses the high-design problem by empowering communities to invest in themselves.

Bruno Marques et al. outline four steps to actuating bottom-up design: understanding of place, relationship building, respectful facilitation, and empowered participation.11 The value of these steps begins within the titles, each of which evokes a collaborative practice that focuses on the beauty of the process rather than the beauty of the object.12 Prioritization of people over form is the key to effective participatory design.

The Designer as the Advocate for the Indigene

Additionally, bottom-up approaches recognize the Indigene as already possessing a participatory culture. While new to the imperialist, participatory design is not radical to the native, whose long-lasting tradition of intergenerational planning renders them experienced users of this social design strategy. Yet, the dominance of the design field by Euro-American ideals and methods edges out local practices and holistic planning integral to the structure and sustainability of Indigenous communities.13 As a participant of the design project, the designer must now become an advocate for the ideas of the community, negotiating with government officials for the resources and funding required to return to a mode of self-reliance.14

While society recognizes differences, co-design is about re-structuring the design process to consider those differences by understanding that catch-all solutions to address complex social issues do not exist, especially when the cultural contexts change. Participatory design can combat popular narratives fashioned by the imperialist to recognize the presence of distinct cultural identities, including those that history tried to erase.15 As Goldie writes, “absence is also negative presence.”16 If the true image of the Indigene is to persist, we must advocate for design practices that enable community empowerment and pursue thoughtful representations of diverse identities.


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, 234.

Avril Bell, “Authenticity and the Project of Settler Identity in New Zealand,” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 122.

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

Gabriel Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” Journal of Architectural Education 74, no. 1 (March 2020): 16.

Ibid, 15.

Ibid, 18.

Ibid, 17.

Maria Rodgers, B. Marques, and J. McIntosh, “Connecting Maori Youth and Landscape Architecture Students through Participatory Design,” Architecture and Culture 1, no. 1 (June 2020): 4.

10 Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” 19.

11 Bruno Marques, Greg Grabasch, and Jacqueline McIntosh. “Fostering Landscape Identity Through Participatory Design with Indigenous Cultures of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Space and Culture 2, no. 4 (June 2018): 11.

12 Arbodela, “Beyond Participation,” 23.

13 Jojola, “The People are Beautiful Already.”

14 Ibid.

15 Arboleda, “Beyond Participation,” 11.

16 Goldie, “The Representation of the Indigene,” 235.

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