Native American Architecture

A slow-walking, fast talking stranger enters the premises, a little leery at first. It is his first time on the reservation, and he has heard tell… He looks around at the simple structure built from local wood planks. A little crude, a little plain. The walls are bare overall, with just a touch of stain. A ceiling fan whirrs softly, projecting aimlessly from the ceiling. Overall it is pretty quiet and peaceful.

A few Native Americans are huddled in the corner playing some kind of game. They are laughing and smiling. The stranger ambles over to the makeshift bar and asks for a cold drink. He looks around some more. There are fur pelts along one wall, some rather majestic specimens. Local hunter contributions no doubt. Then there are cases on the other end loaded with examples of fine native wares: silver bracelets, small ceramic objects, some fetishes carved from stone. His eye focuses on a few coveted items.

Mmmm. He wonders if this is a trading post or a café—maybe just a one-of-a-kind bar. There is a sign, on a kind of chalkboard, that indicates the daily special. He is starting to get hungry and eyes the words “buffalo steak.” Sounds good enough to eat. But he sits for a while contemplating the scene and waiting for something to happen. It’s 1950. Who knows?

Flash forward to 2015. Students are seated in even rows in a brightly-lit classroom. They are staring at the teacher who is offering pearls of wisdom to the young. One or two glance out the windows at the scene beyond, then their attention returns. It is a beautiful day. The room is modern and includes all the latest facilities like plasma TV and PowerPoint. Everyone is online at some point during class. It is early fall and the sky is clear, but it is still hot. Yes, we use the term Indian summer as it will always apply. There is air conditioning, of course, but also a ceiling fan to help with air circulation. It is the only remnant of the past.

The school was built about five years ago, designed for educational needs of all age groups. The architect is Native American. You can tell by the wonderful geometric detailing on the outside of the main building, painted boldly across the walls. It harkens back to Indian woven rugs, using traditional cultural designs. Its simplicity and elegance echoes that of the modern structure.

The school rambles a bit as there is plenty of land, and two stories are certainly not required. There is a cafeteria, an auditorium, a gym, and an assortment of private offices. The halls are filled with jubilant voices. The facility caters to residents who live in the local vicinity. You see a few trucks and a school bus parked in an adjacent lot. Many students walk to school.

Reservations have come a long way since the weary traveler entered the trading post way back when. (He left with a few hand-made bead necklaces for his wife). There are hospitals and clinics, new homes in a contemporary style, civic buildings, and shops. Architects have been having a field day as the economy rebounds and reaches the reservation; but there is much development yet to take place in many tribal areas.

Government restrictions have to be overcome for outsiders, but no one wants to see this progress more than the local municipality. Native American lands are protected and self-governing to some extent. As people move away from reservations, they do carry their talents and expertise with them to offer their skills to the world at large. It also goes the other way as non-residents make their mark.

Architecture planned and executed by members of a tribe is seen outside of these reservations. I have seen replicas of sand painting, for example, on building floors. I have seen totem-like images, carved wooden beams, and assorted flora and fauna reminiscent of the past. The Native American culture is rife with elements that bear repeating, especially in the southwest where it suits the region.

Architecture can be eclectic and it is seldom pure and unadulturated. Influences enrich basic, known styles no matter what they are from retro mid-century modern to country squire. You can combine elements that are usually quite disparate to arrive at something unique and distinctive. Native American architects are no exception. They enjoy traditional concepts from their heritage while they embrace what’s new about contemporary life. It is all about progress and change.