Is American Indian Architecture Just Shelter?

By Sands, Ellen | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 29, 1998 | Go to article overview

Is American Indian Architecture Just Shelter?


Sands, Ellen, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Contemporary American Indian architecture is the subject of a series of discussions at the National Building Museum. The central issue is whether architecture offers more than merely shelter and whether it has the power to express cultural values.

Someone with views on American Indian design is Carol Krinsky, author of "Contemporary Native American Architecture." Miss Krinsky believes that architecture is very much a cultural statement and reflection of values. In presenting excerpts from her newly released book, Miss Krinsky notes that contemporary Native American architecture is just beginning to emerge because "the post-colonization period" of American Indians is just ending.

She says any colonized group must go through a period of separation from the colonizing culture, during which time the group's indigenous origins can resurface and begin to take root. This, she explains, is "a period of percolation," an opportunity for members of the group to reflect on their heritage and "speak about their essence as they see it over time."

Miss Krinsky says this occurs in any formerly colonized nation, from this country's American Indians to people in Malaysia to those of Papua New Guinea.

In the United States, the period of percolation began roughly 50 years ago. World War II was a great "culturator" because it was the first foray off the reservation for many young Indians.

They saw "how they fit in and how they were different," and the exposure vastly increased their self-awareness. It also was an educational opportunity. In addition to being encouraged to obtain formal schooling, many GIs received training in the building trades.

At the same time, extensive changes in the federal mandates regarding American Indians began. In 1953, Congress sought to terminate many tribal privileges, eliminating the distinctive status of American Indians. There was a move toward "de-reservation," an effort to Anglicize the population. All of these efforts, Miss Krinsky says, raised the consciousness about what it was to be an Indian. The new self-awareness was expressed in rediscovery of native dance, language, cooking, ritual hunting and architecture.

"Even the least aesthetically successful of these buildings has to do with what their sponsors call medicine. . . . Architecture has become an aid to restoring communal health," she says.

Beautiful or merely appropriate architecture cannot solve these or other problems. But architecture can provide the supportive enclosure facilitating individual and group activity. Its siting, whether secretive or prominent, expresses community values and the desire to communicate only with tribal members or others. The materials and colors, the external form and interior spaces may reinforce a tradition or revise a tradition to suit modern needs and expectations.

The process of building may unify fragmented types, or it may reinforce a sense of communal solidarity through decision making and construction practice. A building that abstracts elements of a damaged culture, refreshing it and preparing it for use in a more optimistic future, can be an important symbolic adjunct to other healing processes.

Miss Krinsky outlines the current strategies used in developing American Indian architecture. The first is ornamentation, the idea of applying decoration to a building. Tribal motifs, murals, and patterned brickwork are some examples shown at the Building Museum and in her book. Another is what Miss Krinsky terms "paraphrasing," the idea of taking an ancient element and somehow re-interpreting it.

She cites two ways of achieving paraphrasing. One is to adopt the ancestral form - say, the tepee - and build it out of contemporary materials. The other is to maintain the original material and use it in constructing a new form, for instance, a substance-abuse treatment center.

The problem is that so many of Miss Krinsky's examples are not up to generally accepted standards of what constitutes good architecture. …

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