Tammy Eagle Bull
Erica Thompson/Images for a Lifetime Tammy Eagle Bull

Cultural appropriation is the use of another culture’s symbols, knowledge, or practices without understanding or respecting their meaning or context—regardless of intent. “Regardless of intent” is key because with my culture, Native American, many people believe that because they do not intend any disrespect and, in fact, are blatantly proclaiming respect in their appropriation, that makes it OK.

It doesn’t.

Wearing a headdress for a photoshoot or an advertisement when you are not a tribal chief or even a tribal member is cultural appropriation—period. Getting a tattoo with another culture’s language, patterning, or imagery is cultural appropriation—period. It doesn’t matter that it is done out of “deep respect.”

This applies to architecture as well.

In media and entertainment, Native Americans are portrayed as historical and stereotypical characters. Rarely are modern Natives shown as whom we are today: doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and, yes, architects. The number of Native American architects is still small, but it’s growing. The American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers (AICAE) is attempting to establish a list of licensed architects who are enrolled members of a tribe. The number is thought to be fewer than 50. Of those who have Native American lineage but are not enrolled in a tribe, the number is probably around 300. This does not include those who have only discovered their native connection through DNA testing and now claim native heritage.

Native American architects are relatively new to the architectural world in the “official” sense. In 1967, Louis Weller became the first licensed Native American architect. A Cherokee and Caddo, Louis was most known for his work as the project manager for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. In 1994, the first Native American woman became licensed, and I’m proud to say it was me. I am a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation from Pine Ridge, S.D.

However, Native Americans were the first architects in the Americas. Since time immemorial, we have been designing and building structures—structures that were unique to the climate, culture, and lifestyle of the hundreds of individual tribal nations that existed prior to colonization.

Until recently, most architecture for tribal nations has been by non-native architects; as a result, the interpretation of the culture has often not been accurate. Across America, modern-day buildings take the form of eagles, tipis, turtles, and buffalo in superficial attempts to be culturally appropriate. Our interstates and highways are rife with rest stops featuring tipi motifs, and our tourist areas have countless examples of “native” architecture. Native-inspired wall and floor patterns are another way architects have tried to be contextual.

In fact, it also wasn’t until recently that tribal clients had much say on the buildings in their community. When architects do not consult tribal people in the design process or use a generic native pattern rather than using something meaningful to their client’s particular tribe, the project lacks authenticity. And that is not OK.

To put it simply: If a tribal community involved in the design process asks for an eagle-shaped building because the eagle holds significance to it, that is not cultural appropriation. If an architect designs an eagle-shaped building with simply the desire to evoke a Western or native image and without consulting the tribe, that is cultural appropriation.

With the uptick in Native American architects working with tribes and increase in architects involving tribal clients in the design process, cultural appropriation is thankfully becoming less common in architecture. Recognize that the culture of tribal people is thriving every day. When a culture can speak for itself, authenticity will result. This is true in all areas where cultural appropriation occurs.

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.

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