Collective Ground: Caring for the Future of Indigenous-Led Design
Ella den Elzen in conversation with Robyn Adams, Jenni Hakovirta, Nicole Luke, Reanna Merasty, Johanna Minde, Naomi Ratte, Tiffany Shaw, and Magnus Antaris Tuolja
This article is published on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition ᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home at the University of Toronto John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.
Futurecasting: Indigenous-led Architecture and Design in the Arctic was a seminar and workshop series, embedded within the ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home project, that convened nine emerging Indigenous architecture and design practitioners from across Turtle Island and Sápmi.1 The series centred land-based practices of architecture, taking place on the land and occupying institutional spaces like the museum and university. Futurecasting unfolded in three parts, the first of which was a series of virtual seminars in January and February 2022 led by Indigenous architects and knowledge-keepers from Turtle Island, Sápmi, and Kalaallit Nunaat.2 The seminars were followed by a land-based workshop in April 2022 at the Sámi University of Applied Sciences in Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino, Norway, in Sápmi. The final chapter reconvened the Futurecasting participants at the CCA in Tiohti:áke/Montréal to discuss the legacy of the work that was produced over the course of the series and how it may be made accessible to future generations of Indigenous architecture students, designers, and communities. Spanning multiple geographies and months, the project produced a year-long reflection on what it means to design from and with the land, and on how Indigenous epistemologies should be embraced within design processes.
These practitioners include: Robyn Adams, University of British Columbia; Jenni Hakovirta, Oulu School of Architecture; Berit Kristine Andersen Guvsám, Sámi University of Applied Sciences; Laila Susanna Kuhmunen, Sámi University of Applied Sciences; Nicole Luke, University of Manitoba; Andrea McIntosh, Carleton University; Johanna Minde, Norwegian University of Science and Technology; Reanna Merasty, University of Manitoba; Naomi Ratte, University of Manitoba; Magnus Antaris Tuolja, University of Gothenburg. ↩
Seminar leaders include: Shawn Bailey, Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba; David Fortin, Professor, University of Waterloo; Gunvor Guttorm, Professor, Sámi University College; Helena Lennert, architect, tnt nuuk. ↩
I write this reflection from my position as the one settler that facilitated and co-curated the series with Nicole Luke, a Winnipeg-based Inuk architectural designer and advocate for design education for Indigenous youth from small communities. In my role as curatorial assistant at the CCA, and as a designer, I am interested in collective and relational ways of thinking, especially those that can offer space to underrepresented narratives within the discipline. As a curatorial team, our intention was for the series to provide space for the development of newly authored research and works for the exhibition, while serving as a platform rooted in dialogue. Futurecasting enabled the creation of an environment in which the participants could discuss common interests, passions, and frustrations, and how they would like to see Indigenous-led practices be emboldened to define spacemaking in the North and in their own communities.1 The participants began to define what methodologies and knowledges are urgently needed within and beyond disciplinary boundaries, asserting that ways of working with space can and should be defined by shared knowledge, oral history, and practices of making and doing. Within the group, it became clear that the creation of such a space—in which kinship and relation are premised over hyper-productivity—is essential yet rare within architectural discourse and education. They concluded that situating care at the centre of design processes is vital and allows for Indigenous designers to develop ways of making that are situated in community.
Many of the discussions that were had together took place on the land, cutting and scraping birch trees for the luovvi structure we were building outside the Sámi University, or in the cabin that we shared during our time in Guovdageaidnu, over meals of bannock and reindeer stew.2 There was a distinct rhythm that emerged throughout the project; a timeline punctuated by both online and in-person gatherings allowed for the group to build trust and relationships with one another in a way that felt natural and unhurried. Though everyone was gathering from different territories, there were ways of thinking that felt familiar, and moments of shared affirmation about the roles that land, generational knowledge, and reciprocity played in how the group was developing their work. Conversations were had about how to bring what is learned on the land with community into institutional spaces that are not always welcoming to these ways of working. Some methods involved using materials from the land such as bark, animal fur, reindeer hide, or antler in model making and representation, to consulting with Elders about protocols in engaging with community, to defining architecture as broader than a building to the scale of territory, water, and other living beings.
Most members of the group have relationships with community in remote or rural areas but are now studying or working in cities far away from their territories. ↩
The workshop in Sápmi was convened by Gunvor Guttorm, Professor of duodji, at Sámi University College. Presentations by Professor Sunniva Skålnes, Professor Solveig Joks, and Professor Ante Mihkkal Gaup and co-curator Joar Nango were also made during the gathering. ↩
Rarely are architectural exhibition projects formulated from a place of feeling, yet over the course of the year that the Futurecasting group gathered, the work was always created from an embodied place. Conversations and collaborations proved that research can be something innate and felt, amassed over time through listening. These methodologies can at times be read as opaque to outside communities, and this alone has value. As a design strategy, opacity—the idea that not everything needs to be legible to non-Indigenous audiences—was at the core of the exhibition and Futurecasting project’s goal of resisting many of architecture’s colonial legacies and creating a space in which intelligibility of materials, spaces, and languages are learned. This is largely in contradiction with how architecture and architectural representation often operate: they have the tendency to diagram, to dissect, to draw, and to survey. Historically, these have been harmful ways of documenting, often employed for paternalistic and extractive uses against Indigenous communities. In pushing back against these concretizing methods, much of the work that was produced for the exhibition itself has an ephemeral counterpart in the form of conversation. Some of these exchanges were transcribed, producing records that will be accessible to other Indigenous scholars in the future, while other discussions will only exist in the space and time that we met.
The work that was created during the project will soon find itself in the archival spaces of the CCA. As a settler institution, the CCA will need to grapple with what it means to hold this material, and how to make it accessible to the communities that need to engage with it the most. Historically, the CCA has held almost no Indigenous-authored material, and the records that do depict Indigenous people often illustrate the ways in which architecture has been implicated in violent land dispossession. The ambition of the Futurecasting project was—and remains—not to undo or ignore this legacy, but to begin to write a new one in which spaces for Indigenous communities are shaped by values that are defined first and foremost by Indigenous designers and communities.
One of the last conversations we had as a group and with architect Tiffany Shaw focused on what impact the work produced throughout the workshop series may have on future generations of Indigenous architects and designers, and what space this work could take up within the CCA’s collection and beyond. What follows is a transcript of some of these reflections, including what an Indigenous archival practice entails when considering the stewardship of the group’s work in the collection.1
This conversation was edited for clarity. To request access to a full version of the transcript or recording, please search for the Futurecasting collection in the CCA’s archival holdings. ↩
- How do you see your work shaping the future of Indigenous-led design, or impacting future generations of design students and researchers?
- I think the strength of our work is in collectivity, in this whole process of talking, spending time together, getting to know each other, asking these kinds of questions.
- As a collective, each of our approaches to Indigenous architecture is so diverse and we all have very different ways of working. There is no specific way of making “Indigenous architecture.” For me it’s about relating myself to my community and bringing that into the work. That’s something we can pass on to the next generation, to feel safe in these ways of thinking.
- This idea of feeling safe is related to seeing yourself in institutional spaces. I think having other Indigenous designers engage with our work requires sustained outreach with Indigenous student groups. It requires opening up the institution to say that students are welcome to engage with the material and build upon it.
- It’s also about assisting future Indigenous designers in making sure that they’re comfortable to share, but also to move past colonial narratives and to speak about their homes and their passions.
- Sometimes these conversations about Indigenous-led design can get caught in “colonial violence,” and it is so depressing. I think it’s great that we’re talking and acknowledging it now, but sometimes I think, let’s just do something fun!
- Right! None of our work is about Indigenous issues or Indigenous problems. It’s all about joy, family, connection to the land, health, animals. During this process, before visiting the CCA archive, I typed “Indigenous Joy” into the search tool on the CCA website to browse the collection, and nothing came up. But it’s so important, connecting to each other and our work and our traditions and our families and the land. Obviously you can’t ignore the negative, but we’re following the love and joy.
- I really like this idea of joy. But recently I was talking to non-Indigenous researchers who wanted to do a project up North, and they were voicing how difficult it is to be working in that context because everything becomes political. It was kind of a profound moment, because it really is how we always relate to things. We don’t have any choice. It’s like our breathing is political. So, there is an element of it that’s exhausting.
- I don’t think any of us were intentionally making a project about Indigenous joy; it’s just the whole narrative of not being clumped in with the “Indigenous problem” in an archival context and then finding our work, you know?
- It’s interesting what you are saying about keywords, like searching in the collection and not finding what you’re looking for. It brings about a question of specificity. That’s something you would almost have to mandate for a cataloguer by saying, I don’t want it to be found through searching “colonization.” I want it to be found through searching “Indigenous Joy.”
- Archival systems weren’t designed for people like us and how we think and how we learn, and there is a level of privilege in knowing how to search through these systems. In how it relates to our work, we could brainstorm keywords so people like us could search for things. Maybe we’re searching for “community,” or for terms that already evoke connection.
I’m also thinking back to the difference between being at the archives we visited in Kahnawake [Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa] compared to the archives at the CCA. Those experiences were very different from each other. How do you make space for both modes of researching? If I see something in the archive that I feel connected to, that’s part of my heritage, I want to be able to connect with it in the usual ways. I might want to be able to touch or smell it, and not only look at it.
- That makes me think about something I heard George Desjarlais (Frog Lake Cree Nation) say: that our children learn differently than we learned, and differently than our grandparents learned. So in thinking about your work and Indigenous presence in the archive, what do you want to continue? Do you want to hold your knowledge so close that it doesn’t move on and that’s okay? Or do you want this knowledge to transfer?
- Not everything is meant to last forever. With our work, we want tactility and interaction. It’s good when things decay and get fingerprints and evolve and change.
- I don’t mind if people use their hands to explore my work if it means they connect to it. Maybe the corner gets ripped a bit. That’s fine! It doesn’t need to be put away in a box in a back corner.
- My aunt was recently speaking to me about knowledge transfer. She told me that we have the knowledge that we share with each other and with our families, and that non-Indigenous people typically don’t know how to access that information. It’s relational. Our knowledge is held together, but people outside don’t experience it in the same way. That really speaks to me about stewardship and who can access your work, and the intention of understanding they need to have when they come to it as a non-Indigenous person. Maybe there is a note in the archive: that this work is made for the lens of Indigenous people and if you’re going to reference it, you have to ask for permission, or you can only observe it and never cite it, things like that.
- I think that’s important. In Norway, there are a lot of Sámi artifacts in museums. On the one hand, you think the objects will be preserved and safe in those spaces. On the other, that specific knowledge is removed from the community, and the institution gains it. We need to define structures and keep those relationships and connections to that heritage.
- Also, most if not all Indigenous cultures share their knowledge through storytelling and feasts. I think for the CCA and institutions in general, there needs to be space for storytelling, feasting, and discussion. By reclaiming the CCA Collection through an Inuit-led process with Elders, having a different dedicated space for the work we have produced, it could feel welcoming, safe, authentic. It’s the idea of creating a new home for specific material, and not accepting the institutional boundaries that exist.
- Towards Home and the Futurecasting project feel like they are the beginning of a relationship between the CCA and Indigenous communities. I’m excited to see what other things will come from these relationships, and I hope they can continue to develop.
- We should make sure there is a dedicated space for our work at the CCA where other students or other Indigenous designers can interact with it. We can let them know that we’re looking to expand in whatever way possible.
- And our work is so deeply personal to all of us. Throughout the whole process of making it, we were connected to each other and collaborating and learning. That energy is in all of our work individually and collectively. It’s the idea of creating a spiritual and emotional environment.
- If Indigenous youth have our work to reference as a reflection of the past, maybe they can build on it for their dream of the future.