A Way of Becoming

Jenni Hakovirta, Nicole Luke, and Naomi Ratte explore the values of Indigenous building

The three texts collected here were written for the book Towards Home: Inuit and Sámi Placemaking, to be published by the CCA, Valiz, and Mondo Books in April 2024. The three authors participated in the Futurecasting workshop organized in preparation of the exhibition ᐊᖏᕐᕋᒧᑦ / Ruovttu Guvlui / Towards Home and discussed in this other article.

Jenni Hakovirta: On Position, Power, and Being Kind

Barn and yard in Puolaniemi, 1920 or 1921. Photo courtesy of Jenni Hakovirta

What does it mean to be a Saami architect and researcher? Realizing I sit firmly within the Indigenous research paradigm, which guides all my relations, has been important in thinking through this question. Indigenous ontological, epistemological, and axiological realities are like fabric—our research, our architecture, our teachings, and our stories weave together. Indigeneity is in the way we learn, the way we have been brought up, and the way we relate to others. For me, indigeneity is a way of becoming through the interactions I have. I do not see indigeneity as merely something physical, but as something intangible that, as Indigenous people, we carry into every situation. Saami architecture is thus not just a form or aesthetic, but a way of working.

When I entered the field of architecture, I found myself in an environment where everything I had been brought up with was invisible. I had very little knowledge about how my position fit into the world around me. Since then, I have found that operating in spaces where people generally do not know where or who you come from opens the door to many complex questions about politics, culture, family, and history. Not having answers to these questions is a fear I have always carried with me; however, this fear has fuelled my need to deepen my understanding about who I am and where I come from, not just from the perspective of my personal experiences but also through the historical, social, and political experiences my people have been through. This is not information I learned in school. As a Saami person, I always seem to travel with some form of shame—even if I am proud and the shame is illogical. Making peace with this through learning was the first step to being able to enter my career as a Saami architect.

In becoming a Saami architect, I knew I was making myself extraordinarily vulnerable. I was afraid. I felt I would never get hired if I was to tell people I am Saami. I knew that even though I might gain the joy of working with the topics that matter to me, I would probably spend the rest of my career justifying a conversation about architecture and “minority issues.” What I was not ready for was how much I would have to fight to hold this space for myself. I truly hope this will be different for other Saami people who do research or deal with the built environment in their professional work.

I have been surprised at the work positioning myself has taken. The idea that knowledge has power continuously pops into my head and I now realize that it is not knowledge about others, but rather knowledge about oneself, that holds true. Understanding where I stand has power. I come from a place, a home, a people—I am not a global architect with no ties to anywhere. I operate out of respect and responsibility and kindness. I want to work in the good way, but in a world where capital seems to be the only clear value by which to measure success, these principles often seem unrealistic. However, I recognize that other Indigenous designers operate from a similar position, and it gives me courage, energy, and determination.

It is blueberry picking season and my family members have taken a trip to an island to spend time together, 1970s. From left: Terhi Arrela, Mervi Pekkala (née Soikkonen), the children’s grandmother Hilda Airamo (née Ahola) sitting with a bowl of blueberries, Virpi Arrela, Jarkko Soikkonen, Terttu Airamo (childrens’ aunt) making coffee, and Arto Hakovirta (my dad). Photo courtesy of Jenni Hakovirta

Regardless of the potential our generation has to shift the narratives around which values we uphold, having a conversation about how to practice Indigenous architecture is complex. Symbolism, materiality, art, and storytelling are very powerful and important tools, especially when they are part of a narrative in a built environment, but they alone are not enough if one wants to critically examine Indigenous building. I have learned that it is much harder to talk about power relations, ego, creativity, success, or one’s own relationship to these factors than it is to examine if a building resembles culturally relevant architecture. As an Indigenous architect this poses a challenge because my responsibilities and ambitions go beyond the demands of consumption and speed. In looking at the future of Indigenous architecture, I recognize the need to discuss what role these paradigms play, both in practice and theory. Buildings that exist today have been largely born out of white, western, and often male perspectives, and it remains important to consider if and how Indigenous praxis should relate to architecture. Should Indigenous views on architecture be inserted into existing architectural practices? Or, instead, are Indigenous architectural theory and Indigenous architectural practices to be considered as part of their own design paradigm? Instead of asking how we make a building Indigenous, perhaps we can continue to collectively question what Indigenous building is—considering its knowledges, education, and values as part of our histories, ways to organize, and to relate. This means that we must also keep examining our relationship with the prevailing field of architecture.

Indigenous architectural theory and practice have much to give to the field of architecture, and Indigenous practitioners around the world are having conversations that are necessary for every negotiating table. Thinking about the role of knowledge and the relationship between listening and hearing are seemingly simple acts of respect and responsibility, but most people have lot to learn about them. My hope for the future is that Saami people are seen as equally active participants in their own, and in all, built environments. I want our people to be recognized as contemporary, engaging operators with agency rather than people that need to be saved by architecture. We are living and we are present. We make choices both privately and professionally. We have always interacted with the environments we live in, and we know our homes. We have knowledge about relationships with places and spaces that would benefit everyone, if they are willing to hear us.

Though research and life are complex, I keep close to my heart what my grandmother once told me in the middle of difficult situation: you can trust your body to feel the difference between right and wrong, she told me, and I do. Many of my fears have come true since starting my PhD. Yet I am fine. When facing those fears, I have ended up finding calm and stillness in recognizing that being an Indigenous person is like sitting on a swing on a summer’s day. I can lean on my indigeneity while I look at the world spinning off its axis, and it is beautiful.

There are nine Saami languages, and even though the Saami Nation and Saami society do exist, Saami people are not one homogenous group. In academic fields, writing in English brings up two questions for every scholar: first, how they refer to different Saami communities in their text, and second, how they collectively refer to Saami people. I use the spelling Saami when I refer to people, because from my perspective “Sámi” assumes language hegemony that does not reflect my position. For further information, see Pekka Sammallahti, The Saami Languages (Karasjok: Davvi Girji OS, 1998).

Nicole Luke: Arctic Architecture and Reconciliation?

Hudson Bay, Chesterfeild Inlet, 2021. Photograph by Nicole Luke

The land and waters near Rankin Inlet, 2022. Photograph by Nicole Luke

Reconciliation—like the terms decolonization and sustainability—has become buzzword. This is not to disregard its important applications and meanings, but its presence in proposals and policies often renders it as simply a trendy word. Reconciliation has many meanings to many people, and the course of action that takes place after the announcement of this powerful word defines what it truly means to that person or group. Steps are likely to be mandated in a project to ensure reconciliation is distributed, but I can’t help but see it as just an umbrella term. Rain can still fall on the course of these actions. In reality, when there are timeline and cost constraints it’s easy to bypass reconciliation to ensure a project or process runs smoothly—just bold and underline Reconciliation as a headline for your report.

Maybe I am being too cynical and not considering all possibilities. Maybe I am just a young Indigenous professional, confused, and persistent to learn with much to experience. Regardless, it doesn’t make me dim the light on this operational flaw. Our communities are not being developed in the honour of reconciliation; they are being developed for business. But who’s to say business can’t be Indigenous?

Navigating the business of architecture in this modern era as an Indigenous person may mean doing things that feel contradictory to our culture and way of being. We operate within an extractive economy where everyone must take and take to feel like they’re not just surviving but thriving. It feels wrong to profit off certain things like nature or wholesome human experiences, but industries today rely on extracting from the land and from other people. We provoke violence from the land because it is reactive and alive.

I could go on about consumerism and capitalism, but we all know they are foundational to our modern era. Can there be a meaningful relationship between capitalism and reconciliation? Given the current state of capitalism, it seems unlikely. But can they evolve together to create a synergy?

With information and technology constantly developing, how does anyone keep up? It is easy to see why reconciliation is a floating term with no major anchor. Although some businesses and industries are leading deeper engagement with the term, others simply engage with it because there are policies being developed to ensure they are properly incorporating reconciliation into their frameworks. That’s the root of the problem—they are simply incorporating.

Rankin Inlet sunset, 2022. Photograph by Nicole Luke

So how can we think about reconciliation in the Arctic, which is now becoming more and more accessible through globalization and record-breaking, permafrost-thawing climate change? This means more resource extraction, tourism, and research, which in turn means more interactions with, and development in, Arctic Indigenous communities. Development may have a positive impact and result in increased housing and health facilities, but it also results in more southern companies claiming their stake of land—claims of ownership that traditionally hold no meaning for Arctic Indigenous Peoples and result only in frustration. Though Arctic Indigenous-led businesses in the North (and the South) may operate within this capitalist economy, they are born from a Northern attitude and lifestyle. Those who have lived in the North develop a love and care for the land despite the temperature. The land is at their doorstep, not a thirty-minute drive past the perimeter. Life north of the sixtieth parallel offers a unique perspective, guided by—but not limited to—cultural values, land knowledge, and access to local resources.

Having grown up in the South and visited family in the North, I am aware of the two worlds I am inhabiting—those being Inuit/Northern/community and white-passing/Southern/business—while also being in the architecture industry. With more and more Indigenous designers entering the field, it is important that we remind ourselves to stay grounded regardless of the frustrations we are likely to encounter. I hope to advocate for Inuit or other Indigenous people by offering critical reflections on the ways we are developing our communities while navigating this time of transition and conflict. Fortunately, I see these struggles as an opportunity to gain capacity within our communities by educating, listening, engaging, and allowing opportunities for our communities to grow—that is the best way to pursue struggle and to continue along this winding path of reconciliation. We have so much work to do, but our growing pains will lead to strength.

Naomi Ratte: Gakinawaabi / Learn by observing

Tent ring at Peterhead Inlet in Iqaluit Kunnga Territorial Park, August 2017. Photograph by Naomi Ratte

To learn is to gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught.

To observe is to notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant.

In 2017 I found myself in the Arctic for the very first time, exploring the open tundra on Baffin Island shortly after starting a position as a landscape architectural intern at NVision Insight Group Inc, an Indigenous-owned consulting company. We were there to collect inventory for Iqaluit Kuunga Territorial Park near Iqaluit, Nunavut. It was the beginning of August, the temperature was mild, and with around seventeen hours of sunlight, the days felt endless. On our first day out in the field I was asked to take photos as we travelled around the park. Initially, I prioritized capturing large landscape shots. The brilliant blue waters and small pops of colour along the tundra were breathtaking. Now this is an incredible landscape, I kept thinking to myself. The lichen was soft and spongy. When I stepped on it, I would spring up, almost as if I was walking on the tundra’s trampoline.

About mid-way through the day my colleagues had paused to talk amongst themselves. When I listened in, I learned that they were talking about the exact location where I had decided to stop and eavesdrop on their conversation. I learned that I was standing in the middle of a Thule tent ring. The lichen that coated the rocks of the tent ring was thick, suggesting that the ring had been there for hundreds of years, undisturbed. Learning more about the history of the place I was photographing breathed new life into the way that I was observing the landscape around me and allowed me to connect to something that I never knew personally. The landscape wasn’t only incredible because of its breathtaking aesthetic, but because of the stories it had kept for generations.

The teaching of gakinawaabi (the Anishinaabemowin word that translates to “learn by observing”) has the potential to facilitate lasting responses that extend beyond the human-to-nature connection to all our relations. How can I, as an emerging design professional, develop and apply a design approach that embodies the essence of gakinawaabi as a principle? My personal narrative of land and my role as a landscape designer were shaped to elevate my perspective, ego, and ideas through imposition. This meant that when I observed a place, I prioritized looking for ways to improve it and ways to intervene that fit into the singular narrative I had been taught. This narrative was typically informed by a specific task with a predictable, fixed outcome. While this approach is not necessarily wrong, it feels as if it misses the opportunity to serve a meaningful purpose. When the act of learning informs observing, it opens the possibility of experiencing mystery, wonder, and unexpected opportunities.

Taking these learnings and considering how these experiences shape my own personal narrative suggests that landscape architecture is less about the design, the intervention, or the perspective of an individual person or zeitgeist. Maybe it is a simple response that emerges from a dialogue with the land. Learning to learn by observing is something that requires individual pride to be stripped away. This learning has to be intentional, and the dialogue that emerges should be granted permission to arise and evolve over time.

Photo of lichen on the tundra at Iqaluit Kunnga Territorial Park, August 2017. Photograph by Naomi Ratte


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