Tiffany Shaw-Collinge Interviews Harriet Burdett-Moulton, Wanda Dalla Costa, Kelly Edzerza-Bapty, and Ouri Scott
In a recent issue of Azure Magazine, Daniel Viola states in his article "Canada 150: The Integral Role of Indigenous Architects" that “[b]efore 1961, any Indigenous person who attended post-secondary school or wanted to enter one of many professions needed to enfranchise, thereby losing their status. Indigenous architecture was, at the time, almost non-existent.” Today, there are just under twenty registered Indigenous architects within Canada and about the same number of architectural interns. Five of these architects are women. Their names are Harriet Burdett-Moulton, Wanda Dalla Costa, Ouri Scott, Eladia Smoke, and Rachelle Lemieux. The interview that follows includes three of these architects—Harriet, Wanda, and Ouri—as well as Kelly Edzerza-Bapty who, like myself, is an intern architect. Collectively, these strong Indigenous women represent communities across Western Canada, the Territories, Labrador, the Arctic, and Arizona. They carry out their work on reserve, in urban environments, and in remote locations—work that is driven by knowledge sharing, community, and sustainability. This interview investigates the range of Indigenous methodologies and practices in the field of architecture today. (1)
Tiffany Shaw-Collinge (TS-C): What does it mean to be an Indigenous architect? What are the challenges you take on in this field in relation to your identity?
Harriet Burdett-Moulton (HB-M): I am honoured to be an architect and I have always been proud of being a Métis from Labrador (NunatuKavvut). Early in my career I had to give a talk and one of the questions asked was “what accomplishment are you most proud of?” I held up my little finger and said “This architectural ring is my proudest accomplishment.” My biggest challenge on the road to becoming an architect was the transition from life and education in a remote rural location to the urban hustle and university life. I had never seen a traffic light, a bus, or a group of more than one hundred people.
Wanda Dalla Costa (WDC): As the first First Nations woman architect in Canada and as the daughter of a residential school survivor, I feel a responsibility to embed culture in everything I do. My focus at the moment is how architecture is taught in higher education. As a professor at Arizona State University (ASU), I recognize this institution as a unique place for its diverse student population, as reflected through its active interest in a more inclusive curriculum concerned with the social impacts of architectural education and practice. However, architecture is a challenging discipline in this regard as it is somewhat exclusive—buildings are expensive and orchestrated and created by a select few. How do we move architecture from an exclusive practice to an inclusive one?
In a recent talk on remaking design education at ASU, I focused on addressing this issue, I asked how can architecture "make the invisible visible?" Despite the richness of the socio-cultural systems and environments we inhabit, we were subject to accepting environments that were planned for us instead of with us. This condition impacts many, beyond Indigenous people. We need to ask questions about what we can "make visible" through architecture, and what sustains and supports culture.
Kelly Edzerza-Bapty (KE-B): We carry a deep knowledge of our place in this world and of the geographic spaces we have evolved from: the birthplaces of our languages, governance, and social/cultural practices. As an Indigenous architect, I see my role as part of rebuilding our Nations and creating our own spaces for cultural and communal revitalization and re-grounding, built with our own hearts, minds, and hands.
Ouri Scott (OS): People have a right to land, self-governance, and self-determination. These rights are the foundation of how we run our Indigenous communities and directly affect their design. Buildings instigate change, and the act of building them encourages a sense of self and independence. The celebration of this is a powerful act. Many communities across Canada suffer with inadequate infrastructure leading to emergency situations such as boil water advisories and severe housing shortages. Many reserves are small, underfunded communities and the government has a mandate to address this. But how can we address it in a way that provides a clean water system as well as a sustainable, culturally appropriate system for growth?
TS-C: Where are you and your family from? What is unique about your community that others might not know?
HB-M: I lived a traditional Labrador nomadic life until I went to school. We had three houses, one hidden deep in the woods for winter protection, one in a bay for spring salmon fishing and fall berry picking, and one out on the coast for cod fishing. My father never went to school and my mother only went to grade three at a residential school in Makkovik, Labrador. She was so determined that her children not go to a residential school that my family moved to the town of Cartwright to avoid it. After moving to Cartwright, we salmon fished in Sandy Hill in the spring and cod fished in Indian Tickle in the summer. Even now, my family gets about 40 per cent of their food from the land and almost all special meals are centred around local game. My heritage is Métis; predominately Inuit, White, and Montagnais.
WDC: My mom is from Saddle Lake First Nation, Alberta. My Grandfather was from Goodfish Lake, Alberta and my Grandmother was from Saddle Lake, Alberta. My mom was one of six siblings and all but one (the one the family hid when the officials came looking) went to residential school.
KE-B: I am a member of the Tāłtān Nation, stewards of the Stikine watershed that feeds out to the Pacific Ocean. Our traditional and unceded land base comprises 11.24 per cent of British Columbia's "claimed" land base. Our Nation holds a "Declaration of Nation" from 1910 in which our Nannock (Head Chief) and 84 other members of our Nation state our lands as separate from what is presently referred to as British Columbia. Both my Great- Great- Grandfather (Nannock) and my Great-Grandfather were signatories of that declaration.
OS: I am Tlicho from the Northwest Territories. My community is located between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake. Our people are known for hunting caribou and drumming, which brings people together. While we do not have pow wow, our drum songs are part of significant events including drum dances, tea dances, and hand games, which are popular gambling games.
TS-C: What is your experience of being an Indigenous architect in relation to practice? What do you feel are your long-term roles and what are the responsibilities tied to that role?
HB-M: I wanted to advocate for Northerners because colonialism took their voice away. After graduating from architecture and obtaining my certification, I moved to Iqaluit to work with the Government of the Northwest Territories. One thing that became evident early on was that buildings were designed for the people not with the people. The end users had no participation in the design process or any control over the type of facility that was being supplied to them. The government was paying for the facilities and therefore had the control over design and implementation, but they paid no heed to the wishes of the people, the end users. Buildings were being treated harshly and with little respect for two reasons. First, no one taught the people how to live in permanent structures when they moved in off the land. Second, they did not feel that the buildings belonged to them. Southern construction crews were coming into the Arctic, putting up the buildings and leaving. No one took ownership; not the government, not the designers, not the builders, and not the users.
Growing up Métis helped my architectural practice in the North. It gave me the ability to present projects and designs to other Indigenous people in a way they could understand. The Indigenous people I have worked with are strong visual thinkers and automatically think in three dimensions. They express themselves well and can visualize spaces from 2D drawings. I also understood the lnuit body language, which has many visual components.
WDC: I am exploring three notions at the moment: re-centre, re-define, and re-aggregate. Re-centring involves re-positioning the "centre" of knowledge from a western perspective and imagining the possibility of multiple centres. What does that look like in practice, teaching, and learning? Re-defining requires a fresh consideration of what architecture is. For Indigenous people, this means returning to our spoken languages, asking how meanings associated with words such as “building,” “construction,” or “design” translate, and using this to develop an accompanying visual language in architecture. Re-aggregating means addressing various tools we use through assessment, interpretation, and the means we use to create architecture. Can we look at the catalysts, outcomes, drivers, systems etc. in new ways? Can we break these notions up and put it back together again multiple times with varying outcomes?
KE-B: In our profession, we carry a specific technical knowledge of contemporary building, but as Indigenous architects, we have our foot in two worlds. We are grounded in an alternative worldview of dwelling and space. This capacity for us to see the world through one brown eye and one blue eye allows us to navigate government and industry dealings while maintaining our way of being. We can use this to establish our presence and re-build our communities and Nations outside of dominant, bureaucratic systems. My particular focus is on capacity building in our communities and encouraging what I call “Generational Architecture”—a practice of making buildings that last for generations upon a rich foundation of landscape, ancestry, and language.
Due to the reservation system, status systems, residential schooling, missionary work, and more, our ways, places, and languages have been brought to near extinction in many regions of this country. In my lifetime, I want to disassociate from reserve and government systems and work outside of the western paradigm of consumerism by using the reciprocity economy and socialist structures inherent in my culture. I am particularly interested in helping communities reconcile our past and future while working to re-build our Nations.
OS: Things that need to be considered are what the community wants and how they want to operate. We need to ask questions about how we can ensure we meet the community's needs rather than meeting the government’s mandate. Our role is to be a facilitator rather than solely a problem solver and to understand that culture is formed by traditional knowledge that comes from a central place.
TS-C: Family is a large part of Indigenous culture. As a mother, daughter, and/or aunty, how do these roles affect your architectural methodology?
HB-M: I learned to fish, hunt, sew, and cook through observation and practice by trailing my relatives as I grew up and helping in any task they were involved in. All major tasks involved consultation and consensus.
My first degree was in Arts & Education and my first professional job was as a teacher in Povungnituk, Arctic Quebec. Architecture has its own vocabulary and my teaching experience has made it possible for me to explain complex concepts to people with no architectural background. Early learning experiences at home helped me guide the consultation process with community groups and stakeholders to come to design consensus.
WDC: I think about support networks where kinship ties, social networks, or communities are precious and need special consideration in architecture. Ways of connecting people should be our primary aim in creating built environments. How are we providing spaces for people to come together, share, nurture, and support each other?
KE-B: I am the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter from a family of twenty children, all of whom were born outside of hospital care by a midwife. Needless to say, I am from a huge family, which includes both my Grandparents' sides and their extended family. I am a daughter of the Etzenlee Matriarch. I am from the Wolf-Eagle clans of a matrilineal-based society where property and hunting areas are passed through the woman’s lines. As a member of my clan, community, and Nation (Keyo, Kiye & Kime), I have an obligation to support our future generations and assure that our strength is carried forward. My role is to help mend and re-generate our cultural continuum.
OS: As a mother, I have become sensitive to issues around accessibility. When using a stroller, you begin to notice the limitations of inaccessibility and reduced mobility. As architects, we must understand as how to best provide safety and accessibility to participants in our designs.
As part of a large Indigenous family, I have a strong sense of community and what it means to be a part of something greater. This is often distinct from the non-Indigenous experience within Vancouver, where municipal and housing policies around community centre master plans are only beginning to focus on integrating people rather than perpetuating the exclusion of varying opinions. Conversations on intergenerational relationships and the role they play in reconciliation and resiliency are starting to appear in the planning realm. While policy-making is beginning to reflect these Indigenous values, it is also beneficial for all non-Indigenous cultures that live in an intergenerational framework, which better reflects Vancouver’s multicultural makeup.
TS-C: Indigenous people have a history of being nomadic and are still cited to be largely nomadic today. How do you believe this deep history of light, portable architecture affects what is designed and built today?
HB-M: Nomadic architecture is driven by material availability, ease of assembly, and necessities such as warmth and ventilation. Structures such as igloos and tepees have become symbols to represent a broad spectrum of cultures, romanticized by the general public. But these were spaces and forms whose design evolved over thousands of years to respond to the needs of a specific people. The igloo and the tepee optimizes the material available and is a technical response to climate and creature comforts. They are beautiful in their simplicity and elegance.
People are nomadic only in rural and remote areas where they are close to the land and can move about on it. I do not see nomadic lifestyle affecting structures in urban areas. The cultural icons, or some essence of them, can be used in architecture to enrich form and interior spaces. In areas where the climate is harsh, such as the Arctic, looking to the building forms that were traditionally used can help mitigate some of the problems caused by rigid rectilinear forms.
WDC: Indigenous people moved for sustenance and/or marriage. They still do. Sustenance includes jobs, education, or opportunity. Indigenous people return home to the reserve for social and kinship supports. Perhaps as architects we need to think beyond the singularity of the reservation and the city and pursue these notions as two complementary environments, forging and celebrating the linkages between the two. Can we create residential, civic, and social settings that simultaneously support yet promote movement between the two?
KE-B: Historically, my community was semi-nomadic like many west-coast communities, with summer and winter villages throughout a large land base. Summer gatherings like salmon runs and potlachs would bring us together after time spent in our winter hunting camps. We travelled light, carrying with us only what was needed. Coming from a family of makers, seamstresses, and artists, I have been greatly influenced by this ability to hone one’s belongings while being attentive to material details and their value—lessons that apply directly to my craft. Our land base is in the process of being transformed by mining, energy, gas & forestry, with access opening up the region in less than one lifetime. With exploration, development, and extraction, the awareness of a material's ecological value becomes increasingly significant within my practice. My nation in particular faces many mega mining projects. Mining materials such as copper, gold, silver ore, iron ore, and anthracite coal (used for making high grade steel) are at the core of our work as architects. Living in a community shaped by a resource-based industry has made me realize how severely our rural and wild landscapes and rivers are continually exploited.
OS: Many Indigenous cultures are no longer nomadic in the same way they used to be. My people travelled to hunt caribou, following the animal tracks through the boreal forest in the wintertime. In the summer, they travelled different routes to find sustenance such as fish and berries. At that time, we lived in tepees. But how does this temporary mobile structure, a simple assembly, inform architecture today? And should it? A contemporary building is nothing like a tepee. It stays in one place. We still travel between communities for visits and gatherings but we now have home bases—homes within rural areas, towns, cities, and/or on reserves. The question is, how can we reflect our current identity and culture with our buildings? How can we find ways to celebrate both who we were and who we are today? People love to see elements of traditional structures in the design of their buildings but I would like to design beyond that. I think we are starting to move forward but some communities have incredibly under-designed buildings. Often, the buildings in their community are culturally inappropriate with respect to their needs and identity. For example, multiple communities within a region have identical band offices, giving no indication of where you are. There is consistent funding for the construction of new trailers, cheap and efficient, in Indigenous communities. How can we create architecture in Indigenous communities that is as affordable as these trailers but could better reflect the communities' values, resiliency, and identity?
TS-C: How do you bring ceremony and culture into your practice?
HB-M: Often ceremony and culture are a result of the resources available and the ease of living. In places like the North, survival was a full-time occupation and as a result art forms that took a large amount of time and resources, like the west coast totem poles, did not evolve. This does not mean there was not a rich culture. Culture was expressed in rich mythology, story telling, and intricately carved small objects. Only very recently has Indigenous ceremony and culture been a recognized element in Canadian architecture. I believe it is important to have artwork in a public project but it is always very dependent upon the budget available. With the more recent and public acceptance of First Nations culture, architects are enhancing their projects with the richness of tribal cultures.
WDC: I work with many tribes across North America, so participation is vital. I spent three years working with one local Arizona tribe, a process that involved continually attending a number of events. I feel I am just beginning to be welcomed and trusted—this acceptance is when I feel the creation of architecture can begin. I came across the term "watchful listening" recently while reading. It’s a great phrase to describe the commitment needed in order to engage in this type of practice and work.
KE-B: I would say that culture and ceremony are the root of my practice, which is built upon a participatory process—not only in the design and decisions involved in making a building, but also in support of fostering healthy communities. As community members, we have a very particular and relevant set of knowledge and skills necessary for the creation of powerful spaces. However, we have been left out of the conversation with the government’s implementation of reserve systems and theft of our lands, resources, and economy. And with these actions, the government claimed authority on all decisions related to the development of our communities.
OS: Protocols around meeting and ceremonial practices are significant in establishing relationships with Indigenous communities. I introduce myself using my own language and cultural practice because it’s important to communicate where I come from, who I come from, and what my values are—especially if I am approaching a community as an outsider. Making an offering of tobacco or sweetgrass to an elder is one such way to initiate a relationship and demonstrate respect. Though it might not necessarily be the protocol of the community I visit, sharing my own protocol builds trust through sharing.
TS-C: How do you connect with the land in your practice and why do you think this connection is different from one experienced by others who are not Indigenous?
HB-M: Most of my practice has been in the Arctic. The land and the climate are dominant features. People who do not live in the North have more difficulty designing for it. It becomes a thought experiment rather than a practical application. One thing I notice about southern architects designing for the north is that they often try to focus on the interior spaces while minimizing the number of windows for reasons of energy efficiency or to protect the occupant from the harsh environment. Inuit people love their land and take many daily cues from it. They don’t find the climate harsh and they want to be aware of the continuous micro-changes in the weather. Windows provide that connection to the land and the ever-changing light.
WDC: The best way to describe this is to borrow from Gregory Cajete, author of Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. He uses the term “relational worldview” to describe the human-nature relationship in which humans co-occupy the universe with other living things, both animate and inanimate. Cajete cites this as one of the main reasons Indigenous people are unable to formulate a detached, objective view of land and/or place (Cajete 2000: 24). I agree. This intertwined relationship is entirely different from the “inspired by the landscape/land” notions taught in architecture school.
KE-B: Too often buildings are designed with little to no contact with or input from the community. The buildings often seem out of place and out of touch with the landscape. Void of the character and materials of the landscape they sit within, these buildings are essentially site-less. They could be anywhere, in any suburb or urban space. I want to see buildings that are specific to their contextual landscape and culture in a way that is not only appropriate, but rich.
TS-C: How does being a female architect shape your role within the discourse of architecture?
HB-M: When I first graduated there were very few female architects. I was the second female graduate from my school. But I am not conscious of having been discriminated against. I have been very lucky. This has not been the case for many female architects. In hindsight, I think, starting the first design firm in the Eastern Arctic may have been simpler for a male Architect. On my part, it may have been a case of rushing in where angels fear to tread. The first years with a young family were difficult until we had established a good reputation.
WDC: I cannot separate being female and being a minority in my professional experience of architecture. Though it is a double-underdog condition, I think the two add strength to one another. I’ve learned to continuously listen to all underserved voices, whether they are female, male, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. We all speak the same language.
OS: My experience of this field and the opportunities I’ve had within it have been directly affected by the fact that I am a woman. Finding ways to help women in entering this field and supporting their experience throughout their career is essential. The same can be said within engineering.
1. A list of all Indigenous women making significant design contributions to their respective communities would be too long to contain in this article. While this interview captures only a few of those voices, other notable Indigenous women in design include:
Destiny Seymore, an interior designer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After working for a local architecture firm for over ten years, Destiny struggled to find interior design finishes and materials that reflected Indigenous cultural history. In 2014, she began to study Indigenous pottery and bone tool fragments collected from sites across Manitoba that were from 400 to 3000 years old. The delicate patterns stamped and carved into these pieces inspired Destiny to create her own line of textiles. Each pattern she creates reflects the history and beauty of Indigenous culture living here for thousands of years.
Destiny Swiderski, a Métis artist (born in Winnipeg, Manitoba) who currently lives in Coombs, British Columbia. With a Bachelors of Environmental Design in Architecture from the University of Manitoba (2007,) her architecture practice engages in the exploration of place making. In the past five years she has won three public art commissions, including Amiskwaciw Wâskâyhkan Ihtâwin Beaver Hills House Park in Edmonton, Alberta. This gateway received the Americans for the Arts Award and the 2017 Edmonton Public Art Award for Urban Fragments. In the fall of 2017, SWIDERSKI art + architecture KIDS was created; an after-school Architecture program for youth ages 7–16. Destiny’s future goals reside in designing healthy, safe, and sustainable housing for Indigenous communities.
Cheyenne Thomas, an Anishinaabe designer, born and raised in Winnipeg and a proud member of Peguis First Nation. She received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design from the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. Cheyenne began working on several architectural projects in Indigenous communities across Manitoba with her father, David Thomas. Cheyenne is passionate about developing new and innovative approaches to architecture that are driven by community engagement and traditional values. She currently is working on projects in Vancouver with Patrick R. Stewart Architect.
Tiffany Shaw-Collinge is an interdisciplinary artist and intern architect based in Edmonton, Alberta. She holds a BFA from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) University, a Masters in Architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and is currently working at Manasc Isaac Architects. She has been the recipient of a major commission for Edmonton's forthcoming Indigenous Art Park, has produced several notable transitory art works, and is a core member of Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective.
A senior architect, originally from Cartwright Labrador, currently with Stantec, Harriet holds a BA. Arch, BA. Env.Dgn, BA. Arts & ED. In 2016, she was made a Fellow of the RAIC. In 2017, she received a Doctorate of Design from OCAD University and was awarded the Labradorian of Distinction medal. She has a lifetime of experience living and working in some of Canada's most remote northern communities, as well as a broad range of professional experience as an architect. Harriet’s expertise comes from select experience dealing with culturally diverse groups and a broad range of building types.
Wanda Dalla Costa
Wanda Dalla Costa, AIA, LEED A.P. is an Institute Professor and Associate Professor at Arizona State University. She is a member of the Saddle Lake First Nation and has spent nearly twenty years working with Indigenous communities in North America. Her current work focuses on Indigenous place-keeping, sustainable housing, and climatic resiliency in architecture. Her coursework at ASU includes Indigenous Planning, Architecture and Construction and a multidisciplinary Indigenous Construction Studio. Dalla Costa is part of a team of Indigenous architects representing Canada at the 2018 Venice Biennale. She is a member of the Royal Institute of Architecture Canada (RAIC), a member of the Advisory Board for Construction in Indian Country (CIIC), and a member of the American Indian Council of Architects & Engineers (AICAE). Dalla Costa holds a Master of Design Research (City Design) from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and a Master of Architecture from the University of Calgary. Her company, Redquill Architecture (www.RQarc.com), is based in Phoenix, Arizona.
Kelly is an intern architect and was raised in the Northwest Territories and Northeastern B.C. Her focus is on the processes of re-building remote Indigenous communities, cultural centres, and places of governance and land stewardship from within their own capacity. Kelly sees architecture as a tool of autonomy for Indigenous Nations—utilizing local materials and processes, integrating indigenous vernacular and contemporary art forms into the fabric of the buildings, and grounding each structure within its landscape. Kelly believes in planning Indigenous communities with foresight and holistic thinking, a key component to ensure resiliency for generations. Alongside her architectural pursuits, Kelly is the initiating co-creator of ReMatriate, an Indigenous Wom(y/x)ns visual identity campaign and collective; she is a designer, adventurer, youth mentor, and advocate for environmental and indigenous rights. You can find her work at www.azziza.ca
Ouri is a Tlicho Dene architect originally from the Northwest Territories, currently lives and works in Vancouver and thanks the Musqueam/xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Squamish/Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh/Sel̓íl̓witulh for allowing her to live on their territories as an uninvited guest. With a Masters of Architecture from UBC, Ouri is driven to resolve prevalent, yet often unaddressed design issues that face indigenous people. As a designer, she looks to develop a modern design language to react and respond to contemporary First Nations culture. She is passionate about sustainable architecture and sees it as honouring her role as a steward of the land. Ouri is an active member of the RAIC Indigenous Task Force and also is part of a team of Indigenous Architects representing Canada at the 2018 Venice Biennale.