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Building Indian Country, One Construction Project at a Time

The 14th annual Construction in Indian Country (CIIC) conference, held April 17-19 in Phoenix, brought together more than 200 people from the construction industry, academia and tribal leadership to learn about current best practices in the booming business of building Indian country. The conference is part of the program of the same name, which is housed in the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University, and which aims to train more Native people to manage infrastructure projects. “We’re the only university in the nation with such a program,” said Marcus Denethale, Navajo, CIIC’s program manager.


Some key points and takeaways from the three-day conference include:

  • Human capital is just as important as infrastructure in tribal economies. Dr. Richard Luarkie, former governor of Laguna Pueblo, said, “We need to have a conversation about economic restoration instead of just economic development.” Luarkie also discussed pre-European business and trade systems, and how those play a role in restoring tribal economies, by highlighting an ancient construction project, Chaco Canyon.
Laguna Pueblo Governor Richard Luarkie

Former Laguna Pueblo Governor Richard Luarkie shows how historic trading networks contributed to pre-European economies in the Southwest.

  • More women are entering the fields of architecture, construction and engineering. One of CIIC’s visiting eminent scholars, Wanda Dalla Costa, is a LEED-certified architect specializing in culturally responsive design, sustainable housing and climatic resiliency. Costa, Spirit Lake Nation, envisioned what infrastructure and economic development looks like in tribal communities and discussed how new technologies—3-D printed houses for example—can help create housing and other buildings in remote areas.
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  • Despite the “horror stories” of mismanaged projects, shoddy workmanship and price gouging, more tribes are becoming successful in planning and implementing the sorely-needed rapid buildup of their communities. For example, the Ak-Chin Indian Community partnered with Thalden Boyd Emery, a Native-owned architectural firm based in Oklahoma, and Phoenix-based Sundt Construction to design, plan and build a massive expansion of the community’s casino and resort in record time. “Relationships matter,” said Ak-Chin Councilmember Ann Marie Antone. “The project was fast-tracked, and we wanted to make it run smoothly and keep everybody on the same page.”
  • Technology once thought only suitable for science fiction is now in common use in design and construction. Virtual reality glasses give an opportunity to “walk through” projects, while cyberspace also provides meeting and real-time space for far-flung team members without the time and expense of constant travel.
  • Indian Country projects keep sustainability and culture at the forefront. More projects incorporate solar and wind power, including solar-powered streetlights. Tribal elders, youth and business people are not shy about giving their input into what they want and need in their housing. During one panel, it was revealed that some elders in a New Mexico housing project wanted to eliminate bedrooms, in order to keep the kids close by instead of them closeting themselves behind closed doors with their headphones and iPads. Although federal regulations require bedrooms, architects were able to incorporate an open living concept for the main living spaces, to include many family members. The project also has spaces for Pueblo ovens.
  • Construction projects can also morph into opportunities to reveal tribal history. A road project in north Tucson, Arizona, revealed a 3,000-year-old Hohokam tribal farm, including human footprints. The Tohono O’odham Nation, descendents of the Hohokam people, supported the cultural mitigation effort, and tribal members were the last to set foot on the archaeological site before it was completed. Many local residents also came to see the dig and learn more about their tribal neighbors.
  • And, as one Diné business owner avers, it’s still a difficult process to get any sort of business started on tribal lands, including construction projects like retail or residential infrastructure. Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design and member of the nonprofit humanitarian group Engineers Without Borders, discussed how she helped sub-Saharan African communities and entrepreneurs move projects forward. “The reality is that it’s much easier for me to find clients in rural Kenya or Rwanda than it is to find clients within the Indian community,” Fleming said. “How easy it is for international entrepreneurs, working in very difficult environments, to get their businesses started and their ideas going, compared to how difficult it was, if not impossible, to do it on a reservation.”