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Newest Partner in Architecture Firm Mike Laverdure Taps Ojibwe Heritage

Randy Wagner, a partner in DSGW Architects in Minnesota, likens the search for a new partner to finding a spouse. “You kind of have to date before you get married; there was a get-to-know-you time.”

If that is the case, then DSGW has just proposed to Mike Laverdure, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and he has said, “Yes.”

Laverdure, who has worked four years for the 75-year-old firm, in January became its newest partner. DSGW, headquartered in Duluth, has more than 30 employees in four offices and eight partners.

Rolf Hagberg

The Bad River Health and Wellness Center in Odanah, Wisconsin, is an example of Mike Laverdure’s work and design influence on projects from the First American Design Studio, part of DSGW Architects. Custom cases throughout the building showcase artwork by Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribal members or historical artifacts.

“We knew Mike was partner material from the get-go,” Wagner said, “… mainly because he’s very good at what he does. He shows great leadership, he’s a good designer—the entire package. He’s a great fit for our company.”

Laverdure, an associate with the American Institute of Architects, joined the firm in 2008 and became founding director of its First American Design Studio in 2009. In February, he intends to take the final portions of the architectural registration examination to become a licensed architect.

In a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Laverdure joked about cramming for the license exam, but you might say that he’s has been practicing to become an architect all of his life. Some of his first childhood drawings were of houses—not the usual square boxes, but ones with pools and sunken living rooms, “all the stuff I dreamed of one day having in my own home,” he said.

His father was a self-taught “journeyman” civil engineer who worked at the Ultieg engineering firm in Fargo, and his mother was a tribal judge for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and trained tribal judges for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Laverdure mainly grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where his mother first worked for the BIA. He learned algebra by the sixth grade, finding that he enjoyed both math and art. He found a blend of both when he chose Leonardo DaVinci as the topic of a speech in high school.

“He was the extreme Renaissance man,” Laverdure said of his admiration for DaVinci. “He was a craftsman, an artist, he designed buildings, he could write backwards! I loved his drawings. … I thought that was really, really cool.”

After attending Turtle Mountain High School in Belcourt, North Dakota, Laverdure applied to attend North Dakota State University in Fargo and was offered the NDSU Presidential Scholarship for the architecture program. “I just fit in and loved it ever since.” Laverdure got a bachelor of architecture degree and a bachelor of science in environmental design at NDSU. While at college, he did an internship at what is now RHRA Architects in Fargo and after college interned at JLG Architects, also based in Fargo.

Courtesy DSGW Architects

Mike Laverdure, now at partner at DSGW Architects, was involved in the design of the Sky Dancer Casino & Hotel on his home reservation of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota. This computer rendering of the recently completed project shows echoes of feathers in the lobby lighting and elements harkening to fans used in fancy dancing.

Laverdure was a natural fit, too, for DSGW Architects. By the time he came to work for the firm, about 40 percent of its business was from tribal clients. In the four years since Laverdure took the lead on tribal contracts, that portion of its business has grown to about 60 percent of clients, but the actual dollar percentage is higher because of big-ticket projects for casino-resort operations, Wagner said.

The firm does large and small projects mainly in the Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa—and in North and South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico. DSGW has worked with 18 tribes on more than 100 projects, from renovations of gaming sites to health care facilities and elder centers to a Boys and Girls Club site.

“My initial impression of DSGW was correct,” Laverdure said of his partners. “They are committed to tribes.”

Designing for tribal clients “doesn’t mean just putting on a symbolic ‘headband’ somewhere in the design,” according to Laverdure.

“We approach every project with an open mind,” he said. That includes projects for Ojibwe clients who share his cultural background. “Just because I have an understanding of the culture doesn’t mean I understand them,” he added.

Each band brings its own interpretations and significant icons, such as water for the Red Cliff Band or wild rice for Bad River, but not every tribal building needs to use those icons.

“We don’t tell you what you get, you tell us what you want,” Laverdure described the approach.

Wagner agreed. “We don’t come into it with a catalog of beadwork patterns—Mike calls it the ‘headband approach’ to designing. We talk about their guiding principals … for the project, the cultural influence that their building will have.”

Courtesy DSGW Architects

The new Sky Dancer Casino & Hotel designed by DSGW Architect’s First American Design Studio headed by Mike Laverdure, incorporated elements of the northern lights from the traditional sky dancer story) and the night sky.

Wagner, who shepherded the tribal contracts before Laverdure joined the firm, said he learned the hard way not to assume how to incorporate “culture” into a project, explaining that he once suggested a custom-designed carpet with a bear paw, a symbol for one of the clans. “Walking across it was somewhat sacrilegious to the elders,” Wagner said. “I’ve learned ever since then, I don’t just go ahead and make those assumptions. We run it through a design committee and let it be generating from them and not from us.”

Not all projects have the hefty funding of hospitality or gaming construction, but all buildings should find a role within their community, said Laverdure, who views “the building as an elder.”

“Good architecture” means a building that communicates culture for everyone, every day. Laverdure points to one of the firm’s most recent projects, the renovation and addition at the Skydancer Casino and Hotel in his hometown of Belcourt. The building design echoes the northern lights tradition, from which the name stems, and elements of fancy dancing—particularly feathers—in its functional elements, such as the entryway sky light or hall lighting.

“Sustainability is more than being ‘green,’” Laverdure added. It means a building that promotes heritage—“continuing on the learning of language and art and culture.” It also means construction that grows local tribal employment. “That’s sustainability as well—sustainability of economy.”


Canadian Museum of Civilization

Beside DaVinci, another inspiration for Laverdure now is architect Douglas Cardinal, Blackfoot/Métis, whose free-form style is reflected in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Québec. “His designs really invoke that cultural feeling.”

Laverdure has a passion for building up the next generation, too. He is a board member of Minnesota’s American Indian Chamber of Commerce and a Sequoyah (lifetime) member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. As outgoing president of the regional AISES chapter, he is working with others to raise funding to promote STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—activities for Native youth.

What he really hopes to launch by working with young people, he said, is a few more Native architects—to be someone else’s DaVinci inspiration.

“My one goal is to get an Indian kid into architecture,” he said. “Good tribal architecture can really improve Native American communities. … That’s why I feel it’s so important for young Natives to get into this field.”