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Nez Perce landscape architect blends traditional values and modern designs

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LAPWAI, Idaho - The first time Nez Perce landscape designer Brian McCormack used native plants as a mainstay for a design project was while he was in Tahiti in the late 1980s, helping build the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

At the time, building costs and import taxes in Tahiti were astronomical. McCormack, as the landscape designer and project manager employed by Peridian Corp., searched for ways to complete the project without incurring huge costs.

To save money, McCormack stopped flying back and forth from corporate offices in Newport Beach, Calif., and rented a place in Tahiti. Instead of importing the usual plants from Florida, he set up a greenhouse on the island to grow many species needed for the project. He also spent a lot of time driving around, looking for full-grown native plants to use.

"A lot of the women on the island are avid gardeners," McCormack says. "So we would stop at houses and say, 'Hey, can we buy a couple trees out of your yard? Then we'd dig them up, give them some fertilizer and transport them."

Much to his surprise, the contract architects utilized many Native motifs in the overall design of the hotel. Between the landscaping and the architecture, the result was a pleasing blend of modern and indigenous cultures.

The experience gave McCormack an appreciation for balancing styles. It also gave him a chance to re-evaluate the types of plants he could use to different effect.

Unfortunately, once back in the United States, it was business as usual. For McCormack that meant landscaping, project managing and doing construction documentation for high-end residential houses, hotels and commercial complexes with the same, repetitive Italian-Mediterranean styles.

"I just didn't like what I was doing," he says. "It didn't seem like we were doing any kind of stewardship of the land like I always thought we were supposed to do. We were just creating the most develop-able land and squeezing thousands of houses on these tiny pieces of property."

By 1992, barely 10 years out of Washington State University's landscape architecture school, McCormack was at the top of his field in a lucrative career. He also was bored and ready to get out of the business. Moving back to the Northwest and working for another landscape design corporation in Portland didn't help.

He ended up taking a year's sabbatical.

With no particular plan in mind, he traveled through the Southwest. Welcomed onto reservation after reservation, he soaked up a different pace and a different mind set. Much to his delight, he noticed tribes were building ambitious commercial and cultural projects. Most were attempting to incorporate traditional aesthetics and respect for the land into their very modern designs.

Inspired, he ended his trip in Montana. "Pulled," as if someone were guiding him, in the middle of "nowhere Montana," he came across a park and an encampment of tipis.

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"It was on the anniversary of the Nez Perce war. The final battle over Chief Joseph's surrender. ... It was really bizarre. I pulled in there on the very day, totally forgetting the history of my own tribe."

Staying the few days of the Nez Perce memorial was an event that changed his life. Renewed, he drove back to Portland to find a message waiting for him. It was a freelance design project for the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Nation.

The project turned out to be the start of McCormack Landscape Design.

Since 1994, McCormack has run his own, one-man firm, specializing in services that range from native plant re-vegetation, master planning and housing developments to cultural resources design, resort planning and recreation projects. The thing that makes him different from everybody else is that he incorporates tribal beliefs and values into his work.

"I believe that people should live in harmony with all living things rather than trying to control them," McCormack says. "Designing with nature is a very important aspect of the creative process evident in every project."

Whether it's a minority housing project in Portland, a tribal fish hatchery or a convenience store, McCormack stresses the abundant use of native and medicinal plants. Not only is such a planting usually less expensive, it also minimizes irrigation requirements as well as maintenance costs. The heavy, natural planting is highly durable and works well in a reservation setting.

The use of native plants also stimulates the return of indigenous wildlife, while the rich and varied landscape benefits human health and spiritual wellbeing.

One of the best demonstrations of the efficacy of his philosophy is a landscape design job for a low-income housing project in a predominantly black neighborhood in Portland. Instead of the traditional "lawn and a couple trees" his clients wanted, he insisted on heavily planting the grounds.

"I said, 'You know, in my experience being around my Indian family and stuff ... if you give them crap, they're going to treat it like crap.' "

After winning the contract, McCormack planted lots of bushes, grasses and trees native to the Portland area and then taught the new residents about the plants. The result? A well cared for housing development that residents take pride in, and a project that keeps winning award after architectural award.

Now, in alignment with his ever-increasing interest in his tribe's traditions, most of McCormack's jobs are in Indian country. He lives on the Nez Perce reservation and is a member and secretary of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail Foundation, responsible for the management and preservation of the pristine wilderness trail.

The wide variety of his current national projects includes the American Indian Cultural Center of Greater Portland, the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center in Clarkston, Washington, the Native American Student Center for Portland State University and the Huhugam Heritage Center in Sacaton, Ariz.