Indigenous women and the power of Indigenous architecture at Yale

Meghanlata Gupta

‘Originally, we started to meet because we were all in architecture programs. A huge portion of what we wanted to do was Native recruitment’

In the fall of 2018, Summer Sutton, Lumbee, Anjelica Gallegos, Santa Ana Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache, and Charelle Brown, Kewa Pueblo formed the Indigenous Scholars of Architecture, Planning, and Design organization to focus on Indigenous recruitment for the Yale School of Architecture and its associated programs.

Over the past year, the three have increased their impact beyond recruitment by raising conversations about Indigenous knowledge in architecture curriculums and inviting guest speakers to Yale’s campus—in November, Tammy Eagle Bull, Oglala Lakota, the first Native woman to be a licensed architect in the United States, presented a lecture entitled “Indigeneity and Contemporary Architecture.”

One of the group’s largest accomplishments this year was their work with Making Space for Resistance: Past, Present, and Future, an exhibit that was on display in the architecture school’s North Gallery from August 29th to October 5th.

Designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz, Making Space for Resistance stands as a testament to histories of Native activism and the contemporary strength of Indigenous peoples residing in the United States.

Indian Country Today sat down with Sutton, Gallegos, and Brown to discuss their organization, the exhibit, and taking up space in colonial institutions.

“Because the Occupation of Alcatraz incorporated architecture specifically, it was a great theme for us to create speculative work with,” Gallegos said.

To honor the Indians of All Tribes’ long-term architectural design plan for the island, the exhibit featured five spatial areas that embodied themes of the occupation: reflection, knowledge sharing, training, ecologies, and spiritual practices.

“Divine Strength” by Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose - Photo by Anjelica Gallegos
“Divine Strength” by Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose - Photo by Anjelica Gallegos

For the reflection space, the three students used archival material from Yale’s Beinecke Library to show the media’s portrayal of the Occupation of Alcatraz and Native activist events during the Native American rights movement of the late 1900s.

The knowledge sharing and training spaces featured Oneida architect Chris Cornelius’ design for an Indigenous university on Alcatraz island.

In the ecologies space, artists Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose and SantiagoX both created pieces specifically for the exhibit to show the relationship between Indigenous architecture and the surrounding natural landscape.

The last space, which considered spirituality and contemporary Indigeneity, asked visitors to pin a handmade horsehair tassel onto the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline to remember the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Gallegos added: “The act of doing this was part of the remembrance—by carrying the horsehair, you are remembering someone who has gone missing or has been murdered.”

The materiality of the exhibit was just as important as its aesthetic and spatial design. The group used materials that would be recognized by Native nations across the country, reinterpreting the materials to create a “new Indigenous spatiality.”

For the knowledge-sharing space, Sutton, Gallegos, and Brown hung ribbons and jingles from the ceiling in an attempt to reference the Anishinaabe Jingle Dance Dress. They used pine needles, rocks, and a tree from West Rock, New Haven in thinking about local Indigeneity and spatiality. On the floor, three colored paths of tape guided visitors toward the past, present, and futuristic aspects of the exhibit to support Indigenous concepts of temporality and community memory.

“The Blessing” by Douglas Miles - Photo by Anjelica Gallegos.png
“The Blessing” by Douglas Miles - Photo by Anjelica Gallegos

The group also wanted the exhibit to illustrate Indigenous solidarity and togetherness.

“We have our own identities, but we also came together as a united group in the occupation,” Gallegos said. To represent this, the exhibit mentioned 14 different Native nations across every region of the United States. The featured artists—Chris Cornelius, Oneida, Kenny Glass, Cherokee, Douglas Miles, San Carlos Apache-Akimel O’odham, Joe Big Mountain, Mohawk, Cree, Comanche, Adrian Standing Elk Pinnecoose, Diné/Southern Ute Tribes, Mariah Quincy, Ojibwe, Charlene, San Felipe Pueblo, Frank Reano, Kewa Pueblo, Charlotte, San Felipe Pueblo, and Percy Reano, Kewa Pueblo, and SantiagoX, Koasati, Hacha'Maori—come from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures.

Throughout the past semester, critical reception of the exhibit was extremely positive. But for Sutton, Gallegos, and Brown, the feedback from their personal communities has been particularly exciting.

Brown shared an experience she had after some friends from the New Haven Weightlifting Club visited the exhibit.

“I talked to one of my coaches about it. He had never learned anything about Alcatraz. It was important to see the exhibit because it showed him his own lack of knowledge, and he told me that he went home and did more reading on Alcatraz after seeing the exhibit,” she explained, “For me, hearing this, I felt that we showed people that Indigenous peoples are strong and diverse.”

Regarding the impact of Indigenous architecture within a colonial institution like Yale, the group reiterated their goal of introducing new perspectives that aren’t currently in architecture curriculums or studied thoroughly by Western academics.

They say they wanted their peers to come to the exhibit, ask questions about the space and materials, and recognize that “architecture can be political.” Most importantly, they say they wanted to honor their families, friends, and the younger generation of Indigenous leaders.

Brown exclaimed, “When I was younger, I would see other Native people doing awesome things. I wanted to be like those people and doing those things. When I think about our group and this exhibit, I hope that some person who is Native and wants to study architecture sees this and realizes that they can do these things too. That they can be in these spaces too.”

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Meghanlata Gupta is a tribal member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a rising junior at Yale University. She is the founder and current editor-in-chief of Indigenizing the News. She can be reached at www.meghanlata.com. 

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