'They think all I do is draw'

Tamarah Begay is an architect and founder of Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, an award-winning and first-of-its-kind architecture firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is Diné.

Aliyah Chavez

Three Diné women are helping Indian Country realize its potential in constructing buildings

Tamarah Begay remembers standing in her living room to lay design paper across her coffee table. She remembers staying up late to research the best sales for printers. She even recalls bringing tea to her employees who were working from her kitchen table.

Begay started Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture out of her Albuquerque home in 2012. It is the only architectural firm in the world that is owned by a Native woman and has a full Native staff. All of the company’s employees have their master’s degrees and are on track to become licensed architects.

“We spend 96 percent of our lives in buildings,” Begay says. “Why don’t we make these spaces a place that lives and breathes … and follows our cultural values?”

Of the 115,000 architects nationwide, Begay reports that six of them are Native women. Two of which work at her architectural firm.

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Kim Kanuho, Diné, is a planner and president of Fourth World Design Group LLC, a Native-owned community planning consulting firm based in Mesa, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Kim Kanuho. 

There are other Native women who work in construction or as developers. Kim Kanuho, Navajo, is founder and president of Fourth World Design Group LLC, a Native owned community planning consulting firm based in Mesa, Arizona. Kanuho’s consulting firm helps tribes design communities through land use planning, master planning and economic development planning.

Say for example a tribal community needed a school. Before a plot of land can be developed, it needs to be prepared in pre-planning processes, which is Kanuho’s job. She would research how many acres of land is needed, what the physical nature of the landscape is and what the community wants.

Kanuho would report her findings to the tribe to continue the next phase of construction … which leads to Begay, who would design the school. What shape will the building be? Where will the emergency doors be located? How can the building be situated to get as much natural sunlight as possible?

After the designs are created, Begay would work with contractors to lay brick. At this point, another Navajo woman, Shandiin Yessilth, finds herself in the mix. Yessilth is a student a Construction Management student at Arizona State University. Yessilth’s job would be to supervise and manage laborers on the construction site. She would have regular meetings with Begay to address all aspects of the construction project.

[RELATED: Indigenous women and the power of Indigenous architecture at Yale]

In all of these phases, the trio says community collaboration is important. They say construction in Indian Country is a ‘tricky situation’ because sometimes tribes rush to build casinos or community centers without planning first. This leads to incomplete projects or buildings that are vacant.

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Tamarah Begay is an architect who has over 10 years of experience working with tribes on public safety, education and housing projects. Photo courtesy of Tamarah Begay.

Contractors struggle too. Many are non-Native who don’t understand tribal protocols or explain things in a clear way to tribal leaders. Aside from making projects come to life, Begay and Kanuho make sure all stakeholders are on the same page. They say if tribal leaders were strategic in construction, Indian Country could have a real advantage.

“Sometimes tribes think adding portables to a community is an easy and cheap fix, but that’s not how our ancestors did it,” Begay says. “Look at Chaco Canyon. It still exists today because there is a meaning behind their design there.”

Time. Planning. Intention. These are aspects that build meaningful and sustainable communities, they say.

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Shandiin Yessilth, Diné, is a mentee of Kim Kanuho who studies Construction Management at Arizona State University. She poses at a construction site near the Fort McDowell casino in Phoenix, Arizona where she interns with the Kitchell Corporation. She plans on pursuing a career in construction management in the future. Photo courtesy of Shandiin Yessilth.

The Hopi and Navajo tribes claimed the same land for more than a century. As a "temporary" solution in 1966 Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Robert Bennett instituted a "freeze" on 1.5 million acres. The ‘Bennett Freeze’ meant no buildings could be renovated or constructed for more than 40 years.The freeze was finally lifted in 2009 during the Obama administration.

Recently the Navajo Nation hired Kanuho to conduct an economic study on how money is spent in the area in response to the freeze being lifted. Kanuho’s team found that three communities are nicely situated to maximize off tourism. They suggested building hotels, gas stations and restaurants in this area.

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The Bennett-Freeze area is highlighted in red. Map given to the U.S. General Accounting Office’s Navajo-Hopi Resettlement Program and published in the Navajo-Hopi Observer.

These are just some of the projects these women partake in. But they also manage and run their businesses as entrepreneurs. Begay gets up in the morning, gets her 3-year-old son ready for school, drops him off, arrives at Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture and gets to work. She manages a staff of seven and has an open-door policy. She also plays a major role in developing the firm’s business to ensure new business comes in consistently.

Something else that is important to Begay is teaching. She is an assistant professor at the Indigenous Design + Planning Institute at the University of New Mexico. In 2012, she taught Navajo Design + Planning, the first course of its kind at any major university.

“Being an architect, you’re always busy.” Begay says while chuckling. “You feel like you’re going 150 miles an hour.”

Despite this, Begay has found success. She is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified architect and is a 40 Under 40 award recipient given by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. In 2018, her firm was ranked as the #2 best New Mexico Indian-Owned Business.

Begay says she has found support through knowing another Native woman in the industry like Kanuho. The duo met in college in 2005 and are members of the American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers.

“Even though I’m not an architect myself, it is still really hard to run a company,” Kanuho says. “I am grateful for the help and support from other Native women architects like Tamarah. She is definitely a leader as an entrepreneur and an architect.”

Kanuho is a leader, too. Her consulting firm has worked with tribal nations in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Fourth World Design Group LLC was awarded 2019 Business of the Year (Class 1) from the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Arizona.

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Kim Kanuho accepts an award for 2019 Business of the Year (Class 1) from the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Arizona on December 6. Photo by Aliyah Chavez.

Kanuho says she enjoys mentoring Native students. She is an advisory committee member at the Construction in Indian Country student organization at Arizona State University, her alma mater. Earlier this year, she gave a presentation at their annual conference. She is also a member of the American Planning Association and a winner of the 2017 Emerging leaders award given by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Is there a project collaboration in the future for these two Native women?

“Yeah, I would collaborate with her!” Begay says. “Kim is a really great person. Her strength is talking to communities … We should stand up on our two feet and show the industry that we are strong Native women.” 

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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