“Our environment shapes us”: Ojibwa architect Sam Olbekson designs from an Indigenous perspective
Sam Olbekson was first exposed to architecture at the age of five, when his uncle was a construction worker on a Minneapolis American Indian Center building project.
Decades later, Olbekson, 51, now runs his own architecture firm, Full Circle Indigenous Planning. He is also chairman of the MAIC board, designing an addition to the building that will begin construction next month.
A citizen of the White Earth Nation of Minnesota Ojibwe, Olbekson shared his childhood between area reservations and urban Native American populations, observing their impoverished living conditions. Inspired by his childhood interest in art and math, he studied architecture in college and later earned a graduate degree in urban design.
“I can go back to the tribal communities now and do this large-scale master plan,” he said. “Architecture is about an individual building. But designing the whole community was one of my goals.”
Olbekson today works with Indigenous clients across the country on projects ranging from schools to clinics, centered on Indigenous cultural values and perspectives on sustainability.
After Native Americans were forcibly displaced or even killed on their land and then relegated to scattered reservations, Olbekson said today’s architecture can reinforce both tribes’ legal sovereignty over their land and their “sovereignty culture”, reflecting their traditions and looking to their future.
“It’s about what the next seven generations will need to thrive as contemporary Native American nations.” he said. “Shaping your built environment is so important to any community because our environment shapes us.”
Design buildings that build community
In the past, Olbekson said that many non-Native architects took on the role of “outside experts” designing for, not with, tribal communities, thus failing to meet their unique cultural needs.
Instead, Olbekson said his approach preserves his clients’ ownership of their projects, engaging tribal political and cultural leaders, as well as local artists and builders.
“I always start by not drawing, but just asking, ‘What is the meaning of this place? Who are you as a people?'” he said.
For example, Olbekson said the Minneapolis American Indian Center, which houses an art gallery, was originally designed in a Brutalist style with sharp angles.
“But those angular spaces don’t really work for gathering,” which Olbekson says is key to many Indigenous cultures.
He observed that the building was also very “introverted”, lacking a “clear sense of entrance” connecting it to the wider neighborhood.
“Tribal communities usually have a welcome song, and there’s a ceremony about it. So how can a building have that sense of ceremonial welcome?” he said.
Their solution, Olbekson said, was to create an open floor plan, making the building “one space” rather than several partitioned rooms. The redesign also features large windows and a central, round gathering space that extends into other areas, including a cafe serving native food.
When designing the Mino-bimaadiziwin Apartments, an affordable housing project for the Red Lake Nation in Minneapolis, Olbekson said he similarly envisioned how a 110-unit, six-story apartment building could express Indigenous culture.
“How do you design streets that connect rather than dead ends that create divisions?” he said. “How do you create a neighborhood?”
For starters, they made sure apartments included larger units to accommodate Indigenous family structures where often six to eight people live in the same intergenerational household.
But beyond the apartments, the building also houses other facilities, including the Red Lake Nation Embassy, a clinic, a basketball court, a community kitchen, a daycare center, a garden with medicinal plants and a room where residents can take online courses at tribal college.
Such one-stop centers are essential for Indigenous communities, which disproportionately lack stable housing and safe transportation, Olbekson said.
He noted that they also reflect Indigenous views on the inextricability of housing, food, recreation, health care, education and their necessity for the overall growth and well-being of people. ‘a community.
At the dedication of Mino-Bimaadiziwin, which means “live the good life” in Ojibwa, Red Lake Tribe Chairman Darrell Seki told the crowd, “This building is for you. For you to take care for your families, your children, the next generation.”
part of a system
Sustainable and regenerative design is also paramount for many tribes who have traditionally built their structures from materials in their environment, tying into their creation stories, Olbekson said.
“Every culture has a different way of thinking about the land, but the commonalities are that everything is connected, that we exist with the land, not on the land,” he said. “We are part of a system.”
As a result, Olbekson said he built Mino-bimaadiziwin apartments using local cedar wood from the Red Lake Nation, indicating the location of their reservation in the woods of northwest Minnesota, and incorporating motifs from nature. in the building’s interior aesthetic – for example, fractal patterns and cool tones representing the Turtle Clan of the tribe.
But respecting the land also means knowing where not to build, Olbekson said.
When designing several projects along a confluence of rivers called Bdote, Olbekson said they deliberately located the Wakan Tipi Center at a distance from its namesake and the sacred Dakota site Wakan Tipi Cave to honor its character. sacred.
In traditional times, the sacred sites were all connected around this river landscape, he said, but “in modern times they are separated by highways and bridges, different arbitrary city borders.” .
Olbekson said that by “decolonizing the process” and removing those boundaries, the project could place jurisdictional authority and cultural direction in the hands of the Dakota people, the land’s first stewards.
Ideally, Olbekson said each tribal nation would have an architect from its own community. But the American Institute of Architects reported that less than 0.44% of its membership was Indigenous in 2021.
To increase the number of Native architects and raise awareness of the profession, Olbekson, a board member for the Architects and Engineers Council of American Indians, said he offers to speak with schools in tribal communities whenever he’s working on a project.
“As designers, we shape our schools,” he said. “But these schools, in turn, shape our future generations. Our buildings shape future cultural leaders.”