Indigenizing Architecture

Michael Laverdure, a Cohort 10 Rebuilder and citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, believes that an Indigenous mindset is a key component of good architecture. He’s a partner at DSGW Architects and the president of a Native-owned planning firm called First American Design Studio. Since joining DSGW back in 2008, Michael has focused entirely on Tribal projects. By bringing Indigenous concepts into his work, he believes that he’s creating more than just buildings. He’s designing structures that align with Native values (through cultural match) and community members’ future goals and visions. 

Finding his architectural soul

Just the second Native American student to graduate from the North Dakota State University School of Architecture, Michael grew up sketching his dream home and excelling in science and art. He initially took a job with a firm in Grand Forks. Michael worked on non-Tribal projects across the country, but he didn’t find his true passion for the work until he joined DSGW Architects’ Lake Elmo office. He explains, “I started working with Tribes, and that’s where I kind of had a renaissance with my architectural soul. What I was doing was I was practicing those tenets of nation building without knowing it. I started participating in the process of planning and long-term visioning. And understanding what sovereignty means through architecture. And it kind of became a passion for me.” 

Michael Laverdure, Cohort 10 Rebuilder

Michael Laverdure

Our buildings are like elders

Michael sees major parallels between the Rebuilders curriculum and his work. For example, he views the pre-engineered metal building as architecture’s standard approach. By standard approach, we mean a leadership style that’s non-strategic and focused solely on short-term concerns. The Rebuilders curriculum has given Michael a new language to explain why future thinking, an emphasis on quality, and deliberate community input are all necessary components of successful architectural projects. He explains, “A lot of times, I’ll get a call from a Tribal council member or someone, and they’ll say, ‘You know, I need to get re-elected. And I want to build my pet project in time so I can campaign on it.’ That’s the standard approach. I’ve heard it a million times…But now I have words, and I have examples to show them how it works.” 

In addition to the Rebuilders program, Michael credits his mother for demonstrating important Indigenous values that have helped him succeed. For example, she taught him pipemaking and always emphasized the fact that approaching the task with a poor heart or spirit creates a bad result. In architecture, Michael values the process just as much as his end product. He does this by thoughtfully incorporating site blessings, prayer, the seven teachings, and other indigenous concepts into the design process. “I say that we like our buildings to be like elders: they create an environment of subsistence. Subsistence is defined as acting upon something to keep it new. And renewing it,” Michael explains. 

Michael and DSGW designed Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung (“good new home”), a recently-opened center for Native youth experiencing homelessness in St. Paul.

Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung

Inspiring the next generation

When he’s not spending his time developing meaningful relationships with his Tribal clients, Michael is encouraging more young Native people to pursue careers in architecture. He notes that he can probably count all of the Native architects he knows on his fingers (and ok, maybe on a few toes, too). Native people are underrepresented in the architectural field because they don’t grow up seeing these types of jobs on the reservation.

Michael believes that graduating more Native architects will make a difference. He notes, “Having a Native architect on your team is a force multiplier in cultural match. We can make sure that a building isn’t patronizing to a Native person. Like an appropriation of slapping an Indian headband on a building and saying it’s Native. Because that’s not it. …Being a warrior for your people and ensuring that architecture responds to your culture–that’s why Native kids need to be architects.” 

Looking ahead

Michael is excited for everything that the future holds. As a December 2019 graduate of the Rebuilders program, he looks forward to accessing the huge network of alumni in his region. He also can’t wait to finalize his action plan. (Rebuilders implement action plans during the year following their graduation.) For his plan, Michael will create a website to help Tribes understand how to leverage nation building principles to work with architects and contractors. Nation building refers to efforts to strengthen a Native nation through culture and sound governance.

Within the next five years, he hopes to write another book and finish developing an Indigenous certification process with colleagues at the American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers. He notes that none of the current building certification categories talk about culture. “If you have a project that was Indigenously conceived, designed, built, and constructed, we’ll certify your building as Indigenous,” Michael explains. “It’s pretty ambitious. But it’s going to be one of a kind.”