by Brenda Williams, ASLA
Over the last few years, my team has had the opportunity to focus on several landscapes that are deeply significant to Indigenous communities. This work has involved integrating knowledge of Indigenous communities in planning and design projects. Through efforts to incorporate the perspectives of Indigenous groups, we are learning to step outside mainstream cultural views to enhance placemaking.
Several projects have been greatly enriched through collaborating with individuals and communities whose knowledge of the landscapes span ecological, cultural, and spiritual significance. The resulting planning and design solutions are embedded with aspects that support meaningful cultural connections while also providing opportunities for improved education of the general public about American Indian cultures today and in the past.
Living Landscapes—Past, Present: American Indian Landscapes
The members of today’s tribal nations are the descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the continent. Their knowledge and traditions can provide guidance for understanding landscapes associated with their ancestors. Before the arrival of Europeans, the North American landscape was populated by a diversity of cultures whose lifeways and traditions spanned a wide range of relationships between people and the land. Over time, their activities left impressions on the landscape, many of which are recognizable today. The pitted boulders at Xe’ (Blood Run NHL) are one example.
Although most North American Indigenous communities have been dramatically affected by colonization, treaties, and removal, many communities retain strong cultural traditions and deeply meaningful connections to the landscapes of their ancestors.
Listen, Learn: Inclusion and Communication
Integration of members of Indigenous communities in design, planning, and management for cultural landscapes can improve the sustainability, authenticity, and meaning of these significant places.
Interactions between Indigenous community members, designers, other stakeholders, and site managers lead to greater insights and improved preservation of culturally defined aspects of significance.
Nature, Culture: Holistic Views
Although Indigenous communities across the continent differ greatly with respect to their languages, practices, and traditions, many view landscapes holistically. Seeing nature and culture as integral parts of a greater whole is a perspective that supports and informs work focused on preservation of cultural landscapes.
The challenge is how to bring Indigenous perspectives into projects. It is often difficult to integrate planning and design processes and schedules with the pace and style of Indigenous participation. Also, the content of concerns of Indigenous communities are frequently broad, often beyond the scope of individual projects. Establishment of long-term relationships between Indigenous communities and site managers is an important foundation to support this type of work. While it is best for these relationships to exist prior to initiating planning and design projects, the reality is that is often not the case. Landscape architects can help our clients to establish relationships by collaborating with members of Indigenous communities. We can also develop comprehensive solutions that integrate concerns of community members into broad scale master plans, site design, management, and maintenance of landscapes, providing a structure to support inspirational places with deep meaning and human investment.
A wealth of guidance is available to inform collaboration between managers of significant landscapes and Indigenous communities (see links at end of article). Below is a list of suggestions for designers who want to engage members of Indigenous communities in projects:
Build Trust, Honor Agreements: Relationships and Respect
- Develop ongoing relationships with members of Indigenous communities.
- Discuss project plans with communities before developing a scope of work.
- Work with formal representatives of communities (designated by the tribal government).
- Go to visit Indigenous communities to better understand their perspective.
- Ask community representatives how they would like to work with you.
- Include members of Indigenous communities on your project team.
- Meet face to face whenever possible.
- Ask specific questions, and be open to unexpected answers.
- Listen and adjust, based on what you hear.
- Work with community members to develop recommendations for long-term agreements for inclusion in review and guidance of site management and interpretation programs and use for traditional activities (gathering specific plants, ceremonies, etc.).
- Incorporate native language into interpretation of the site.
- Teach visitors how to be respectful of Indigenous community concerns.
Links to Helpful Guidance
Traditional Cultural Properties: A Quick Guide for Preserving Native American Cultural Resources, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, American Indian Liaison Office, National Register of Historic Places
Native American Heritage, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
“The Indigenous Cultural Landscape of the Eastern Woodlands: A Model for Conservation, Interpretation, and Tourism,” Deanna Beacham (Weapemeoc), George Wright Society Conference on Parks, Protected Areas and Cultural Sites, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 14-18, 2011, Proceedings, 41.
Brenda Williams, ASLA, is the Director of Preservation Planning at Quinn Evans Architects, a consulting firm dedicated to preservation and sustainable stewardship with a perspective informed by history and place. Ms. Williams’ career has focused on the conservation of cultural landscapes, particularly those in the public arena. She facilitates a collaborative approach to planning, design and management of cultural landscapes, a process that educates stakeholders about the significance of historic landscapes and integrates diverse views.