Indigenous architecture should be beautiful, functional, and Native

Architect Mike Laverdure holds the Our Voices indigenous architecture book at his Lake Elmo office. The recently completed Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung housing project in St. Paul is shown behind him. (Photo by Lee Egerstrom.)

By Lee Egerstrom

The principal architect behind the new Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung Center’s young people’s affordable housing project in St. Paul, and several other major projects in Minnesota Indian Country, combines work with Upper Midwest tribes and groups with becoming an international voice for indigenous architecture.

Mike Laverdure, a partner in the Minnesota-based DSGW Architects firm and president of the Native-owned First American Design Studio planning office, is also a contributor of a chapter in a new, globally distributed book Our Voices: Indigenceity and Architecture (ORO Editions, 2018).

“We are taught Greek and Roman architecture … Doric and Ionic columns … in architecture schools, and I love those designs, too,” Laverdure said in a recent interview at his Lake Elmo headquarters. “But, they aren’t us.”

Laverdure is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. By “us,” he means Native Americans in the United States and First Nations people in Canada. Globally, his “us” describes what United Nations agencies and academics have come to call “indigenous” people all over the world – the 370 million people who were native to a region before international migrations and colonization.

Here’s a look at his businesses, what they are doing, and how Laverdure fits into the emerging global and local movements at work to improve lives and opportunities for Native peoples.

The Four Winds Alternative and CTE High School at Fort Totten, N.D., part of Fort Totten Public Schools, Spirit Lake Reservation.

The firms
Laverdure is one of nine principal partners in DSGW Architects, a Minnesota architectural firm with headquarters in Duluth and with offices at Grand Rapids and a metro area office with eight staff employees in Lake Elmo, east of St. Paul.

Also at the Lake Elmo office, Laverdure serves as principal owner of First American Design Studio. It is essentially a planning enterprise to help tribes and Native groups determine needs and wants before engaging architects in the design of facilities.

Planning for identifying and meeting needs is what took place before Laverdure and DSGW went to work in designing the Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung housing project that was featured in the December issue of The Circle.

“This is important for architecture,” Laverdure said. “Architecture needs to be beautiful and functional. It needs that balance.”

Striving for that, DSGW Architects have done about 175 projects with more than 30 tribes and in more than 10 states, he said, although the majority are in the Upper Midwest states. The company started 81 years ago at Virginia, on the Minnesota Iron Range, serving as an architectural firm for the Minnesota mining industry.

It grew from that and was heavily involved with tribes and Native groups before 2008 when Laverdure joined the firm.

Among major projects are 13 government, hospitality industry, schools and colleges, and health care facilities for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; a similar portfolio of projects for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe; and about three dozen plan, design, and remodel projects for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and its enterprises around Hinckley and Onamia.

Add to them projects at Grand Portage, Bois Forte, Red Lake and White Earth Nations’ properties and institutions. As life marches on in Minnesota Indian Country, the need for comprehensive planning and architectural design services move forward in step.

The same is happening in neighboring states, Laverdure said. Among projects he is especially proud of is the Four Winds Alternative and CTE High School at Fort Totten, N.D., a part of Fort Totten Public Schools on the Spirit Lake Reservation.

It is the first, and so far only, “net zero” school on tribal land in the United States, Laverdure said. That means it gathers and produces more energy than this technical training high school uses. It feeds the surplus power into the local energy grid.

“This is a core value for American Indians,” he said. It comes with reducing fossil fuel consumption from the earth by using solar panels, a ground-source geothermal heating and cooling system, water-to-air heat pumps, fans and pumps to minimize excess energy use, occupancy sensors for lighting and LED lighting, triple pane windows and specially insulated walls and roof.

In announcing the completion of the project in time for the 2017-18 school year, Fort Totten schools’ Superinten-dent Jeff Olson echoed the architect’s assessment. “This building is about the future,” he said. “We’re not only preparing our students for the future, but we’re also designing this building for the future by using the earth respectfully and efficiently to power the school.”

Connecting two worlds
That sheds light on Laverdure, the man. “My dad wanted me to be an engineer,” he recalls, including having his father teach him algebra when he was in the sixth grade. But art also appealed to him as he went to schools in North Dakota and for a while at Aberdeen, S.D.

The latter interest won out when he went to NDSU at Fargo and started architectural studies. But, he said, there was always a conflict between what the architectural world honored with classic styles and with his one desire to serve Native people and cultures.
He started work as an architect for a Grand Forks, N.D., firm in 2007, “just in time for the Great Recession.” He was among people laid off as work for the profession dried up.

However, with contacts made through a sister, Dr. Adrienne Laverdure at Peter Christensen Health Center in Lac du Flambeau Wis., he got an interview with officials at DSGW in Duluth who were doing work for tribes. He was hired.

Still trying to connect the beauty with the functional in architecture, Laverdure said he especially seeks to help Native tribes and people connect their design and building projects with their culture and for their future.

This connects with the explosive indigenous, or “indigencity” movements around the globe.

Indigenous architects
He has now spoken at international conferences on indigenous architecture. And he was asked to contribute a chapter for the book, commonly called Our Voices, which only include comments and observations from international indigenous architects and experts. The book was edited by Dr. Rebecca Kiddle, a Maori from New Zealand; Dr. Patrick Stewart, a First Nation professor in Canada; and Professor Kevin O’Brien, an Australian aborigine.

“Three hundred, four hundred years ago, women were the indigenous architects,” Laverdure said. “They did the planning, the designing and building of homes when men were running around, doing whatever it was they were doing.”

Now, he said, the number of women in architecture and various science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields “is pathetic.” But with these so-called STEM fields, and with an entrepreneurial spirit, there is no end to what young women and young Native men can achieve for themselves, their families and communities, he said.

Laverdure is a past president of the American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers (AICAE), who was succeeded by Sam Olbekson, of Cuningham Group Architecture Inc., of Minneapolis. Olbekson, a member of the White Earth Nation, was succeeded in September by Tamarah Begay, a Najavo and owner of IDS+A, a design studio and architectural firm in New Mexico.

Begay and Tammy Eagle Bull, an Oglala Lakota who owns Encompass Architects in Lincoln, Neb., are among the up and coming Native women in the profession that Laverdure hopes will inspire other young people to follow in their paths.

“I have to remain socially engaged,” he said in reflection. “I want young people to see what I’m doing to learn what they can do.

“If I want a legacy, beyond family and company, it would be to have a young person come up to me in 20 years and say, “I became an architect because of you.”