Cheyenne River Reservation, South Dakota

A Lasting Effect of Colonization: Detachment from the Built Environment | Pine Ridge

Tammy Eagle Bull

Public Space

As a tribal member and an architect, Tammy Eagle Bull offers a unique perspective on spatial conditions on the reservation, including public space and the impacts of colonization on the built environment. —Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros, The Lakota Nation and the Legacy of American Colonization editors

Slim Butte, Pine Ridge. Credit: Annie Coombs

Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Tammy Eagle Bull by email on October 6, 2020.

Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): Can you give a brief background about yourself? Where did you grow up? How did you become interested in architecture? Did you have mentors that inspired you along the way? What were some of the challenges you’ve faced while pursuing your education and career? 

Tammy Eagle Bull (TEB): I grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where my parents both worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Aberdeen is a non-reservation town, but I spent many summers and vacations at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where both my parents are enrolled and grew up. Experiencing the dichotomy of the two communities was the start to my interest in architecture as a way to help improve tribal communities.

One of the roles that my dad had for his job was to be involved with new school construction during the design process. Through this, he worked with many architects who were designing schools for tribes in the Midwest. One of my earliest memories talking about architecture was with my dad. I had asked him why the buildings at Pine Ridge were so different (looked worse) than those in Aberdeen, and why the school my cousins went to was so run down while I was attending a brand new, state-of-the-art (for the ’70s) school. From what I saw, there wasn’t a new or even recently built school, or building for that matter, anywhere on the reservation. My dad explained sovereignty and treaty rights to me. He told me that the government was responsible and obligated to provide education and schools to the indigenous communities. But this responsibility was not always met, and was usually substandard in comparison to the rest of the US.

What I remember most from these talks with my dad was that he said the people of the communities didn’t feel ownership of the schools, so therefore do not have any pride in them. This was why the schools were not respected and they were vandalized or just worn down before their time. Community members didn’t feel a connection to the building. I now understand that this is one of the many lasting effects of colonization: detachment.  

During design, there was most often no interaction with the community at large, students, parents, or staff. The architects used their knowledge of best practices in educational design and attempted some cultural references. But these ideas were usually pan-Indian patterns or, most often in the ’70s supergraphic era, buildings in the shape of animals. There are schools in the shape of turtles, eagles, buffalo, and others across the US that came out of this time.  

Piya Wiconi Building at the Oglala Lakota College, Pine Ridge Reservation. Design team included Thomas Hodne, Dennis Sun Rhodes, and Denby Deegan. Courtesy Carol Herselle Krinsky, Contemporary Native American Architecture

Maybe the schools would have still been in the shape of animals even after consultation with the community, but at least it would be the community’s idea and there would be buy-in to the project. These conversations with my dad started to shape what I saw an architect’s role to be. I knew the basics: they designed buildings. But I hadn’t heard or read anything about how, or even if, they worked with their clients. I started to formulate that this wouldn’t and couldn’t work when working with tribal communities.

My dad was my biggest influence in terms of how I started to think about an architect’s role and how I could help tribal communities in a meaningful way—beyond just designing “Indian-looking” buildings. He convinced me that having Native architects was vital to the community if the culture was to endure. Architects, he said, were just as important as lawyers and doctors as ways to help the people.

Beyond the challenges that all women and minorities face, it was challenging that there was a lack of role models. I only knew of a couple Native architects, and certainly not any Native women architects. So this idea of working with communities was tough to wrestle with, and I felt I had to figure it out on my own.

AC and ZM: Can you talk about traditional Lakota beliefs of public/private space? How might these relate to traditional Lakota views of land stewardship versus the dominant society’s concept of ownership? How are they different from the standard definition of public/private space in architectural discourse?

TEB: My understanding of the traditional Lakota view on public versus private space is that traditional communities were organized around a circle—like most things in our belief system. The closer you get to the center is public space, and the further you get is more private. The very center is usually held as special or sacred, but immediately around it is where the dancing or communal activities occurred. After that was space directly outside the lodge, but not in the communal activity area. This space was semi-public; kind of a porch or front yard. Then the lodge was private, and lodges located behind the main family lodge were also private, and sometimes even more private or special if it was for an elder or other revered family member. Then the area beyond that becomes communal again, for corralling horses, preparation of animals, for eating, etc. This concept of public versus private space moves with the community, to wherever the camp is set up.  

The Lakota and most Indigenous believed that the land could not be owned, but was rather to be taken care of, respected, and valued as a living entity. This allowed our concept of community to move with us, but still maintain organization and hierarchy.  

Post-colonization brought a whole new idea of land stewardship and ownership.  Forced to abdicate territorial existence and move to reservations brought a feeling of disinterest and disassociation or detachment to the environment. The detachment and prescriptive nature of the reservation system has fostered an apathy about ownership and stewardship of either community or private space. The built environment is poorly maintained and littered because of the lack of choice in the circumstances. Whereas dances and gatherings used to happen in the center of the community, now they were either outlawed (and located a long way outside the community in a hidden location), in the case of the Sun Dance,1The 1883 Code of Indian Offenses banned all Native dancing and ceremonies, including the Sun Dance. In 1978 the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act was passed, ending this period of religious restriction. or relegated to a prescribed area often distant from housing. The pow wow grounds were no longer everyone’s responsibility to maintain, but became no one’s responsibility, as did any other public area that was designated by whoever “planned” the community or paid for one of the few parks.  

Housing, while still private, was not owned by the occupant, so there is a lack of stewardship of the semi-public/private space of the yard or driveway. Moreover, the allocation of tribal housing and land was not based on family or tiyospaye (extended family unit), so the idea of family pride and behavior discipline was gone. In some cases, it was exacerbated by the existence of feuds and dislike between different tiyospayes. This was expressed in vandalism, and attitudes of apathy for the built environment.

The idea of public/private space is like all aspects of Lakota culture: an integral part of a whole. Colonization changed most, if not all, of that whole. Indigenous people are struggling in the short three to four generations of the reservation system to rebuild that whole. Parts remained strong for many, and some parts are in resurgence, like language. But where things get mired is that all parts need to be there in order for the culture to thrive. Relationship to the built environment has mostly been ignored as an idea which needs resurgence through redefinition if tribal cultures are to succeed. Our relationship with the land needs to change from traditional beliefs, because they are just not possible anymore. This tragedy is still being mourned and the new reality has yet to be fully acknowledged. The Lakota are not nomadic anymore, so how does the culture adapt to that?

In mainstream America, the idea of public/private space definition is not tied to culture at all. Mostly because there is not a single American culture. So that allows people to change, move, embrace, respect, and want to improve these spaces. Most take care of their homes and yards because they understand ownership as a concept. It’s ingrained and not even questioned, and there is a financial interest in ownership of a home. That isn’t so with tribal people: It’s not part of our collective memory, culture, or beliefs, or, in the case of homeownership, not possible.2While organizations like Four Bands Community Fund are working to make homeownership more accessible, it is not possible to “own” the trust land it sits on. Read more in Cheyenne River Surface Ownership.  

AC and ZM: In a typical American town you would likely find public spaces such as town squares, playgrounds, and public parks. Are there equivalent spaces on Pine Ridge or Cheyenne River? If no, why do you think that is? Do you think there is a need for these spaces? In your opinion, what types of spaces are missing from the reservation? 

TEB: The only community public spaces are typically the pow wow and/or fairgrounds. Other spaces such as schools, gymnasiums, softball diamonds are also used by the community. Public spaces like parks or town squares usually become areas for unwanted behavior, so are not used by the general public and become dilapidated. I believe one of the reasons for this is the lack of “ownership” in the community and apathy toward the care and appearance of the built environment.  

Undaunted, a photograph by Jessie Story

The idea of parks, squares, and walking trails are always suggested as ways to improve the community. The reality is that most tribal people living on the reservation just don’t have recreational free time for hiking, picnics, exercise, strolls with the kids, etc. Life on the reservation is hard, and people are struggling to survive economically. There are also many unmet needs, not only for buildings but for social services. So allocating funds to parks and other public spaces is not a priority.  

I think public spaces that would allow tribal members to sell their arts and food to the public would be beneficial. At Pine Ridge, there are a few informal places for tourists to procure artwork. As these are unregulated, dishonest dealings often occur and the spaces become unsafe, so business wanes. Safe, functional, monitored market spaces would allow financial improvement as well as social interaction among the vendors and with the public—thus fostering cultural interaction.  

Public spaces are mistreated by the youth because of a lack of activities and opportunities for them. If this were different, perhaps there would be less truancy and misuse of public spaces.

AC and ZM: Would you consider pow wow grounds to be public spaces? How do they function within the Lakota community, both locally and across distance (between reservations, cities, etc.)? How do they differ from other public spaces in non-Native communities across the United States?

TEB: Pow wow grounds are usually one of only a couple public spaces that are utilized and maintained. The local pow wow is a big event for the community, and having a successful pow wow is a source of community pride.  

Pow wow grounds differ from non-Native public spaces because they are used almost solely as a community. There needs to be specific people and activities there in order for it to be a pow-wow. There is not a pow wow with three or four people, or even 20 people. It needs the community in order to happen. Non-Native parks, squares, etc,. can be utilized by anyone at any time, regardless of numbers. The presence of the pow wow grounds is critical to the cultural survival of the tribe.

However, a pow wow is an event that occurs only 1 or 2 times a year, so the grounds are usually vacant. In this new world of Covid accommodation, I have been hearing and seeing more community meetings and events happening at the pow wow grounds and even in traditional lodges (tipis). The need for gatherings to happen outside could have the effect of creating more regular use for the grounds.

Pine Ridge Pow Wow grounds, painted with the colors of the four directions. Courtesy of Google Earth

AC and ZM: Do you know of any examples of reservations that have introduced public spaces into their planning? If so, what has the response been from that community?

TEB: The reality is that most tribal communities are not formally planned and do not have funds to do a planning effort. Therefore, the thoughtful allocation of uses or space has not happened and may never officially occur. Facilities are located based on available land, presence of utilities and roads, and the best idea at the time. So the planned communities like Thunder Valley are few and far between, especially in the Midwest.

Thunder Valley has the potential to enhance life by creating opportunities for social service support in the Sharps/Porcupine/Kyle area. Most of these services occur in the town of Pine Ridge, and it is difficult for some people to get there to take advantage of them. The opportunities they are creating for various events like flea markets, food distribution, and health screenings and testing, etc., are crucial to the health of the community. 

Since there are not many residents at Thunder Valley right now, most of these events are utilized by people from other communities. It has not achieved success yet as a housing community. Architecturally, the homes are not seen as being relevant to Lakota culture. Community members wonder who from the tribe was involved in the design. I know there was community interaction in the planning phase, and would assume also in the design phase. But the perception is that there either wasn’t any interaction or that they weren’t listened to, since the buildings are not seen as Lakota-influenced. So I’m not sure if the homes will successfully sell, for those reasons as well as financial reasons. The addition of multifamily units might change that, but I am hearing unfavorable comments about those also. I haven’t been in the multifamily buildings yet, so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what could be the issues. So this tells me that architects still have work to do to successfully interact with tribal community members.

AC and ZM: What do you see as the critical challenges to developing a thriving built environment on rural reservations like Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge?

TEB: There are so many challenges to improving the built environment on these reservations. The top three challenges I see are:

• Master planning: Funding for planning is largely nonexistent and difficult to procure. When efforts happen, all community members need to be invited to be stakeholders. Then the effort will be transparent and has less of a chance to get shelved.

• Continuity of leadership: There needs to be high-level staff who champion planning and will promote adherence to the plan through the frequent administration changes. When the tribal administration changes priorities, will change be based on the new president/chairman? As with all political systems, the ideas are often in direct opposition to their predecessors. Master planning interest will wane and die during this re-prioritization.

• Design professionals who understand the community and cultures: Planners and designers need to work with Indigenous colleagues so that the intricacies and subtleties of culture are respected and incorporated, if appropriate, into the process as well as the product. We need to go beyond arrow-shaped roads, circular arrangements of homes and patterns. The culture is more complex and interesting than those surface interpretations. If the built environment represents the culture in a meaningful way, I believe true “ownership” will occur and improvements will be maintained. Then overall the built environment will slowly improve as community members realize they are in control, and they realize that cultural pride extends to their built environment.


Tammy Eagle Bull

is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation with over 30 years of architectural experience. She is currently president of Encompass Architects. Eagle Bull designs educational facilities, administrative facilities, and community centers, with a focus on projects that positively enhance Native American communities.  

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.