A Collective For The Culture

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The growth of Indigenous-led coalitions in design schools makes space for Native students to thrive.

By Timothy A. Schuler

When Jaz Bonnin, Heidi Brandow, Elsa Hoover, and Zoë Toledo walked through the doors of Harvard University’s Gund Hall, they weren’t aware they were making history. The women arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) with diverse backgrounds and wide-ranging interests, from affordable housing to the spatialization of resource extraction. Still, the women had one thing in common: heritage that stretches back to well before Western contact. Brandow is Diné and Kanaka Maoli (known more commonly as Navajo and Native Hawaiian); Toledo is Diné; Hoover, of mixed Anishinabe and Finnish heritage; and Bonnin, of mixed heritage that includes Yankton Sioux and Blackfoot.

The students’ arrival at the GSD in fall 2019 marked the first time in the school’s nearly 100-year history that four students of Native ancestry have been enrolled at the same time. It’s an illustration of the near-total absence of Indigenous voices within the design and planning professions. For Brandow, a painter who is pursuing a master’s degree in art, design, and the public domain, such experiences are all too common. “As a Native person, being at Harvard, or anything you do, you accept that you’re probably going to be the first, or one of a handful of people,” she says. “You accept that Harvard is 500 years behind on this. But you also recognize that’s an opportunity to get the work done. To create these spaces, to increase visibility, to make this declaration of our presence and the necessity of more recruitment of Indigenous people.”

After getting to know one another and discovering a number of common interests, the women launched the Harvard Indigenous Design Collective (HIDC) in March 2020. The group’s mission is to “promote design by and for Indigenous communities as foundational to the history, theory, and practice of design fields.” It is also meant to serve as a support system for incoming Indigenous students. “We [hope] we’re creating space for more students to have that base of knowledge and connections as they work through their own degree programs,” says Hoover, who is pursuing a master’s degree in architecture.

The founders of the Harvard Indigenous Design Collective (clockwise from top left): Elsa Hoover, Zoë Toledo, Jaz Bonnin, and Heidi Brandow. Photo by Jason Packineau.

The HIDC is part of a larger trend of Indigenous organizing within design and planning programs. In 2018, a group of Yale School of Architecture students created the Indigenous Scholars of Architecture, Planning, and Design. Like the HIDC, its three founders are women. Jason Packineau, the community coordinator for the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), says student groups are vital in creating visibility for Indigenous students. A big part of why students of Indigenous backgrounds don’t always feel welcome at universities like Harvard or Yale is a lack of representation—not just in the student body but in the faculty and curriculum. “For our students who strongly identify with their culture, they have to navigate around those sorts of deficiencies,” Packineau says. Groups like the HIDC send a message to other Native design students: “You can be here. You can thrive here.”

Student organizing is also a big reason HUNAP still exists 50 years after its creation, Packineau says. But what sets today’s activism apart is the degree to which Indigenous concerns are being articulated by “Native voices and Native minds” rather than advocates, he says. “Groups like the Design Collective are in that same mold. They want to be the ones who really drive what it means to be Native and Indigenous, and what it means to be Native and Indigenous at the GSD.”

The pandemic has forced HIDC’s founders to rethink some of their planned activities, including hosting one of the GSD’s weekly social hours. But it has also allowed them to slip beyond Harvard’s boundaries. “We had a wonderful conversation with a group of Native design students and faculty at the University of Manitoba, who have existed longer than we have,” Hoover says. Gathering together over Zoom, she says, “was pretty magical,” and it inspired new conversations among the women about what is possible in this moment. “It feels like we have this much broader circle to lean into. Being able to build community in a pretty free way,” untethered from conventional boundaries, “feels, to me, like the right arc of the work.”

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