Chapter House: A Sustainable Vision Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge

By Paul Prosser

Many indigenous groups lived on the North American continent before colonization by European people. According to archeologists, a group of Athabaskans migrated from the northern plains to what is now known as the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States, four to six hundred years ago. These people were the ancestors of the Navajo. From the mid-1600s to the late 1800s European settlers transitioned from émigrés to the dominant culture on the North American continent. Through direct and indirect means Euro-Americans embarked on a schizophrenic process of both assimilation and elimination of indigenous people. Traditional Navajo culture was dissembled and diminished by removal of self-governance structures, forced relocations, and cultural erasure. Now impoverished and dysfunctional from years of cultural battery, opportunities for happiness on the geographically isolated Navajo reservation are limited.

Against this historical backdrop, the Tonalea Chapter of the Navajo Nation invited our ASU team to assist them in planning for replacement for their condemned chapter house (community center). Knowing that the opportunities for improving conditions within their community are rare, and funds for operations and maintenance scarce, the community wanted a sustainable building that not only addressed economics but local ecological constraints and cultural heritage as well.

Foundations for a Vision
The team met with chapter leaders and community members on two occasions to collaboratively discuss the cultural, ecological and economic components for a sustainable building. Most of the time the team listened to participants’ stories and narratives about the history and beliefs of the Diné (Navajo for people). Most poignant were stories about the “long walks” that forcibly relocated the people from their homeland, and the US government’s labyrinthine approval process for repairing homes on Hopi and Navajo disputed land. Of great interest to the team was the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) the stakeholders shared with us about their connections with the land. The Diné are herders and farmers who rely upon natural precipitation, surface water collection, and pasture rotation to grow crops and raise sheep. Local plants are used for remedies and ceremonies. And, the hogan (traditional residence) is organized in specific ways for family activities and community meetings. The entrance is always on the east side of the building and the fireplace is in the center. As visitors enter the structure they are greeted by leaders seated on the west side, while groups who counsel leaders sit to the north and south. Hearing this stakeholder feedback, our team hypothesized, that the use of TEK could lead to increased wellbeing (happiness) within the chapter.

After writing down these stories and requirements, I sorted through and categorized them according to Nathan Houde’s 1 six faces of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) – Spirituality; Culture and Identity; Time Perspectives; Management of Ecosystems; Land, and; Design Interventions. Not surprisingly, many elements we discussed did not fit neatly within the categories, so we created an eight-category list that renamed some of the six and added two more to become what we dubbed the TEK8 – Culture, Spirituality, Ecosystem, Time Scale, Land, Design, Social Justice & Equity, and Economics. We added the dimensions of Social Justice & Equity, and Economics because they are important factors that affect the sustainability of indigenous people, especially the long-term aftereffects of colonization. 

TEK as a basis for a sustainable vision
As we analyzed the categories, themes emerged from the comment data. In the cultural dimension, preserving history and the Navajo language, as well as the Navajo principle of Hózhó (balance as a way of being), were frequently referenced. Maintaining links between Navajo’s physical and spiritual worlds, and recognizing Mother Earth as the source for everything were important Spiritual themes. The Economics category had more pragmatic themes like, fostering entrepreneurship, finding opportunities for job training and job creation, and developing revenue streams for building operations and maintenance. As an architect, I was especially interested in the themes from the Land and Design categories. Ideas like living harmoniously and in direct connection with the land, and organizing the building’s entry sequence to mimic hogan design, lent specific direction about spatial orientation and the use of local materials to the chapter house building and site design.

From these narratives and themes I made recommendations for the design of the new chapter house. The idea of building a language laboratory in the building to teach the Navajo language to children, and making room for historical displays, came directly from the cultural themes of preserving language and history. Using local stone and earth as building materials addressed the value that all things come from Mother Earth. I also recommended using the building as a catalyst for entrepreneurial activities and job training opportunities. Local people could work on the project and be trained in the production, installation, and maintenance of “green” materials and systems. Others could be trained as green building managers who optimize and maintain “green” building system and operations. Entrepreneurs could team up with locals to create businesses serving local people, or attracting tourists, through a physical presence at the chapter house.

Next Steps in Visioning
All of these activities and outcomes are a good start to creating a sustainable building that expresses the culture of the Tonalean Chapter of the Navajo Nation. However, to create a sustainable, relevant, coherent and legitimate vision for the project, more work is required. To that end we proposed the following steps:

1. Develop a comprehensive visioning process, participatory methods, and quantitative and qualitative metrics for success.
2. Execute a comprehensive visioning process.
3. Evaluate the vision against quantitative and qualitative visioning criteria.
4. Conduct comment periods and stakeholder survey to confirm visions through consensus.
5. Document visioning process, methods, and outcomes.
6. Hand off visioning documents to a design team selected by the chapter.
7. Create a collaborative process between the visioning team and the design team to monitor design decisions, provide clarification and mediate tradeoffs that come up in the design process.
8. Review design for compliance with project vision. Revise as needed 2.

To create a vision that incorporated TEK and western science we suggested that the vision be crafted using both Lee’s 3 Native American visioning perspective, and Wiek & Iwaniec’s 4 ten quality criteria for sustainable visions. By using both visioning frameworks, a more comprehensive and sustainable outcome is possible, and opportunities for happiness may be increased.

Although this project was interrupted, by circumstances beyond our control, we are hopeful that this application of TEK increases the acceptability of sustainable solutions. The use TEK is not a panacea for solving sustainability challenges, especially beyond the location from which specific TEK originates.  However, TEK may be seen as a type of knowledge that is not confined to homogenous indigenous groups. Urban neighborhoods, or heterogeneous communities may have traditional knowledge specific to that place that can be useful in the implementation of sustainable solutions. And as me and some of my colleagues at the Happy Lab may argue, traditional knowledge, whenever and wherever it is uncovered, may increase opportunities for happiness.

1.     Houde, N. (2007). The six faces of traditional ecological knowledge: challenges and opportunities for Canadian co-management arrangements. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 34.
2.     Prosser, P. & Cloutier, S., (2015) Chapter House: Vision for a Sustainable Future. In P. Kraeger, S. Cloutier, & C. Talmage (Eds.), New Scholars Quality of Life Studies (In Review)
3.     Lee, L. L. (2014). Diné Political Leadership Development on the Path to sustainability and Building the Navajo Nation. Wicazo Sa Review, 29(2), 25-38
4.    Wiek, A., & Iwaniec, D. (2014). Quality criteria for visions and visioning in sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 9(4), 497-51


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