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Gila River Indian Community members see traditional house designs come to life

Gila River residents work with ASU team on culturally relevant housing design.
September 13, 2018

ASU professor, students work with residents on more efficient, culturally relevant housing

Family is the most important thing to people who live in the Gila River Indian Community, and the houses they live in should reflect that reality.

That was the key concept that members of the community told a group from Arizona State University earlier this week. About 30 community members participated in an idea session with several graduate students and an architecture professor to design new housing that would be culturally relevant.

Wanda Dalla Costa, an architect and Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, has been working with the Gila River Indian Community on the concept for about three years. She calls it “design sovereignty.”

“They’ve been residents of the desert for thousands of years, and they’ve figured out how to live in the climate,” said Dalla Costa, a member of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta, Canada. Dalla Costa was the first First Nations woman to become a registered architect in Canada.

“I don’t use the word design — it’s co-design, because I’m not living there, they are living there. Even though I am indigenous, it’s not my culture.”

Thousands of years ago, the Gila River tribal members built dwellings with thick adobe walls to protect them from the heat. But in the 1960s, the federal government began providing standardized housing to reservations, which wasn’t designed for the desert climate. The Gila River Indian Community wants future housing to not only be culturally relevant but also more energy efficient.

Last year, Dalla CostaDalla Costa also is an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. met with several Gila River residents for the first time to talk about what their houses should look like. They produced about half a dozen designs, ranging from about 1,600 to 2,600 square feet.

On Tuesday, Dalla Costa gathered the community members together with about 30 ASU graduate students in the architecture, business administration, construction and American Indian Studies master’s degree programs. In a classroom at the Huhugam Heritage Center, the residents divided into groups, took those initial designs and talked more specifically about what they wanted. The students offered different wall, roof and window options, which were then visualized in a three-dimensional computer program.

Skyler Anselmo, a 23-year-old member of the community, said that many times, more than one family lives in a house.

“We grew up sharing space,” he said. “The houses we have now are crowded together and there’s no synergy.

“The foundation of our culture is to share and prosper together,” said Anselmo, who works in Sacaton in the AmeriCorps program.

Dalla Costa told the groups they could push the envelope, and Anselmo’s group did. They designed a house with a large, open, round central family room, with other rooms coming off of it like spokes.

The community members were nearly unanimous in their desire for an outdoor cooking area, as well as a shaded patio and a play area. They were also interested in traditional features that are sustainable, like a rainwater catcher.

And everyone wants a garden.

“It’s part of our history, when we were self-sustaining,” Anselmo said. “It goes back to the roots of our culture when we grew our own food.”

Sky Dawn Reed, who earned a master’s in science and technology policy degree at ASU and now works in the planning department of the Gila River Indian Community, said the design should be flexible.

“We should think about making the houses solar-ready,” she said. “It might not be doable now, but maybe we can do it later. It might even be far off, but we should be forward-thinking.”

Belinda Ayze, a graduate student in the American Indian Studies program at ASU, sat with an elderly resident and helped to facilitate her discussion about the design.

“I was asking her how she lived her life and how she cooked and if she wanted wheelchair ramps and bars in the shower,” she said.

“I asked why she wants a cooking area outside, and she said, ‘Food tastes better with fire.’ ”

Ayze, a Navajo, said the older residents she talked to wanted traditional adobe walls and doors that face east.

“I think it’s a good idea to make the houses the way they want and the way they’ve always dreamed of living with their families,” she said.

The goal is to train Gila River residents to build the houses. Last spring, ASU architecture master’s student Selina Martinez designed a traditional adobe shade structure, or “vatho,” which was constructed by a team of Gila River builders, led by master builder Aaron Sabori.

Dalla Costa hopes to come up with about six final designs, with one or two selected to go into construction drawings. Then a prototype would be constructed within the next year. 

“The design belongs to you, and construction should belong to you because I know there is a long history of constructing your own homes,” she told the community.

Top photo: Members of the Gila River Indian Community look over several of the housing designs for the Gila River Indian Community in a collaboration between members of the community and graduate students from ASU schools of architecture, business, engineering and American Indian studies, at the Huhugam Heritage Center on Tuesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4503

ASU Early Start students give back to homeless children, community


September 13, 2018

One of the best ways to learn if you should study psychology in college is to go and experience psychology in action. Carolyn Cavanaugh-Toft leads the Early Start Program in the Arizona State University Department of Psychology, a two-week intensive program that introduces students to psychology at ASU.

The program previews some of the available psychology courses and was designed to give incoming freshmen the opportunity to discover their class options and to start thinking about what career prospects they can have with a degree in psychology. Early Start Students Helping at Homeward Bound The Early Start Program is a two-week intensive program that introduces students to psychology at ASU. The program previews some of the available psychology courses and was designed to give incoming freshmen the opportunity to discover their class options and to start thinking about what career prospects they can have with a degree in psychology. Photo by Rob Ewing/ASU Download Full Image

“I wanted to give the incoming students a chance to learn what opportunities they have in the Department of Psychology, both in research as well as in internships,” said Cavanaugh-Toft, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology who was recently named ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences lecturer of the year. “One place I wanted to introduce the students to is a place called Homeward Bound.”

Homeward Bound is an Arizona nonprofit that serves homeless families, providing training and housing to help the families get back on their feet. Each year Homeward Bound helps more than 130 families in the Phoenix area. Often these families include young children who are in a pivotal stage of early development.

“Children who enter the public education system from homeless situations are at a critical disadvantage long-term if they do not learn the life skills to cope with the cycle of homelessness,” said Marcos Hernandez, a senior manager at Homeward Bound. 

In 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that more 2.5 percent of public school students are homeless. Being homeless while in school can cause academic performance to suffer, and it is a known risk factor for mental and physical health problems. Arizona is no different than the rest of the country: Over 2.6 perecent of students in Arizona schools are homeless.

Students in the Early Start Program participated in service learning projects and saw firsthand what a nonprofit organization has to do to succeed in helping others. The students sorted donations, reorganized learning centers and helped the Homeward Bound case managers with children at the center.

“We have to be mindful of our clients’ experiences, and we can’t look at everything through our own lenses,” said Patsy Rethore-Larson, vice president of programs at Homeward Bound. “We need to have a sense of understanding that our interaction with a client is based on a lifetime of experiences. It is so important to have a relationship based on mutual respect in order to make a difference.”

By volunteering at Homeward Bound, the Early Start Program students were exposed to what a career in child services could be like, and they also learned what a complex issue homelessness can be.

“Working with Homeward Bound is a wonderful experience for the students. They might not have thought much about what can cause homelessness, and it is important to have their assumptions challenged,” Cavanaugh-Toft said.

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology

480-727-5054