Shaping Contemporary Indigenous Design: An interview with Sam Olbekson

Axonometric of Minneapolis American Indian Center

Olbekson's renovation and expansion of the Minneapolis American Indian Center, a nonprofit organization that serves the local Native American population. Courtesy of Full Circle Indigenous Planning.

Sam Olbekson is committed to improving the lives of Native Americans. An Indigenous architect with more than 25 years of experience in community-oriented projects, he has made it his life’s mission to imbue justice and equity into every one of his design endeavors. “Otherwise, what is the real reason we’re even doing this?” Olbekson said during a recent interview over Zoom.

Portrait of Sam Olbekson
Sam Olbekson (MAUD ’05) is the Founding Principal and CEO of Full Circle Indigenous Planning.

The pioneering architect and alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s MAUD program, believes the graduate school greatly influenced his ability to foresee the potential effects of his work on communities. He explained, “Going to the GSD, we’ve had such an opportunity—most in the world don’t have—to think about the impact of the built environment on people. With that extreme opportunity, I think comes a whole lot of responsibility. To bring back a sense of care for the world, care for our neighbors, and our environment.”

Ahead of his upcoming lecture at the GSD, “Culture, Community, and Environmental Justice in Contemporary Indigenous Design,” Olbekson spoke about his Native upbringing, the importance of putting justice into practice, and the profound value he ascribes to grassroots community engagement.

How does your Native upbringing inform your approach to architecture?

I grew up mostly in the urban area here in South Minneapolis, the Phillips neighborhood, which is a very mixed neighborhood, but there’s a large Indigenous population. I also lived in two different reservations in northern Minnesota: White Earth Reservation and East Lake. Going back and forth between urban inner-city Indigenous settings versus the reservation and tribal and rural settings allowed me to see extremes. It was very eye-opening.

And I was always very community-oriented. The Native population here, the mentors, teachers, all gave me a sense of value, of eventually returning to my community and doing good for it. Architecture was a way for me to come back and impact, not only individual buildings but also communities and neighborhoods.

Exterior rendering of building in nature.
Courtesy of Full Circle Indigenous Planning.
three iterior renderings of community center and three reference images
Courtesy of Full Circle Indigenous Planning.

Did you have a preference between rural and urban environments?

I loved that nomadic lifestyle. It was a way for me to have this adventurous lifestyle of being in the city and having the amenities and the things to do. But I also love nature. I love being out in the forest by myself and being out on the lakes. When I design for each environment, I think, What can I bring about urban communities—the density, walkability, transportation, the ability to live close to your neighbors—to rural areas? But also, How can I bring nature into the city—the experience of having clean air, light, and water?

You’ve said before that justice and equity are part of any architecture worth doing. How have you translated this into your work?

One way is by branching outside of the traditional role of the architect or urban designer. Doing a lot of community engagement and facilitating discussions within communities, to hear voices from a grassroots level that approach design not as an elitist, professional expert [viewpoint] that can come in and solve your problems, but as one who comes to a community, hears the goals and needs of the real people who live there, and allows space for them to be the designers and shapers of their community.

In a lot of the work I do, I always make sure there’s a discussion about who benefits and who has the opportunity to own land. Are there opportunities for BIPOC businesses to be part of a project? Because, oftentimes, it’s the large developer that will have the resources or funds to swoop in, buy a property, and dictate what happens on a site. But working with communities, jurisdictions, cities, and organizations focused on promoting equitable development can give a much stronger sense of meaning to a city or neighborhood.

Front Rendering of Minneapolis American Indian Center
Courtesy of Full Circle Indigenous Planning.

In your upcoming lecture at the GSD, you’re set to highlight Native American projects challenging the status quo of tribal design. Can you share a few examples?

I’ll share some specific examples during the lecture, but, in general, for the first time in 500 years, Indigenous communities can control the design of our community. That’s an incredibly powerful position to be in. For the first 500 or so years of colonial contact, there’s a difficult story of loss of land, stealing of land, murder, and an attempt by the government to exterminate entire races of people. It’s only been in the last 20 years or so that tribal communities have gained the resources to design from within their communities, to have a say in what’s happening. So the urban design, planning, and community-building work that I do is all part of a new way of asserting self-determination and sovereignty.

Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?

In Minneapolis, I’ve been working for over 10 years on a community-building project called the American Indian Cultural Corridor. In the 1940s and ’50s, there were government-sponsored programs that tried to bring people off reservations and into cities. In part, the motivation was to assimilate people into Western society. The reality of it was there weren’t the jobs that were promised. In Minneapolis, a lot of Native people moved to the Phillips neighborhood, and then over the years, it was a very strong, urban Native American community. But without resources or jobs, it became very dilapidated, and over the past 15 to 20 years the urban Native community here has been a designated area called the American Indian Cultural Corridor. We’re trying to revitalize it from the perspective of community building. Not only are we building social services, but we’re building healthcare facilities and mixed-use development. This idea of what an urban Native American community can be is what’s really exciting to me.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.