Sam Olbekson Is Decolonizing Design, One Building at a Time
When Sam Olbekson was four years old, he witnessed the Minneapolis American Indian Center being built, with one of his uncles on the construction crew. Now, 48 years later, the Native American architect (White Earth Nation) is overseeing the large-scale renovation of the aging structure to amplify its cultural relevance and enhance its services. It’s a full-circle moment for the founder of the aptly named Full Circle Indigenous Planning + Design. And it’s just one example of how Olbekson is shaping contemporary Indigenous design.
“Right now, there are so many movements to revive Native culture focused around language, arts, and land issues; architecture has been a forgotten part of that,” explains the 52-year-old grad of Harvard’s lauded Master of Architecture in Urban Design program. “But culture and architecture are inextricably linked, because the way a community is arranged can help or hinder bonding, development, and prosperity.”
Tribal nations have historically faced numerous obstacles in creating culturally appropriate spaces, including legal, political, financial, and infrastructure issues. All too often, this results in one-size-fits-all buildings that don’t take into consideration a community’s unique needs.
But Olbekson views architecture as both a powerful expression of Indigenous cultural identity and a critical component of sovereignty. For more than 25 years, he’s put that ideology into action, working with 40 some tribes on master planning for Indian reservations and designing key public structures like schools, clinics, and housing, typically using sustainable, regenerative practices and materials.
“I’ve been told I’m decolonizing architecture one building at a time,” Olbekson says. “Many tribes are just starting to become thriving communities again after centuries of colonialism and oppression. In working with Native communities, I help them express a contemporary vision of who they are today and also who they want to be in seven generations.”
The impact of culturally relevant design goes far beyond aesthetics. “If you walk into an Indigenous clinic and see your culture on the walls, you know you’re going to be healing within the context of your own culture,” Olbekson notes. “Or when students walk into a school and see themselves in the architecture, they’re learning about those important parts of who they are.” His own upbringing—raised by a single mom in poverty conditions and splitting his time between urban and rural tribal communities—influences his work today.
The design process on Indigenous projects can be long and arduous, involving many community leaders and governed by limited tribal budgets. Construction will finally begin next month on the Minneapolis American Indian Center (part of the larger American Indian Community Blueprint revitalization plan) after 10 years of preparation. Olbekson often helps spearhead community engagement and fundraising initiatives with these projects too.