Planning August/September 2017

The People's Way

Planning with Native American communities calls for looking to the past to guide the future.

Traditional Navajo Teaching

Nohokáá' Dine'é niidlnígíí t'áá ałtsoní k'é bił da'ahi'dii'ní. Nihimá Nahasdzáán, Yádiłhił Nihitaa', naaldlooshii, nanise' ádaat'éii índa bíla' ashdla'ii ałhxidiníłnáa k'é da'ahxidii'ní.

We as human beings identify kinship with everything: Mother earth, father sky, animals, plants — and even express kinship with one another as five-fingered people/beings.

By Mary Reynolds, AICP

"Ya'at'eeh, my name is Kim Kanuho, I am Ta'baaha' (Water's Edge People) clan and born for the Todich'ii'nii (Bitter Water People) clan, originally from Blue Canyon, Arizona."

Kanuho speaks in Navajo to introduce herself in the traditional way of her people to the Navajo communities she works with. Owner of Fourth World Design Group based in Mesa, Arizona, Kanuho has spent 10 years working on tribal planning and economic development projects in that state, New Mexico, California, and Navada.

"I let them know that I listened to our elders. I went off to get my education," she says of her approach. "And now I'm back to help not only my own tribe, but all tribes."

The Navajo culture shares a commitment to sustainability, living in harmony with the earth, and respecting ancestral knowledge. Photo by grandriver/E+/Getty Images.

The Navajo culture shares a commitment to sustainability, living in harmony with the earth, and respecting ancestral knowledge. Photo by grandriver/E+/Getty Images.

Like any successful planner, Kanuho begins by understanding a community's culture and tradition, earning trust, and listening to community members. "The difference in working with Native American communities is incorporating a tribe's cultural values and adhering to the Tribal Trust land status, process, and laws," Kanuho says. Each tribe and community is unique, but they share a commitment to sustainability. Common themes in Native American communities are living in harmony with the earth and respecting ancestral knowledge and the wisdom of elders.

Kanuho's firm has several projects under way, including work with Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, where she's helping to create design guidelines for Navajo Technical University's campus in Chinle, Arizona. Located in the heart of the 27,000-squaremile Navajo Nation, NTU's vision statement incorporates the Navajo or Diné philosophy: Nitsáhákees, Nahát'á, Iiná, Sih Hasin (thinking, planning, life, accomplishments).

"Tribes have been designing, planning, and building within nature for centuries," she explains, noting that ancestral anaasází (Anasazi) ruins are still visible near Chinle today. The anaasází planned and designed according to basic human needs — like health and well-being — cultural traditions, and the land around them, she says. Visitors to places like nearby Canyon de Chelly can see how builders used local rocks to build houses, took advantage of natural sunlight, and provided ceremonial gathering spaces.

"We have a traditional teaching, called Ké," says Kanho. "It means we're related to everything, mother earth, father sky, animals, plants, and we're also related to one another in clanship." is reflected in the design principles at NTU, where natural rocks delineate gathering spaces.

In her site analysis of the nearby floodplain, Kanuho recommended creating berms to collect water and direct it to planting areas, allowing native vegetation to thrive, watered by captured seasonal rains.

Educating communities

In addition to being connected to the land, the connection of Navajo people to each other is manifested through collaboration. In New Mexico, in another part of the Navajo Nation, Six Northern Chapters asked for assistance in updating their comprehensive land-use plans. (A "chapter" is also known as a community.) Kanuho worked on a team lead by Capacity Builders, Inc., based in Farmington, New Mexico, and other partners to develop holistic community planning and economic development workshops, starting with the basics, Kanuho says.

In this three-month public input process, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team taught members from each chapter how to conduct a SWOT analysis and review capital assets. (The planners were welcomed to the daylong educational sessions with corn stew, watermelon, and fry bread.)

Later, they came together for a regional plan, and there, "the chapters listened to one another, and they found commonalities in what they wanted to do, and in their challenges," says Kanuho. "They started thinking regionally, and going after funding together, for road projects or community projects like a river walk," rather than individual chapter projects.

One participant, college student Kyle Jim, followed up by conducting his own SWOT analysis for the Shiprock Chapter, of which he's a member. His work helped secure $300,000 in grant funding for the preliminary design of a walking path along the San Juan River, that could — with continued regional cooperation — connect to every one of the Six Northern Chapters. That local effort is a result of a successful process, in Kanuho's view. "We listen to the community, we create a framework for them so they understand the planning process, and they use [it] to achieve their goals."

Members of the Six Northern Chapters list community strengths as they learn how to do a SWOT analysis. Photo by Kim Kanuho.

The four-foot-high brick wall on the right keeps Yoem Pueblo children from wandering into the roadside irrigation ditch, but doesn't block views. Photo by Mary Reynolds.

A path to home ownership

While the Navajo chapters collaborated with each other, the Pascua Yaqui in Arizona joined forces with the local town government. Near Yoem Pueblo, dusty fields were ready for the summer sorghum planting. The land occupied by the community of Yoem Pueblo (the name is a combination of Yaqui and Spanish, meaning "The People's Town") is owned by the Pascua Yaqui tribe, which today is surrounded by the town of Marana, Arizona. The Pascua Yaqui have lived here for more than 100 years.

Multigenerational families live in 25 houses clustered on five acres of land, and Yoem's residents struggle to make ends meet. Many buildings are in disrepair. The town of Marana, founded long after Yoem Pueblo in 1977, wanted to use Community Development Block Grant funds to help rehabilitate the housing, but came up against a challenge: The tribe, not individuals, own the Yoem houses. The CDBG program requires houses to be owner occupied.

But they found a solution: Marana decided to replat the community, subdividing Yoem so that each house occupies its own lot. It was a process that took time and patience, notes Shannon Shula, senior planner for Marana since 2014 and member of the Hopi Nation. She understands what it takes to work with the tribal government and Yoem residents. Many of Yoem residents are elderly, and Shula feels a duty to serve them: "The Hopi and the Yaquis share a deep commitment to honoring our elders. We believe elders hold a wealth of experience and wisdom, and we owe them profound respect."

The effort has taken seven years. "We knew it wouldn't be a simple process," says Shula. "First we met with the community. We went door to door, talking with residents." Then planning and other town staff worked with the community, participating in cleanup days and helping clear and trim vegetation — and even that task required some sensitivity, Shula says. When one woman complained that her elderly mother enjoyed sitting in the shade of the big tamarisk trees, the workers found a way to keep one of them. "There was a lot of reassuring members of the community through every step of the process," she says. "We just had to move slowly."

More work and outreach followed, including approvals of the replatted lots, relocation of water meters (funded by Indian Health Services), discussions about landscape buffers, and more. Fences proved to be surprisingly important. The tribal government installed chain link fences to delineate the properties. "Now, one household's belongings can be contained in their own yard: lawn chairs, trucks, children's toys, dogs, everything," Shula says. In addition, the town built a protective barrier along one side of the community: a short brick wall topped by a wrought iron fence. It's only four feet tall, but high enough to stop Yoem children from falling into the roadside irrigation ditch. And, as requested by Yoem residents, the wall doesn't obstruct their views.

Today, the tribe still owns individual parcels, but it now has the option to deed them or sell them to the families who have lived on them for generations, making residents eligible for CDBG funds. Meanwhile, the town continues to serve Yoem, coordinating cleanups and hauling away trailers full of debris. Yoem also serves Marana: At events like Founder's Day, residents from one of the original neighborhoods sell traditional Pascua Yaqui food to suburban newcomers.

Planning 'the People's Way'

Yoem Pueblo illustrates planning and cooperation at the neighborhood level, but Montana tribes planned and collaborated at the regional level. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Montana Department of Transportation were at a stalemate. CSKT knew that widening Highway 93 from two lanes to a four-lane divided highway did not consider wildlife or cultural, recreational, and scenic resources on their land. The tribe blocked widening for 10 years, threatening litigation.

Then tribal attorney Joe Hovenkotter learned about the work of Jones and Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, a consulting firm that used context-sensitive design for a highway through Kentucky's thoroughbred horse farm country. Hovenkotter thought a collaboration with that firm might make the highway project acceptable, and he told MDOT so.

Landscape architect Charlie Scott, ASLA, led the team. "We said, 'let's step away from the design of the highway for a moment,'" explains Scott. "Let's back up and let's just talk to the tribal members [and see] what's important to them, what they value about [their community], whether they live in a small town or out on a ranch."

Armed with big aerial maps and other materials, Scott's team held meetings in each town along the 56-mile highway and worked closely with residents and staff. Their concerns were varied, but included effects on creeks nearby, highway noise, and people driving too fast. Tribal members also mentioned the importance of cultural sites, but didn't share specific information because the tribe was concerned about desecration. These may have been burial sites, ceremonial sites, or native plants that tribal people collected for different purposes.

Jones and Jones Architects and Landscape Architects worked with CSKT to reconstruct a scenic 55-mile segment of U.S. Highway 93 in western Montana. The redesigned highway now fits in with the landscape, with the idea that the road itself is a visitor to the land. Photo courtesy Jones and Jones.

"It was sufficient for us and the DOT to know there was a site that needed protecting," Scott says. In some places, they moved the highway a few feet to protect plants like tufted wheatgrass, camas, and willows. In others, the plants were moved and put in greenhouses, then replanted along the reconstructed highway. Thanks to a grant from the state of Montana, those CSKT greenhouses supply native plants for revegetation at other roadways and mining sites.

Animals are also important to the tribe, and wildlife biologist and CSKT member Whisper Camel-Means says that relationship is reciprocal. "They take care of us and we take care of them," she says. "Vehicles on the highway are not the main goal of the tribes. Tribes want to keep species here for sustenance hunting, to feed our families."

Scott found a solution to maintain that relationship: 41 wildlife underpasses and one overpass (for more on highway overpasses for wildlife, see "Keeping Hoofs Off Hoods," March 2017). Streams filled with fish and amphibians now flow through several underpasses, and fencing guides other animals to safe crossings under and over the busy highway.

Dale Becker, CSKT's wildlife program manager, says the interventions have reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions by 80 percent in three critical areas along the highway: Evaro, Ravalli Curves, and Ravalli Hill. In the five years since project completion, wildlife cameras documented an average of 22,600 successful crossings per year: 69 percent were white-tailed deer, but grizzly bears, black bears, moose, turkeys, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats, and other species also made use of them.

In addition, traffic studies revealed the projected level of service required four lanes for only 14 miles. Some of the highway stayed at two lanes with slightly wider shoulders, and other sections included a "super three" solution — two lanes with alternating passing lane.

The redesigned highway now fits in with the landscape, with the idea that the road itself is a visitor to the land. Drivers also know they are traveling through a special place: Road signs are in Kootenai, Salish, and English, and interpretive exhibits at roadside parks explain the Native American presence and culture.

CSKT calls the reconstructed highway "The People's Way," notes Camel-Means. "It's a nod to the Salish people and how they were forced walk in the winter from tribal lands, to get to the Flathead Reservation," she says. "They walked 66 miles from the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko Valley, and this was their route."

Plus, she emphasizes, "The name shows that we have the political power to get what we want."

Communication and collaboration — particularly with longstanding traditions — are critical for successful planning in Native American communities. Their residents draw power from their past, rooted in ancestral ways of living with the land and everything on it. As Kim Kanuho explains: "Our tribes have been living sustainably for centuries, so we must apply that knowledge in our modern communities."

Mary Reynolds is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona.