Joseph Kunkel is an architect and member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation in eastern Montana. Joseph and fellow designer Jamie Blosser run Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative, one of the design groups working on Make It Right’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation project.
Where did you grow up? Did you always know you wanted to be an architect? How long have you been designing for Native American communities?
I grew up traveling back-and-forth between New Jersey and Montana, living mostly in New Jersey, but understanding the importance of my Indian roots on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. I knew growing up that building was something I always wanted to do. Walking around the St. Labre Indian School with my Grandfather and seeing all the work he did got me thinking about helping others less privileged than I. I guess I’m somewhat following my grandfathers footsteps.
I’ve been working for American Indian communities for most of my life as I see it, always learning, always thinking about how to better use my education and my opportunities to better our tribal communities nationwide. Professionally I’ve been working for both Canadian and American Indian communities for a little over seven years.
What are the biggest challenges facing Native American communities today?
The biggest challenges facing communities is a hard question to answer, since there is so much need. If we were to focus on the housing issues facing Indian Country, then it would have to be financing, planning, design and development. These tools or ways of thinking are very accessible to populations off reservation, but once we start to try and build on reservations we’re challenged with access to capital, little to no access to pre-development funds and just very little awareness of how planning and design can positively impact out Indian communities. We have to instill in our tribal communities that everyone deserves good design, not just the wealthy, and that all should have access to design professionals of high caliber.
How is designing for Native American communities different from other design projects on which you’ve worked?
Designing for American Indian Communities is very different from off reservation as its very time intense. Anyone working in Indian Country would tell you the same thing: a project that takes one or two years to complete off-reservation would take double or triple that amount of time on-reservation. This is due to all the red-tape, politics and bureaucracy. Those working in Indian Country need to understand that there is a lot of capacity building and relationship building that needs to happen before we get into the traditional development cycle.
What project are you most proud of and why?
I’d have to say the work I’m most proud of is the larger nation building / thought leadership we do. The sharing of exemplary tribal work going on in Indian Country is something that is not being done enough. We all in Indian Country need to see what each other are doing, support and learn from one another. That is what we at the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative are trying to do. Exploring better ways to communicate all the positive things happening in the field today.
How do you think Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative’s home and the other homes designed for Fort Peck will impact the community?
The Fort Peck Sustainable Village project will serve as an exemplary affordable housing model for Indian Country, showcasing that tribes have the ability to take housing development into their own hands and be able to find creative ways to develop their own housing. This project will not only impact the Fort Peck community, but serve as a model for other tribes, to push the bounds of what culturally appropriate,