Respecting the Tribe: The 7 principles of Indigenous engagement in the design process

By Mike Laverdure
Principal, Director of First American Design Studio

Since joining DSGW in 2008, I’ve worked on over 150 projects with 35 tribes in 8 states. Over the past decade we’ve learned a great deal about how to collaborate with Indigenous communities. We’ve discovered there are ways we prefer to work with tribes and ways tribes prefer to work with us. The number one thing we’ve learned is that it’s all about mutual respect.

When you practice a culture of indigenous engagement in your tribal projects, you not only ensure appropriate design choices and better inclusivity, you also end up with a better project.

Over these past ten years of working with tribes, we’ve developed what we call our engagement principles. There are seven major guidelines we follow on every project, and we’ve found these principles are the key to a successful design and a positive collaboration.


Indigenously Led: The project team should have Indigienous leaders and participants who all have a say in cultural design choices.

Self-determination: The tribe has the right to decide on what cultural components to include and to dictate how they’re used.

Locality: Take the time to learn and understand local protocols and ceremonies, and gain permission for the use of any cultural components.

Listen: Storytelling is the foundation of many Indigenous communities. By listening to your tribal partners, you will gain deeper insight that will better inform your design choices.

Respect: Avoid design choices that reinforce negative stereotypes. The early inclusion of the Indigienous community in the design process is crucial to accomplishing this.

Indigienous Knowledge: By listening to and respecting the opinions of the Indigenous community, you can often gain crucial cultural knowledge that should be incorporated into the final design.

Collaboration: The design firm and the tribe are working on a joint project with shared values. For a tribal project to be successful, a diversity of cultures and opinions should not only be welcomed, but treasured.


Minooskiaindahyung – “Our New Home” in Ojibwa

Native Americans represent 2% of Minnesota’spopulation, but 22% of the homeless population. It’s a crisis that needs urgent attention and DSGW was honored to participate in designing a supportive housing project for homeless Native youth in St. Paul.

Our engagement principles helped guide the process every step of the way. Our tribal partners defined the exterior look, and asked us to include important cultural symbols. Rather than a groundbreaking, we held a ground blessing.

Ojibwa believe that if there are negative thoughts attached to any project, those thoughts get built into the item or space. An elder named Herb Sams performed a ceremony on this urban site to ensure there were only positive thoughts attached. As part of the ceremony, he gave the building a spirit and a name, ensuring that this building becomes an elder to the community, a place that retains tribal culture and promotes an environment of subsistence.

Red Lake Nation Tribal College and Tribal Headquarters

DSGW was asked to design a capital for the Red Lake Nation, right on the beautiful shores of Red Lake. This project was an exceptional learning experience and one that helped define our 7 principles.

We began by laying foam blocks on the site to rough out the footprint. I made a casual comment that the blocks were beginning to look like eagles around a nest. That single comment became the bedrock of our entire design.

The tribal chairman told us the story of how fishing had been banned on Red Lake 20 years ago due to fish depopulation. Because there were no fish, all the eagles left the area as well. But, today, the fish and the eagles are returning to the site. He told us that a building depicting eagles returning to the nest would be a powerful symbol for the community.

Our designers listened to the Indigienous community and incorporated their vision into the final design. The building belongs to the tribe and we believed that it should reflect their values and wishes.

And we knew we’d created something special when, at the grand opening ceremony, we looked up to see eagles soaring everywhere.


Respect and listening are the foundations of meaningful collaborations with Indigienous communities. Because, for tribes, buildings are more than bricks and mortar. They have spirit and soul.