University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Beyond Turtle-Shaped Schools

Architect Tamara Eagle Bull collaborates with Native American communities to design culturally sensitive spaces.

Courtesy Encompass Architects

Although she grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Tamara Eagle Bull's (M.Arch., '93) childhood visits with her grandmother and extended family on the Pine Ridge Reservation were a lesson in how disparity impacts our built environment. “My elementary and middle schools in Aberdeen were brand new and designed with open spaces, which reflected the 1970s learning philosophy,” she says. The schools on the reservation, on the other hand, were in extremely poor repair, with plumbing that often didn’t work.

Eagle Bull’s father, a teacher, had once hoped to become an architect. So he and his daughter talked about the differences between the houses and public spaces in the two communities. Those conversations helped Eagle Bull, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the first Native American woman to become a licensed architect, realize that the way she could give back to other Native Americans was not by becoming a doctor or lawyer, but by using design to improve people’s everyday lives. 

“As a Native American person there is always a feeling that you should do something to come back to help—it’s a calling that we are always taught,” she says. Architecture that was sensitive to the unique needs of Native American communities could, she realized, not only improve the aesthetics of reservations but also the emotional well-being of their residents.

Today, Eagle Bull is the majority owner and principal at Encompass Architects, which is based in Lincoln, Nebraska. The firm, which she owns with her husband, Todd Hesson, is a national leader in designing projects for Native American communities, using a collaborative process that prioritizes the feedback of the people who will live and work in the spaces she designs. 

“It’s important to include community because tribal people haven’t historically been consulted,” she explains. “Architects were told, ‘you are the expert, you are getting this degree and will go in and fix problems for people.’ There was no recognition that this is a separate and different culture with its own traditions of cultural identity, decision making, and marking places.” 

Eagle Bull says the results of that approach often compromised usability for an artistic vision. “All over the country there are schools that are designed in the shape of an eagle, or a buffalo, or a turtle,” she says, chuckling. “There are a lot of beautiful buildings but when you ask people about them, they say they don’t use them because they’re not functional.” 

Countering that dynamic was the guiding principle when Eagle Bull was commissioned to design a replacement for a 60-year-old school on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Porcupine, South Dakota. Eagle Bull drew on her connections to that community, soliciting the input of teachers, students, and the general public, including her parents, who showed up to the public meetings. Because reservation schools often serve as de facto community centers—hosting funerals, wakes, and birthday celebrations—the building would need to have the flexibility to be a public meeting space as well.  

“Tammy did a great job of collaborating and getting the input of everyone from parents to students to the kitchen staff to understand what they wanted for the school,” says Beverly Tuttle, a board member of the Porcupine School District. “The school’s design is thanks to their influence—she listened and drew the plans.” 

The result is the Pahin Sinte Owayawa, a happy and warm building that incorporates two pods that are designed around a central “living room.” “The students wanted a school that felt like their idea of an ideal home,” Tuttle explains. “They can get off the bus, hang up their back-packs, eat breakfast, wash their hands, and go to the living room.” 

The school opened in 2008, and when Eagle Bull visited last year she was surprised to learn that a new generation of students were excited to talk to her about the philosophy behind the school’s design. “It’s become part of the institu-tional memory of the school,” she says. “That the idea had been passed down and the students had this sense of ownership blew me away.”

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