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American Indian Housing Initiative Will Link Tribal and Academic Communities

Over three weeks this summer, a building made of straw bales and stucco will rise from the wind-swept Montana plains–an undertaking that is equally an exercise in green construction, an opportunity to assist with a much-needed early childhood learning center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and cultural partnership and immersion experience for undergraduate students.

Part of the American Indian Housing Initiative (AIHI), the project for the past several years has drawn faculty and students from the University of Washington, Penn State University, and most recently the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The AIHI’s goal is to promote green building technology and sustainable development, and also create a learning and educational exchange between tribal and academic communities.

“We come to the site every summer as empty vessels with no cultural assumptions,” says Sam Dennis, an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and landscape design director for AIHI. “Over the course of the build, we come to know each other as people and as individuals through our shared work.”

The AIHI began at the University of Washington as a collaboration between David Riley, professor of architectural engineering, and renowned architect Sergio Palleroni, and spread to Penn State and the University of Wisconsin as key partners took new positions. Each summer, faculty and student volunteers report to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where they have been invited to help the Northern Cheyenne people make community improvements, including environmentally friendly housing, educational facilities and public spaces.

Another Wisconsin connection to the project is multi-disciplinary artist Bently Spang, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the UW-Madison. A member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, Spang’s work focuses on his experience as a contemporary Cheyenne, and he collaborates with young people from the reservation on public art projects that are installed in the landscape spaces Dennis and his team create.

This year, Dennis and several landscape architecture undergraduates will join dozens of others to create an early childhood learning center on the campus of Chief Dull Knife College. Built with sustainable technologies and “green” construction techniques, the center will provide a much-needed childcare space for students and staff. Dennis is also planning a playground project, which will encourage children to learn about nature though play in the same way their parents and grandparents might have done.

As a registered landscape architect, Dennis provides a unique perspective on outdoor spaces, and brings a sustainable and ecologically sound approach to design. Beyond contributing his professional expertise, Dennis aims to get young people involved in the work, and to plant the seed that college is possible in the minds of Northern Cheyenne youth, a population that is particularly challenged by unemployment, drugs, alcohol and incarceration.

“We try to use landscape projects to bring Cheyenne youth and elders and college students together. I want local kids to see that, in certain contexts, they’re smarter than the college students, and I want Wisconsin students to understand the role landscape plays in shaping their own identities. This is a truly mutual learning experience for everyone involved, no matter what their background–it”s about bringing together the resources and the expertise of the Cheyenne and other people to create a sustainable partnership.”

The undergraduate students who participate in the project often remember the experience as transforming, Dennis says. “It literally shapes the path their careers take. For landscape architecture students, they learn about design and building in the real world, and when they get to the professional world, they teach their firms about how to serve communities.” The students are required to keep journals over the course of the project, and can earn independent study credit towards their degrees.

This year, a small group of participating Wisconsin students will be updating a website with writings and photos as the build progresses from June 26 through July 16. You’ll be able to follow their experiences from the site, which will be linked on the main CALS web page: