Universities across North America and Australia have seen a recent push to establish cultural spaces for Indigenous* students on college campuses. While it is common practice for universities to set aside cultural centers as gathering places for students of shared ethnicities and backgrounds, these new spaces are more than merely a dedicated room or house: they are carefully designed to reflect the cultural history and knowledge of the Indigenous peoples on whose traditional lands the universities are built. Some such spaces have been around for longer (see Evergreen State College’s s’gʷi gʷi ʔ altxʷ / House of Welcome, established in 1995, and the University of Southern Mississippi’s Medicine Wheel Garden created in 2005, for example), but we have seen an uptick in the creation of these spaces within the last few years as settler nations are beginning to reckon with the history of colonial violence. Many Canadian universities have created, or are in the process of creating, these spaces as a direct response to the Calls to Action listed in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report, and the United States may well be on the cusp of a similar influx, as the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative published Volume 1 of its own report on Native American boarding schools just last year.
Today’s blog post takes a look at this recent development, highlighting some of these spaces across Canada, the United States, and Australia, and identifying some commonalities and priorities among the spaces.
Designing Indigenous Campus Spaces
These new campus spaces are typically designed with two goals in mind: to reflect the history and cultural traditions of the Indigenous peoples who have occupied the land in the past and present, and to create a space where Indigenous students can feel connected to their cultural heritage while on campus.
The first goal, reflecting history and cultural traditions, can be seen as an extension of a land acknowledgment: these spaces endeavor to bring to life a past that has been historically erased by settler colonialism. One common approach is to incorporate native plants that were historically used for medicinal, ceremonial, or creative purposes (see the Healing Garden at San Diego State University and the Ethnobotany Garden at the University of Montana, for example). This incorporation of native plants works to reflect the place-based way of life practiced among many Indigenous communities.
A few universities have undertaken to reflect this attentiveness to place in their holistic design, allowing the natural features of the landscape to guide their design process (see Bilya Marlee at the University of Western Australia and University of Toronto’s acknowledgement of Taddle Creek, for example).
Another common approach is to model the architectural design after traditional structures that were significant to the Indigenous communities (see the canoe design of Odeyto student center at Seneca College, Queen’s University’s wigwam design, and Western Washington University’s Coast Salish longhouse design).
These spaces modeled after traditional structures tend to be a much bigger undertaking, so, among the universities creating smaller-scale spaces, it is also common to see culturally significant shapes or symbols used as the basis for the design (see the Two Row Wampum design at Queen’s University’s outdoor space, the turtle design at Loyalist College’s A’nó:wara Learning Circle, Montana State University’s drum room, and Curtin University’s yarning circle design, for example).
Along with bringing the past to life, the other common goal for these spaces is to emphasize the continued presence of Indigenous people, Indigenous cultural practices, and Indigenous knowledge—typically with an eye toward the needs of current and future Indigenous students. For example, many universities have designed spaces that would allow Indigenous students and/or community members to gather for ceremonies or other cultural practices (see the Indigenous Sharing and Learning Center at Laurentian College and the yarning circle at University of Newcastle, for example).
Many spaces are also designed for educational purposes: including, for example, a circular design with ample seating to allow for classes to be held in these spaces (see the Indigenous Circle at McMaster University and the University of Wollongong’s yarning circle). Some are even designed with specific educational uses in mind, such as teaching students how to cultivate and use native plants (see the gardens at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and the University of British Columbia), or involving students in the creation of the space itself (see Montana State University).
Why Indigenous Spaces?
But perhaps even more important than any particular design feature is the process that universities are engaging in to develop these designs. In nearly all of the spaces included in this blog post, the committees responsible for creating these spaces worked closely with Indigenous community members, faculty, and/or students to ensure that the space is not merely a performative gesture, but that it both accurately reflects the relevant cultural history and is designed to facilitate a lively student and community presence in these spaces. For example, the University of Newcastle in Australia consulted with Elder in Residence, Aunty Bronwyn Chambers, in regard to the design, placement, and naming of their yarning circle, nganggali ngara ngura (Talking Listening Place). UC Davis similarly consulted with Patwin elder Bill Wright, along with other members of the Native American community on campus, to create the Native American Contemplative Garden in response to the discovery of Patwin remains on the UC Davis campus. The University of Toronto established an advisory committee that included Indigenous students, faculty, staff, and representatives of the Elders’ circle. Some universities have prioritized hiring Indigenous artists and architects to lead the design process, including Lambton College, whose current project is being led by Wanda Dalla Costa, the first First Nation female architect in Canada.
This process and attention to design is of utmost importance, as educational institutions are particularly implicated in the history of violence against Indigenous people. Kevin Brown, former program specialist at the Indigenous Nations Library Program at the University of New Mexico, explains that this problematic history has an ongoing negative impact on Indigenous students’ educational experience, particularly for the way that “long held views of Indigenous people in America as either extinct or should be bounded within reservation limits are prominent tropes Indigenous students face on university campuses” (58). In other words, the university system in settler nations continues to be complicit in the notion that Indigenous students may only participate in postsecondary education if they assimilate to Western modes of education.
Many universities have thus prioritized designing spaces that, through their architecture, artistic elements, and potential uses, will actively challenge the historical practice of educational institutions working to strip Indigenous people of their culture, traditions, and language. By making visible the past and presence of Indigenous people and communities, the spaces highlighted in this blog post hope to set a precedent for Indigenous students to remain connected to their history, traditions, culture, and communities throughout the duration of their post-secondary education.
The need for this connection is directly related to the success of Indigenous students on university campuses. For many Indigenous students, postsecondary education comes with a complex set of challenges deriving both from the university system and their own communities. Though it is perhaps less obvious, the campus space itself—the buildings, outdoor spaces, and campus layout—plays a role in students’ education: either working to cultivate a sense of belonging among students, or creating the sense that students from non-Western cultural backgrounds are not welcome in this space. As Kevin Brown explains, “an Indigenous student on a university campus may feel alienated and unsafe due to the current built environment and interaction with non-Indigenous peoples” (57). This can be directly traced to the underlying structures of colonialism, Brown argues: “the constructed university environment overlays the memories of Indigenous people and at times erases, ignores, and subdues Indigenous existence” (57). Writing from his own experience, Derek Kamakanaaloha Soong, an undergraduate at NYU, argues for the need for not only “a curriculum tailored to the needs of Native students” but also a space “where cultural traditions can find a home”. By creating such spaces, universities are taking steps to support the educational success of their students. As Robin Zape-tah-hol-ah, a University of Oklahoma professor and citizen of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma, explained in a 2020 contribution to Higher Education Today: “it is our cultural values that guide and motivate Native American students to pursue higher education.”
The Next Step
Cultural centers have been an important step toward creating a more inclusive campus environment. Land acknowledgements, too, have been crucial for beginning to rectify the ways that postsecondary institutions in settler nations have been complicit in the removal of Indigenous people and the erasure of Indigenous cultures. But what many universities are recognizing is that these are only pieces of a larger, complex, and ongoing process. The practice of land acknowledgements has drawn criticism in recent years for its performativity, and, as Brown and others have demonstrated, cultural centers come with their own set of limitations. Creating Indigenous spaces might be seen as the next step—something beyond a land acknowledgement—in decolonizing Western educational institutions (and decolonizing, here, is meant not in the metaphorical sense, but in the very real sense of identifying and seeking to undo the ways postsecondary educational institutions continue to be complicit in colonial harm). By creating spaces to facilitate meaningful connections to culture and community, universities are demonstrating their commitment to prioritizing the educational success of Indigenous students—and doing so on the students’ terms.
Interested in collaborating?
This blog post began simply out of a curiosity about Indigenous campus spaces: who is creating them? what do they look like? and what is the motivation for creating such spaces? As it became clear that this is a growing trend, we decided to create a shareable list with the intention of allowing others to view, and potentially even contribute to, our observations of these spaces. Our goal is to simply provide a foundation for people with shared interests to connect, and perhaps even use this as a starting point for their own work on these spaces.
We invite you to view our findings here. To contribute to the list, email Dr. Tracey Birdwell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Because this blog post discusses university spaces across Canada, the United States, and Australia, I use the term “Indigenous” when broadly referring to people groups who have inhabited the various lands since before colonization. Where relevant, I use regional terms or tribal nation names.
Lydia Nixon is a PhD student in the English department. She specializes in 20th-21st century American literature and ecocriticism, with a minor in Critical Race and Postcolonial Studies.
- Brown, K. (2019). Creating culturally safe learning spaces and indigenizing higher education. Journal of Learning Spaces, 8(2), 57-65.
- Kamakanaaloha Soong, D. Opinion: Native students need their own space at NYU. Washington Square News. https://nyunews.com/opinion/2022/10/14/native-student-space-nyu/
- Zape-tah-hol-ah Minthorn, R. (2020, January 28). Indigenous perspectives on Native student challenges in higher education. Higher Education Today, American Council on Education®. https://www.higheredtoday.org/2020/01/28/indigenous-perspectives-native-student-challenges-higher-education/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.