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Indigenous building of the environment and the resilience of the land: Circumpolar north experiences beyond architecture



This essay questions the widely praised role of 'human genius' in the shaping of 'architecture' as a complete object resulting from the active imposition of ideal form upon the raw materials of a passive Nature and, implicitly, in all other so-called human productive activities. I do so by relying, mainly, on the understanding of 'indigenous' practices of building the environment –particularly those deployed by the Dene people of the Canadian Northwest Territories. The contrasts arising between these different understandings of the human role in the processes of materialization, may help us both, to reorientate the building of the environment far beyond conventional understandings of architecture and, thus, to move with all their social and ecological implications from current practices of 'planning' (and control) to those of 'resilience' (and trust).
Indigenous building of the environment
and the resilience of the land
Circumpolar north experiences beyond architecture
Pedro N. Montero Gosálbez
Dissertation for the Master of Research in Social Anthropology — University of Aberdeen
Course coordinator: Dr. Alison Brown — Supervisor: Prof. Tim Ingold
Minseln-Rheinfelden, 29th of August 2015
This essay questions the widely praised role of ‘human genius’ in the shaping of
‘architecture’ as a complete object resulting from the active imposition of ideal form
upon the raw materials of a passive Nature and, implicitly, in all other so-called human
productive activities. I do so by relying, mainly, on the understanding of ‘indigenous’
practices of building the environment —particularly those deployed by the Dene people
of the Canadian Northwest Territories. The contrasts arising between these different
understandings of the human role in the processes of materialization, may help us both,
to reorientate the building of the environment far beyond conventional understandings
of architecture and, thus, to move with all their social and ecological implications from
current practices of ‘planning’ (and control) to those of ‘resilience’ (and trust).!
The present essay is a minimally edited version (15th of August 2018) of the text that I presented as the Dissertation
for the Master of Research in Social Anthropology that I took at the University of Aberdeen. However, and although I
have revised the text to facilitate the comprehension of my —back then, even more— heavy-handed English, the main
part has undergone minimal changes in order to maintain the previous state of my musings. Substantial additions have
been made, nevertheless, in the PART 3 of the Dissertation —which elaborates on the methodologies and implications
involving the kind of research that I presented here—, to disclose a later version of the Research Proposal that I wrote
for a PhD that I, ultimately, never did. However, since then, I always have some independent research going on.
Should we understand ‘architecture’ and ‘the building of the environment’ primarily as a process
of human design? Should we, then, take for granted all the implications that this understanding
involves with regard to the definition of the human and to how —as humans— we relate to the
environment, remembering the past, living our present and confronting the future? Or could we
try to understand architecture and the building of the environment as processes of continuous
conformation in which flowing materials, human skills and non-human lives unfold together in
an environment? Could this understanding challenge our ways of knowing, making and
perceiving, and lead us to a different future? Would this change of orientation —in learning from
materials, skilled bodies and the land through the processes of design, making and dwelling—
point us towards a ‘post-humanist anthropology of architecture’?
If so, then, ‘architecture’ would no longer be just about architecture. In their unfolding, then,
materials, skilled bodies and the many other processes in the land, overlap along their different
space-time ranges of environmental inscription: from personal acts of making things with
materials and a ‘more-than-human’ constitution of ‘social life’, to cross-generational movements
along the land. All these different movements simultaneously shape the ‘momentum’ of the
present —the vibrant ‘duration’ of reality— and get tied in it. Such ‘momentum’, generated in the
tension between experiences from the past and visions for the future, is bound up in the present
in a continuous education of attention: a process of environmental ‘entente’ and
correspondence . Then, neither in anthropology nor in architecture can ‘knowing’ be understood
as the receipt of transmitted information, ‘making’ as pre-planned action, or ‘perceiving’ as the
passive receipt of external stimuli; rather, knowing, making and perceiving, as different aspects of
I would like to take the opportunity to thank both, the teaching staff and my student colleagues at the Department of
Anthropology, in the University of Aberdeen, for sharing with me a wonderful year that, nevertheless, brought me more
than once to my intellectual, practical and emotional limits. Of course, I want to show my gratitude to Tim Ingold for
his supervision and mentoring, helping me to bring my intellectual wanderings to a next (at least, personal) level; as
well as to my friend Paolo M. Maccagno, who like an older brother shows me, with the steps he makes throughout his
own life, the way to strength my own personal path. But, more than anyone, I can just fervently thank my partner,
Hannah, for sharing and challenging with me not just our time in Aberdeen, but our whole life.
Coming from the French verb entendre (to understand) and been used in English as “an arrangement or
understanding between parties”, I bring forward the notion of entente to evoke a mutual understanding along
corresponding lines of growth. ‘Understanding’, in this sense, is rooted in the dynamics of en-tendre: tend-ing, trend-
ing or stretch-ing.
the same movement, are entangled in an orientation of attention that continually relates, with
different degrees of correspondence, to the variable conditions of the environment.
What kind of future would such change of posture entail?
Drawing on the ‘social life’ of the indigenous people of the circumpolar north —in particular, the
Dene people of the Mackenzie Valley region of the Canadian Northwest Territories— and the
challenges these ways of life entail for our conventional understandings of architecture,
ecological management and the planning of the future, I will contribute to develop a ‘post-
humanist anthropology of architecture’. This, I suggest, would allow us to discern different
degrees of future ‘uncertainty’, helping us to move from the conventional ‘futures of
planning’ (and control) to ‘futures of resilience’ (and trust), with all their many social and
ecological implications.
In their struggle for futures of socio-ecological resilience, the world’s indigenous people —
including the ‘First Nations’ of Canada— ground their hopes of ecological and social re-
generation through attempts to rekindle traditions of ‘learning from the land’ that challenge the
mainstream civilized beliefs in ‘human exceptionality’ and ‘distinction’ from ‘Nature’.
Understanding dwelling as inseparable from the very quotidian practices of social life, my future
research , on one hand, would address current Dene experiences of settlement implementation
and housing, as well as the customization of previous governmental building developments. On
the other hand, I would approach Dene people’s knowledge from the past and their present
revitalization of traditional practices of seasonal migration and camping. Unraveling the complex
constitution of their particular ‘momentum’ of the present will help me to reveal the tensions
between conventional and indigenous understandings and practices of building the
environment; each of which, with its own particular degree of environmental correspondence
and socio-ecological resilience. To this extent, the experiences of these people could help us to
conceive how to shape resilient futures not just for themselves or any other indigenous group,
but for people everywhere.!
When I refer to ‘future research’, it is about the PhD I never did. Although the dissertation was written as a Research
Proposal, ultimately never developed into a PhD, in itself it can be read, now, as a personal declaration of intent.
Since the Renaissance until the present days, it remains conventional to think of ‘architecture’ as
among the major achievements of ‘human genius’. Along the XV and XVI centuries were
published two of the most influential works in the shaping of the nowadays main understandings
of architecture and the figure of the architect. On one hand, in the treatise On the Art of Building
in Ten Books, Leon Battista Alberti presented the architect “as a man of ‘learned intellect and
imagination’, who is able ‘to project whole forms in mind without any recourse to the
material’” (Ingold 2013a: 49; Ingold 2013b: 13). On the other hand, in The Four Books on
Architecture by Andrea Palladio, the most relevant aspects in the text are not just the works
contained in it, but the way they were presented. Devoted with the questions of style, proportion
and construction, as well as illustrated with drawings of ancient buildings and Palladio’s own
designs —most of them, even, built— The Four Books on Architecture came to be seen as the
record of a personal oeuvre and, as such, of a new way of defining architecture” (Habraken 2005:
7) [original emphasis]. Furthermore, although Palladio did not deny the relevance of the place
and the landscape in relation to the architecture, “the buildings themselves are presented as
abstract models divorced from site or context” (ibid.: 10). The isolation of the ‘architectural object’
made travel Palladio’s designs —beyond his own scope— as universal principles of composition,
bringing the genius of the architect at the centre of gravity for every instance of architecture.
Thus, the works of Alberti and Palladio led not just to the professionalization of architecture as a
discipline devoted to the design of buildings as differentiated from, and prior to, their
construction or implementation (Ingold 2013a: 49; Ingold 2013b: 13), but to the understanding of
architecture as “the story of gifted and successful individuals” (Habraken 2005: 7) and their
“exquisite signature objects” (ibid.: 10).
The perception of architecture as an achievement of very few gifted humans capable to project in
a mind isolated from the environment, understands every instance of architecture as a complete
object resulting from the active imposition of ideal form upon the raw materials of the passive
Nature. It is an understanding that builds and rests on claims of ‘human exceptionality’ vis-à-vis
‘Nature’, as well as of ‘civilized superiority’ and ‘class privilege’ vis-à-vis other human cultures
and social groups. Thus, on the backdrop of architecture does not just remain the landscape of
the passive Nature, but as well the ‘ordinary built environment’ of the ‘ordinary people’. On one
hand, the view of the XIX century French architectural theorist Eugène Viollete-le-Duc, that
architecture began “when the problem of the need for shelter was met through the procedures of
rational planning”, marking then “the turning point at which humanity was set upon the road to
culture and civilization” (Ingold 2000: 182), still applies in today’s understanding of the building
of the human environment. On the other hand, between the ordinary built environment and the
outstanding architecture it is said to be a difference in the degree of human reason involvement
or capacity: from “the unself-conscious translation into physical form of a culture, its needs and
values” to “the cleverness of the designer and the good taste of the patron” (Rapoport 1969: 2).
Those perceptions are clearly exposed in the relentless exaltation of ‘Reason’ and the ‘Purpose of
History’ that pervades almost every conventional action and understanding within ‘civilized’
societies. Thus, the Purpose of History is seen as the realization of ‘human freedom’ from the
‘constrains of Nature’ through the means of an increasing ‘rationality’. As Reason is seen as free
from anything but its own internal laws, those at the forefront of the movement towards the
liberation from Nature’s determinism through the means of rational thought, the saying goes,
would be able to become masters of their own destiny and, therefore, masters too of those
ranking below their levels of rationality; including the whole Nature.
Due to this understanding of human achievements in general, and of architecture in particular, as
an intellectual development and release from Nature in the running of History, we are still
building, today more than ever, our ‘objects of architecture’ through the long-term planning of
human in-habitation for the future, the regularization of the practices of construction in the
present, and the top-down historical definition of architecture that claims for the categorization
of the building of the environment according to different degrees of technical development,
complexity and rationality.
Thus, in ‘planning the future’ of human settlements, governments “put their faith not in popular
involvement, but in the vertical and hierarchical organization of large-scale works and
services” (Colin Ward, in Turner 1976: 7). Following the logic of ‘rational planning’ and
‘technological development’ as the means for achieving the best solution to such ‘problem’,
governments “cannot believe that what poor people do for themselves can be right and
proper” (ibid.: 7, 8). Thus, in order to provide adequate housing, large organizations must
standardize procedures and products to operate economically (Turner 1976: 51). However, in the
best case, the proposed and implemented solutions are based on the simplification of human
beings. Therefore, and no matter how well intentioned, those productions “had been notoriously
bad at meeting the needs of anyone in particular” (Hamdi 2010: xiii). In their quest for housing
‘proper human beings’, governments and large-scale organizations mostly provide nothing but
un-economic and socially dysfunctional solutions.
‘Ordering the present’, furthermore, needs a steady standardization of building practices,
materials, knowledge and the environment in order to comply with the construction regulations
that, we are said, ensure a minimum level of standard quality. Materials are tested both in the
laboratory and in situ, to specify the objective properties they have and the proper uses that can
be given to them. The knowledge given in schools of architecture or urban planning, as well as
those codified in technical building codes and administrative regulations, are standardized in all
their dimensions: students, professionals, situations, contexts and users, all are simplified to
facilitate general interventions complying with legal regulations. The environment, too, is tested
for the recognition of its objective properties —and, regularized if necessary—, to ensure the
proper use to withstand the stress to which it will be subjected. However, none of these
specifications is really objective neither can be applied to any situation. Indeed, for any ‘objective’
property specified for each material, there is a ‘relative’ context of experimentation in which,
conventionally, the particularities of the environment are ‘neutralized’ in order to control the
variables of the place, as well as the skills and knowledge of people are ‘homogenized’ in order to
control the variables of their behavior. Thus, if those materials match with what has been
specified in technical manuals it is not because of the ‘objectivity’ of the data, but because of the
‘standardization’ of places and behaviours on the field as it happens in the lab.
To close the circle of the dominant delusions of architecture, in ‘reading the past’ we tend to
classify and value architecture along history according to the degree of economical,
technological, organizational and specialized development but, overall, according to the degree of
rational planning: from the beginnings of rough human shelter to our technological
masterpieces, tells the official story, it seems to be a clear development towards the improvement
of human inhabitation. It is from this perspective that current approaches to human settlement
and housing are defined and conducted, ensuring that the ‘best’ practices come from large
organizations with larger funding, technological, organizational and planning possibilities. But,
such a perspective makes sense just because the current practice and understanding of
architecture is grounded on the belief that, historically, “there must have been an architect for
the monument and then a stratified society with specialized division of labour” (Turnbull 2002:
130). Thus, if “what today seem impressive and coherent achievements, reflecting perhaps the
conception of a single mind, were often the result of accretions over many centuries” (Colin
Renfrew, in Turnbull 2002: 138), the understanding of what an architecture without hierarchies
and long-term planning can be and achieve would change radically. Instead of reading the history
of architecture in ‘negative’ terms by means of what a building lacks —and ranking it from the
outstanding achievements of the genius to ordinary accomplishments, according to the degree of
the planner’s intellect and the power of those societies and groups in charge—, we could
understand architecture according to the way it is performed and the degree of correspondence
with the many social and ecological processes within the environment that the performance
allows. Indeed, taking the interpretation made by Plato about the ‘architect’ as ‘a ruler of
workmen’ (Ingold 2013a: 50) instead of its etymological meaning as ‘master builder’ (archi- [chief]
and tekton [maker]), we can glimpse that the direction ‘dominant’ architecture has developed
through history it might just be a particular way of building: a hierarchical one. On the contrary,
all practices left aside —that is, the collaborative performances of building— could define a
history of the building of the environment according to degrees of social and ecological
correspondence and resilience, that would prevent the conventional understandings of
architecture that pervasively devaluate the many other possibilities of human inhabitation.
If anything underlies, then, the way we have been ‘reading the past’, ‘ordering the present’ and
‘planning the future’ is, on one hand, an unilineal understanding of evolution (classical social
evolution or social evolutionism) that, although considered to be overcome in the academic
arena, still grounds most of our dominant ideas about human habitation and social organization.
On the other hand, there is also an unwitting understanding of knowing as a matter of defining,
explaining and classifying. Thus, in relation to architecture and the building of the environment,
the unilineal understanding of evolution sees the ‘city’ and its ‘political organization’ respectively
as the inexorable destiny of human habitation and the universal category of human public
relationships. In addition, the understanding of knowing as a matter of categorization seeks to
overcome any unpredictability through a project of total legibility. However, nothing could be
further from reality because, first, cities are not inexorable and political organization is no
universally human, but both are just characteristic of a particular form of inhabitation; and,
secondly, legibility does not just reduce our processes of understanding but detaches them from
the continuous changes in reality. Both, the unilineal understanding of evolution and the
legibility project of knowing, are constitutive of a pervasive process that leads humans towards an
increasingly ‘reification’ of reality.
Since its beginnings and until now, anthropology has done little to challenge the conventional
understandings of architecture and the building of the environment, set as a rational process of
human design in which ideal forms shape the matter of nature. Neither has it done too much to
challenge the practices of ‘reification’ immanent to those understandings. Indeed, for a long time,
the anthropological tradition has helped both, understandings and practices to consolidate.
Thus, following the precedent set by the Roman architect and theoretician Vitruvius until the
dawn of the ‘fieldwork’ done by anthropologists, theories of architecture have continued to
revolve around the origins of ‘what makes us human’ and the classification of this ‘humanity’ by
stages of development (Buchli 2013; Ingold 2000; Rykwert 1981). Throughout that time, there
were established the conventional understandings of the relationships between architecture,
Nature and the human body, as well as the belief in universal principles of composition and
construction. Architecture was thought, indeed, as the cornerstone artefact of ‘human gathering’
where the constitutive principles of human sociality were defined against Nature. For its part, the
relationship between architecture and the human body was understood to rely on the related
proportions of body and building —however, not of a particular human body but an ideal one.
Likewise, it was laid the quest for universal principles and laws to avoid any error and lead
humans to the achievement of perfection through the use of rational thought. Any of those
understandings were grounded in an existential ‘dualism’ carried over, at least, from the ideas of
Plato and the hylomorphic model of Aristotle until our days. Furthermore, the comparative use of
architectural typologies helped to build both, the physical and ideological limits of civilization
against the vulgar plebe, the outsider savages and the wild Nature, as well as the moral
legitimation of colonization and legislation.
Ever since the institutionalization of ‘fieldwork’ in anthropology, however, understandings of the
manifold forms of social life have been shaped by the tensions between the theories conjured in
the ‘academia’ and the experiences obtained in the ‘field’. Nevertheless, while we can assume that
the societies studied by anthropologists co-produce the theories of culture and social life that
anthropology formulates (Viveiros de Castro 2013), we must still acknowledge that the theoretical
prejudices that anthropologists take with them into the ‘field’ may largely shape their perceptions
and understandings. Thus, throughout the constitution of the ethnographer’s understanding, it
seems to be a complex relationship between, on one hand, the ‘radical’ experience of the
ethnographer in the ‘field’, that is, the degree of contrast between his ways of perceiving, making
and understanding the world and those of the people he lives with, as well as, on the other hand,
the weight of his preconceptions. Therefore, anthropologists following conventional conceptions
of architecture and primarily focusing on ‘house societies’ (Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995;
Vellinga 2007), set out to explain the relationship of the objects of architecture —in particular, the
‘house’—, with regard to structural features of society or as symbolic projections of the body,
society and the cosmos itself (Buchli 2013; Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995; Rapoport 1969). Thus,
if, on the one hand, the building is understood as the place where the processes of social life take
place and form, on the other, the symbolic embodiment of the building forms it is said to enable
“the communication of social, political, and cosmological relationships through the use of [...]
design features, spatial layouts, and rules of orientation” (Vellinga 2007: 258). This approach,
however, seems to be blind to the quotidian engagements involved in making and implementing
the building of the environment, showing “the difficulty that anthropologists have had in moving
beyond social relationships within houses” (Anderson 2013: 270).!
To go ‘beyond’ the conventional conceptions of architecture and to deeply understand the
building of the human environment, we should not just focus on the human dimensions of
planning, building and managing, but attend to the other many things happening in the
processes of dwelling. To do so, I will draw on ethnographic sources about the ‘social life’ of the
indigenous people of the circumpolar north, in particular, on some traditional building practices
of the Gwich’in and Tłı̨cho
̨ Dene of the Mackenzie Valley region of the Canadian Northwest
Territories. Highlighting their ‘experiential’ and ‘cross-generational’ understanding of knowing, as
well as the ‘other-than-human’ dimensions of their ‘social life’, I will orientate myself through a
path along tangential studies on ‘performativity’ and ‘post-humanism’, in order to achieve a
different way of researching and conceiving the building of the environment in general, and the
Dene ‘habitat’ in particular. The overall objective is, then, to challenge our conventional
understandings of architecture, ecological management and the planning of the future. Thus, in
general, the studies of what are usually called hunter-gatherer societies —among whom we could
include the Dene people— has made anthropologists to “rethink social theory in its
entirely” (Wilson 1988: 25), since the way those people live, deeply challenge our most rooted
civilized conceptions. In addition, and in particular about architecture, the dwelling patterns of
the hunting and fishing societies of the circumpolar north may make them to be seen “as the
anti-thesis of the Lévi-Strauss’ sociétés à maisons [house societies]” (Anderson 2013: 263) [original
emphasis]; even, challenging the definition of architecture itself (ibid.: 264).
Dene, commonly translated as ‘the people’ (Sharp 2001: xv), and used as well to designate ‘a
person’, ‘a human being’ or a ‘a man’ (ibid.: 5), is a term that refers to the indigenous people of
the Northwest Territories of Canada; except for the Inuit and Metis (Heine et al. 2001: 47).
Although the different groups clustered as Dene considerably vary from place to place, even
within each particular group (Sharp 2001: xvi-xviii), Dene people seem to share many
fundamental aspects along their ‘ways of life’. Moreover, one may also venture to suggest that it is
possible to find great similarities in particular practices and understandings among both, many
indigenous people of the circumpolar north (Anderson 2013: 262; Wishart 2013: 1) and some
other hunter-gatherers from around the world (Lye 2008: 26).
To begin with, ‘becoming knowledgeable’ is a main concern for the Dene people, particularly
among the elders (Goulet 1998; Legat 2008 and 2012; Sharp 2001). In all aspects of Dene life
stands out the importance of being knowledgeable and its integration with the many processes of
dwelling with-in the (Legat 2012: 6, 7). ‘Dè’ is commonly translated as ‘land, ground, dirt,
earth’, and understood, by the Dene, as a living entity in a constant flux constituted along the
lives, moves and relationships of all beings dwelling with-in it; including humans (ibid.: 2). The
relationship that this people understand to exist between becoming knowledgeable and the
processes with-in the dè, is highlighted in widely shared statements as: ‘Our knowledge is from
the land’; ‘Our stories are from the land’; and, ‘We are from the land’ (ibid.: 2). Here, the
qualifying nexus ‘from’ that links knowledge, stories and them —the Dene— with the land, is
what makes a difference; what makes knowledge and stories to be ‘from’ instead of ‘about’ the
land, and what makes the Dene to be ‘from’ the land instead of the land being theirs: that is, their
‘property’. Thus, to the Dene, the land is ownerless and the very idea of owning the land “is
intrinsically without meaning in Dene culture” (Sharp 2001: 16). Moreover, although the western
new-age slogan of ‘Mother Earth’ is not something shared by the Dene (ibid.: 2), elders often
speak of the dè as ‘like our parents’; taking care of us and providing us with everything we need
(Legat 2012: 20). And this is, indeed, a feeling that the anthropologist Nurit Bird-David
generalizes for many hunter-gatherer societies, as the understanding of the land as ‘the giving
environment’ (Bird-David 1990).
Thus, the Dene, on one hand, understand knowledge as the most important mean not of
production (Goulet 1998: xxviii) but of making. This distinction is important as, I believe, the
conventional understandings of ‘production’ cannot be applied to this people in particular, nor to
hunter-gatherers in general: they are concerned with processes not of production but of ‘re-
generation’ (Ingold 2000: 147, 148). On the other hand, Dene people consider that ‘true
knowledge’ can only be developed through ‘personal experience’. Thus, according to them, one
can only become knowledgeable through making, as well as the success in making something
relevant is what provides the evidence that the acquired knowledge is true (Goulet 1998: xxix).
The Dene conception of knowledge and learning, states the anthropologist Jean-Guy A. Goulet,
“challenges our Western-based practices of teaching by instruction” (ibid.: xxxi), as well as it
constitutes the ground in which, even contemporary Dene, “operate on the basis of
epistemological and ethical values that are not shared by Euro-Canadians” (ibid.: xxv). The Dene
do not intend to teach, but instead, they expect anyone to ‘learn from participation’ (Sharp 2001:
xix); to learn as they learn: primarily, from personal experience; secondly, by the observation of
humans and other-than-humans who know to do things; and, thirdly, by listening to and sharing
mythical, historical and personal stories (Goulet 1998: xxxiii). Therefore, and contrary to most
western schooling systems “built on the assumption that knowledge can be removed from the
context of its production” (Legat 2012: 30), for many Dene elders “knowledge cannot be removed
from the context of its production because one becomes knowledgeable through action” (ibid.:
30). Thus, the distinction between the acquisition and the application of knowledge is seen, by
the Dene, as meaningless; as well as experience, skill and knowledge cannot be understood as
separate from each other (ibid.: 30).
Many moves
As the Dene consider that all ‘true knowledge’ develops directly from ‘personal
experience’ (Goulet 1998: xxix), this way of learning is regarded both, as the most valid source of
knowledge (Sharp 2001: xxi) and the ground of ‘the Dene way of life’ (Goulet 1998: xxx). Thus, for
example, contrary to the relationship maintained by flying around in planes, been too busy or
going too fast and not paying attention to one’s surroundings, for many Dene people, it is
through walking and accomplishing relevant tasks along the way that one’s personal experience
engages in the right constitution of a place while becoming part of it (Legat 2008: 43-47). As the
anthropologist Allice Legat explains, among the Dene “the wayfarer’s movement should be at
once knowledgeable, task-oriented and attentive to relations with other beings in the
environment through which it passes” (ibid.: 47).
Traditionally, it was along these ways that the Dene made their places and built their hearths:
their cabins and their tents. The continuous construction of log cabins and the current revival of
traditional Dene practices of building the environment still allow us to develop an anthropology
centred on the daily practices of the body and its attuning enskillment to the environment
through the shaping of architecture that, I believe, would bring back the materials and relocate
the body as a centre of gravity whence this architecture emerges. Thus, in building a ‘lodge cabin’
with the Gwich’in of northern Canada, anthropologist Peter Loovers notes how the way they
would work a log is a process of continuous engagement with the materials, tools and landscape
at task; even, of trees growth and ecological stewardship knowledge ‘walked’ through
collaborative generations. Before trees are cut they have to be walked around selectively choosing
those to be cut and those to let grow for next years to come. Furthermore, for the attentive gaze
of an accomplished logger, the place also provides understanding of the way elders work with the
forest and take care for it (Loovers 2010: 255). Once the logs are cut, they are twisted and moved
around in order to ‘imagine’ and consider “which log fits where in relation to the other
logs” (ibid.: 262), and to decide “which sides will be equally squared” (ibid.: 250) to fit together. As
the two sides to fit between logs are decided, these are completely squared while the other two
sides are just trimmed, edges and knots (ibid.: 261). Although, it could be thought that the
imagination involved in the building process is something just figured out as a mental
representation ‘without any recourse to the material’, it is the walking around and working with
the logs what leads the imagination to emerge. Indeed, the right walking pace and distance to the
logs, as well as the degree of precise examination, are guided by the remembered bodily
movements of past performances, just as much as it happens with the actions of trimming edges
and knots or squaring the logs to fit together. No two logs are alike: nor the whole, not in detail;
neither are two movements of examination or cut the same. As Loovers explains, “[t]he way the
tree has grown, with its particular twists and knots, determines which sides will be completely
squared and which sides only partially”, in the same way as “[t]he curves, twists, and knots of the
wood make the axe move and guide it” (ibid.: 261, 262).
In the same vein, in charge of the making, maintenance, setting up and carrying of the lodge,
̨ Dene women of northern Canada, often “would play a significant role in choosing the
camping location” (Andrews 2013: 41). Indeed, the place for settle was of great importance for the
making of a ‘caribou skin tent’. Women used to collaborate in groups to tan and sew many hides
and lodges at once. Either for the tanning done near a lake close to the camp or for the sewing at
a bed rock, the area should allow women enough room to work together and move around.
Furthermore, the large, flat area of sloping bedrock, enabled the women to work with the right
perspective “to ensure that the lodge panels were taking the appropriate semi-circular
shape” (ibid.: 37), while being sewn. The bedrock slope, in addition, “allowed the lodge covering
to drape properly, making it easier to achieve the right shape” (ibid.: 37). From this account, it
seems obvious that the skills deployed along the processes of making tents grew from the
engagement with the features of the place in which these people worked. Indeed, the working
place, the materials at work and the skills involved in this way of building the environment would
have to correspond for the appropriate constitution of the lodge to emerge. As Thomas Andrews
remarks about this kind of experience: “in essence, the land helps give both life and shape to the
lodge” (ibid.: 37).
Contrasting with these accounts and the emphasis Dene people make of becoming
knowledgeable as a process of ‘environmental attunement’ through making, we conventionally
use to think about the process of making as a matter of having an idea in mind and, subsequently,
imposing it upon a supply of raw material; that is, the conformation of nature through a
conceptual representation (Ingold 2013: 20). In doing so, when we enter the process of making,
the body seems to be conceived just as an instrument of a disembodied intelligence (Ingold 2011:
57). As the agent at making uses a tool, he uses his body, too. Thus, once we have already devised
the process of making, we would think we have just to follow the sequence step-by-step to
accomplish the task. The outcome, then, would be better as the steps of production fit with more
exactitude the pre-established plan of action. For this understanding, body and materials stay
forever at the periphery and at the service of a planning mind. However, no field of work is so
neutral, no material so homogeneous and no sequence of bodily movements so exactly
reproduced as to ideally fit any pre-definitions without improvisation. Contrary, then, to this
common view that expresses both, the independence of material properties and body skills, as
well as the active role of the mind and the passive submission to it of the materials around, we
have seen that in the processes of making a ‘lodge cabin’ or a ‘caribou skin tent’, the suitable
properties and appropriate forms of materials emerge in the engagement of the place, the
personal enskillments and the particular animals or trees from which the different elements at
work come from. This posture in which both, the properties of things are not fixed but relational
and the form is not imposed from outside but generated in the ‘field of force’ comprised by the
but grown into one self through a process of rediscovering guided by the correlation with the
materials and people with which we work and walk, as well as the field of forces of previous
generations in the land. Then, through the experience of building a lodge cabin, while the
accomplished builder twists the logs and moves around to properly appreciate which log fits
where (Loovers 2010: 262), apprentices move with him, orienting their attention towards what the
expert looks at and to what his comments underlay. While working on the cabin, those who know
continually refer back to previous construction experiences (ibid.: 250), guiding their
understanding of the process of building, as well as through it. Likewise, in the making of a
caribou skin tent, the women often work in groups allowing not just the right engagement of
skills and materials but the collaboration and correspondence of the many skilled women at work
(Andrews 2013: 37). As the skilled practitioners carry out their tasks, young apprentices watch and
listen, waiting for later to “use their own hands to improvise on what they have been
taught” (ibid.: 49). Moreover, as Andrews explains about a particular project of Tłı̨cho
̨ Dene
cultural rekindling, elders emphasize the importance of telling stories to broaden the context of
the work realized during the day (ibid.: 50).
In addition, contrary to the widespread understanding of the building as a project to be finished,
the homes of the indigenous people of the circumpolar north “never seem to be
complete” (Wishart 2013: 10). Continually adding and removing parts of their cabins (ibid.: 10),
building a home is a process ‘enmeshed’ with the many activities of daily life (ibid.: 2).
Furthermore, the continuity of the process of building, shown for a cabin, is even more obvious
in the life-cycle of a tent. In the open-ended maintenance, implementation, dismantling, carrying
and rebuilding of a circumpolar indigenous tent, many things, people and stories get entangled
along the particular ways walked through the process. However, what for the foreigner
understanding could be perceived as an ephemeral construction, for indigenous people “are not
temporary but a ‘permanent’ form of houses, and the normal way of dwelling” (Bird-David 2009:
205). As Ingold beautifully contrasts in his examination of the ‘conical lodge’:
“Whereas the monument was built, once and for all, the lodge is always
building and rebuilding. Thus for the inhabitant of the worlding world, it is the
architectural monument that seems ephemeral, buried in the sands of time
while life goes on. As writing eventually fades, so also —in time— the
monument, though designed to last in perpetuity, cracks and crumbles. The
lodge, however, persists in a constant process of renewal, just as do the
narratives that inhabitants tell in it.”
(Ingold 2013b: 28)
But, as we have seen, the indigenous homes of the circumpolar north do not just shelter the
stories neither persist ‘just as narratives’ do. Stories themselves, are engaged in their very
processes of re-generation. As Legat describes, “returning to the camp, individuals sit near the
fire, relaxing while eating a meal and sharing their observations. The oldest elders listen intently,
connecting the daily happenings to occurrences in the past through oral narratives” (Legat 2012:
70). Thereafter, elders would recount the significant correlations between past and present. Thus,
as movements of persons get tied at the end of the day near the fire, the stories begin to ‘walk’,
interweaving the daily happenings, as they are told, along the ‘paths of resonance’ that make oral
stories from the past to be remembered. Furthermore, the stories coming from the past and
telling of a particular place, “are continually expanding and include new experiences that provide
new relations while reestablishing relations with the past” (ibid.: 22). These stories, then, did and
do not just focus on a bounded location, but the place —as a mesh— unravels along the many
paths people experience through their daily tasks and seasonal movements, as well as along the
stories remembered. Thus, although those who walk the land are ‘perceptually’ and ‘materially’
engaged within the changing country that reveals along their paths, and however faint or
ephemeral their traces on the land and water are, “these trails remain etched in the memories of
those who follow them” (Ingold 2007: 76). As the anthropologist Lye Tuck-Po states about the
Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia, walking experience becomes integrated into the collective
memory not just along personal experience but through ‘topographic gossip’, where “[p]aths are
social phenomena […] remembered in relation to social events” (Lye 2008: 25, 26). Thus, the past
of the stories does not fade away as they walk. On the contrary, “memory of the past becomes part
of present knowledge through action and experience with others” (Legat 2012: 14). Thus, the
‘truth’ of the past is only achieved through personal experience, rather than through the story
itself (ibid.: 33). Stories from the past, then, are not truth but carry within themselves the
potentiality for personal validation. However, I believe, the important issue is not about the actual
possibilities of a story of being ‘truth’ but the ‘orientation of attention’ to past, present and future
experiences that the potential truth involves, understanding that while redefining the ‘truth’
through personal involvement with-in one’s habitat, the constitutive relationships are, as well, re-
generated. Thus, experience is not the passive perception of what takes place out there in front of
us, but our actively involvement (action-perception) within the many processes in the land.
The oral narratives, in other words, are the remembered tracks of a particular way of dwelling; of
moving; of being in the world. The Dene people —as well as so-called hunter-gatherers in
general— have been, and partially remain to be, continually on the move. One could say, as
Ingold expresses, that they are their movements (2007: 76). Woven into the very texture of the
land in a continuous process of mutual regeneration “are the lines of growth and movement of its
inhabitants. Every such line is tantamount to a way of life” (ibid.: 79, 80). However, this
enmeshment with-in the land challenges our most rooted perceptions and preconceptions about
what it means to be related to the land. Always on the move, either from camp to foraging places
and back again; from camp to camp as the people change locations through the territory
following animal movements and the weather; or even shifting sleeping places within each
particular camp, hunter-gatherers have been conventionally categorized as ‘nomadic’ people in
contrast with ‘settled’ farmers or industrialized societies. However, either in regard to a personal
or a cross-generational range of movement, for hunter and gatherer people, in general, the most
important thing about walking seems to be not ‘where one goes’ but ‘where one can return’ (Lye
2008: 26). Thus, hunter-gatherer movement is not of transit ‘across’ the land but of socio-
ecological re-generation with-in it. In contrast, the agricultural form of settlement “depends
upon, and gives rise to, the most pervasive form of nomadism” (Brody 2000: 84); so do, too, the
pastoralist and industrial forms of organization. The fact, then, is that “hunting people are far
more firmly settled” (ibid.: 7), while pastoralist, agriculturalist and industrial moves are mainly of
migration and colonization. The biggest difference among one and the others is that while
pastoralist nomads, as well as agriculturalist and industrialized settlers are primarily
correspondent with the anthropogenic processes of their environments, hunter-gatherers
entangle with the many other-than-human entities that roam ‘along’ the land. I do not mean that
the former groups do not relate with and rely on other-than-human things, but that the latter let
those other-than-human entities in the environment to express themselves along their own paths,
with their own rhythms and, even more important, through the constitution of their own
‘personalities’. While both contrasting ways of inhabiting the land inexorably weave along the
‘braid of social life’, on the one hand, human beings seek to ‘control’ a world furnished with
‘objects’, while on the other, they look to ‘correspond’ and re-generate within a world full of both,
human and other-than-human ‘persons’ that they respect and trust. Then, a deep entanglement
with-in the land seems to occur, as in those particular places around the north, where the
‘guiding knowledge’ weaved in storytelling through many generations unfolds together with
personal experiences in a deep correspondence with the many processes of the ‘habitat’. Thus,
the cross-generational way of dwelling and building the environment of those circumpolar north
indigenous people should not be understood as a matter of building artefacts in the landscape,
but as the re-generational movement that allows people and the land to be resilient and
Many things
As I have already shown, along the process of building among the Dene, the different materials
that take part in it have an active role in the development not just of people’s skills but in the
actual definition of their own relational properties. Materials, then, have their own stories just as
we —human beings— have ours. However, we should not remain within the confines of a
conventional construction set in which materials enter the processes of preconceived
transformation for their proper work at the building. Neither should we be drawn from Cradle to
Cradle . From both perspectives, the histories of materials are, at best, the steps of each property’s
transformation fitting the industrialized understandings of sustainability. Their history would be
as the one Friedrich Engels thought for animals: a history that “is made for them, and in so far as
they themselves take part in it, this occurs without their knowledge and desire” (Friedrich Engels,
in Ingold 2011: 6). This narrative lets human beings with the only creative powers of the world,
and the building of the environment, again, as primarily a product of human intellect. Then,
change would just happen as the mechanical drift of the passive entities that furnish Nature, or
by the active rearrangement of Nature by the human intellect. The potential areas for an active
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Thinks, by the architect William McDonough and the chemist Michael
Braungart, is the tittle of a book about design and production focused on minimizing waste.
‘social life’ would be, then, conventionally defined by the powers of Reason. Furthermore, ‘social
life’ would be confined into the limits of human ‘solipsism’ or, at best, in the limits of each
individual species —as sociobiology states— whose members share the same level of cognitive
capabilities and, therefore, a possibility of real communication. But, the problem of this
definition of sociality is to identify ‘reason’ with ‘understanding’, misleading that ‘rational
thought’ is just but a particular kind of ‘understanding’ emerging from particular western bodily
practices of engagement. As such, in fact, every way of engagement involves a particular mode of
understanding neither superior nor inferior; not comparing between humans, nor between
humans and other-than-humans. Thus, what has been conventionally called ‘rational thought’,
and used for cultural and inter-species comparison and classification, is just but a particular way
of understanding developed through a particular human bodily practice and throughout a
particular moment of history. The principal problem with this ‘rationalism’ is that trying to
understand its own ‘nature’, it totally obviates its bodily and relational processes of emergence,
creating the fiction of a ‘Pure Reason’. Once we are liberated from the constrains of Pure Reason
as an understanding determined in advance to its participation in the world, we may, then,
appreciate that communication and social life happen not just between those with similar
cognitive powers of understanding but along the particular ways of practical involvement in an
environment and the things we engage with. Thus, social life is not anymore defined by the
cognitive properties of an abstract mind but along the way things grow ‘together’. As other-than-
human entities contribute “not just to their own growth and development but also to that of
human beings” (Ingold 2011: 8), human social life cannot be seen as happening apart from the
rest of nature but interwoven along with what is going on throughout our particular habitats of
activity. It is in the continuous process of more-than-human social life, “wherein living beings of
all kinds, in what they do, constitute each other’s conditions of existence, both for their own and
for subsequent generations” (ibid.: 8). Similarly, for the Ojibwa people of Canada, Irving
Hallowell pointed that daily interactions with non-human entities rendered as ‘animate’, are
intelligible only “on the assumption that they possess some of the attributes of ‘persons’” (2010:
550). Human social life happens, then, along our relationships with all the entities we engage
along life and, therefore, is not just human. “Humans”, the historian and social activist Calvin
Luther Martin expresses, “learned their human powers and abilities from these other-than-human
beings […] Hunting, fishing, shellfishing, plant gathering, tool making, house building, the
making of clothing and adornment, feasting —all were part of that conversation. Not merely a
human soliloquy” (1993: 18) [original emphasis]. For hunting and gathering people, in general,
inter-species communication is possible by learning the ‘languages’ other-than-human beings
speak . Furthermore, the possibility of communication is not just understood in terms of current
engagements but as one of ‘ancient kinship’, too: of cross-generational entanglements with those
other beings.
Contrary, then, to the conventional understanding of hunter-gatherer people as engaged in a
‘minimal sociology’ (Wilson 1988: 23), as well as in an ‘immediate’ way of living, in general the
entanglement of these people with-in the land is only understandable as the lasting involvement
with the many things they live and grow with for generations. Thus, for the Dene, significant
components of their lives include human as well as other-than-human beings (Legat 2008: 36).
They are taught to think about all that dwells with-in the land when walking, making and
observing (ibid.: 39). Acknowledging that “humans can only know a little and are constantly
learning” (ibid.: 39), Dene are encouraged to be aware and maintain the engagement with-in the
processes constituting the land, avoiding to move too fast to disconnect from it. This kind of
relationship “creates flexible people who carefully consider situations as they draw on all they
have learned while acknowledging that there is much more to know” (ibid.: 39). Thus, in
particular to the building of the environment, to decide where and when people should go and
camp, or which beings are going to ‘give themselves’ in a precise moment of the year to furnish
human beings with the materials with which to build a hearth for shelter, is not something that
just happens on the spot or immediately. As the Tłı̨cho
̨ Dene travel in summer, islands adjacent to
eskers are preferred for camps. Being swept by the wind, they can avoid the bothersome flying
insects. At the near eskers, human tracks entangle with those of caribou and grizzlies, where they
stay saved, too, from mosquitoes and black flies (Andrews 2013: 41; Legat 2012: 69-70). Thus, the
sweeping winds, the flying insects, the movements of caribou and grizzlies as well as their
behavior, get engaged in a ‘braid’ from which the proper places for seasonal human habitation
emerge. In winter, conversely, the thick copses of trees were the ones protecting the lodges from
In the 2011 GAD Distinguished Lecture, anthropologist Richard B. Lee recounts a hunting experience with the
Ju/’hoansi of northern Botswana in which inter-species communication between these people and other-than-human
animals is rendered, by the Ju/’hoansi themselves, as much easier than with English speakers.
the wind. In addition, while working on a tent, the materials engaged had to be understood
through their own history of growth and regeneration before coming together as a tent. Thus, as
Andrews relates,Autumn hides were regarded as the best —from late August to early October—
because they are thicker and the numerous holes created by warble fly larvae exiting from under
the skin on the caribou’s back in earl summer were healed over” (2013: 37). The seasonality of the
weather, the warble larvae summer ‘pupate’ and the healing of the caribou winter coating,
continuously engage their different rhythms of growth and patterns of movement together with
the correspondent knowledge of Tłı̨cho
̨ Dene people for the proper emergence and regeneration
of the lodge. In addition, the meat of the October’s rutting caribou have such a strong taste that
women dry this meat just for dog food (ibid.: 37). Thus, the practices of making a lodge get
entangled with the lives of those dogs closely living with the Dene, then, unfolding together with
the practices observed for ‘animal respect’, the desired quality of autumn hides, the caribou rut
seasonality and the food savings for dogs during the winter. In those places and among those
human beings, it enmeshes a complex and deep social life in which not just plants and animals
but many other significant entities in the habitat —as could be a particular river or the wind
(Brown 2014: 45, 46)— are perceived with their own ‘personality’. So much so that, contrary to
current practices of architecture and urban planning where ideal designs are imposed upon a
surface already ‘neutralized’ by ‘standardization’, for those indigenous people and, in particular,
for the Dene community and their understanding of the ‘dè’:
“There are no empty spaces. All spaces are used by something: fox, fish, trees,
humans, wind, northern lights. It might look empty, but all the dè is used.”
(Phillip Zoe, in Legat 2012: 96)
Thus, as the land is full with things —many of whom could become persons—, paying attention,
showing respect and knowing the ways of other beings, are vital skills that circumpolar north
indigenous people have to master in order to survive and prosper. Among them, ‘hunting’ is
conceived not as a matter of ‘killing’ animals but as a ‘rite of regeneration’ (Ingold 2000: 67). In
other words, killing an animal is just but one particular movement in the re-productive cycle of
animal and human relationships. If animals have to return, then, every movement along the cycle
of re-generation has to be regarded —by humans— as important as the very act of killing. The
harmony of the cycle is maintained, therefore, by showing ‘gratitude’ and ‘respect’ toward the
animals, as well as using them when needed and without waste. “This means”, Ingold explains,
“treating the country, and the animals and plants that dwell in it, with due consideration and
respect, doing all one can to minimize damage and disturbance” (ibid.: 67). But more than taking
care of the land, the important matter to understand is that as long as a ‘balance’ —a sense of
proportion— is maintained (Hallowell 2010: 561), that is, as long as human beings refrain from
‘overexploitation’ and show respect to any other ‘path’ of life, it is the land who conserves us
humans— and not humans who conserve the land (Martin 1993: 20). This posture is one of ‘trust’,
continually unfolding from the ‘attention’ to and ‘respect’ for the pace of life of others as we walk
together the pleni-potential ‘momentum’ of the present. In building the many relationships in
the environment through this particular understanding, there are no ‘goals’ to be achieved but
continuous processes of engagement and regeneration, in which things are neither determined
nor complete but become their histories of correspondence. Could we, from here, understand the
potentialities of the building of the environment not just as a matter of human ‘construction’ but
of socio-ecological ‘resilience’ and ‘correspondence’ with-in the land?
This understanding would lead the building of the environment ‘beyond architecture’, providing
an initial outline for a ‘post-humanist anthropology of architecture’ in which the entangled
unfolding of materials, people and the land, lead the processes of building the environment to
emerge as a particular nexus of correspondence. But, then, how do differ the indigenous
experiences of building the environment from the pervasive mainstream practices of
bureaucratic civilizations, in regard to their respective relationships to the land? Could those
different ways of knowing, making and perceiving the building of the environment and the land
lead to divergent degrees of correspondence with-in the processes of the habitat? Are not those
different orientations of attention what actually constitutes the world we all inhabit and, thus, the
present events and the future we all confront?
Too many houses for this place…
By the 1920s, the continued presence of free traders and missionaries at some places around the
Mackenzie Valley of northwest Canada, seasonally drew many Dene people to those locations,
where small villages began to grow (Sharp 2001: 8). In order to explain the Dene gathering
around traders and missionaries beyond the commonplace explanation of indigenous people’s
need or the depiction of summer as a boring period of time for the Dene waiting the caribou
migration that begins with the first snows of fall (ibid.: 8), we could understand “the lure of
European trade goods to aboriginals around the world [as] an aesthetic and spiritual
communication, with the place itself and with the bearers of these novel tidings” (Martin 1993:
12). In fact, deprived of all practical use and transformed as adornments by these hunting and
gathering people, the incorporation of trade goods was not a matter of ‘need’, but “tantamount to
speaking an alien tongue” (ibid.: 12) and, thus, the best way to communicate with and understand
the newcomers.
At the beginning, colonial contact with the Dene through missionaries and traders was “slow and
not traumatic” (Legat 2012: 105). On one hand, however, problems increased with the
establishment of Catholic institutions, drawing out the Dene children from their communities to
residential schools and, thus, preventing them to learn through oral narratives (ibid.: 105). On the
other hand, and although historical literature has commonly stated that ‘trade’ interfered and
disrupted Dene hunting and gathering lives, oral narratives tell that the Dene have continued
their foraging activities, considering “the task of trapping as an extension of the kinds of tasks
they have always done” (ibid.: 105, 106). The difference was that while ‘white’ trappers were
willing to register trap lines under their names at fixed places, indigenous trapping did not
understand the sense and benefits of ‘private property’, as animals roam free along migration
paths without knowing about any legal ‘border’. The Dene trappers, thus, just followed the
animal movements along the land.
For their part, traders did not try to control or protect the Dene. Indeed, trading companies saw
indigenous ‘life in the bush’ as the best way to procure them with furs to be traded (Legat 2012:
108). On the contrary, however, Canadian government policy was designed to restrict Dene
movement in order “to control and extract resources from First Nations’ traditional
territories” (ibid.: 108). Whether moved or not into reservations to resettle them, the fact is that
every Dene group was progressively alienated from the dè as, even, their ‘land rights’ —
nevertheless, imposed upon them by colonial powers— were steadily dwindling. As Legat clearly
exposes, legislation “was justified as necessary to protect and restrain Canada’s First Nations: to
protect them from settlers and developers and ironically to restrain them from destroying the last
frontier” (ibid.: 108). In any case, and despite any paternalistic good intentions of looking after
the welfare of the indigenous people all around the world, as well as of promoting their
assimilation into mainstream societies and their developments (Goulet 1998: xix), both, the
dramatic settling of hunter-gatherer groups into villages (Gomes 2007: 64) and the apparently
innocuous fact of restricting their movements along the land, have been serving no other higher
purpose than the liberation (read ‘clearance’) of the land and its resources for the interests and
plans of exploitation by the dominant populations.
In this circumpolar land, useless for farming, it was not until the 1930s that mineral enterprises
began to produce more benefits than the fur trade (Legat 2012: 109), ultimately attracting the
attention of governmental plans for development. However, it was not until after the World War II
that two main dynamics concur for the radical transformation of Dene life. On the one hand, the
Canadian Government definitely increased its presence in the north to pursue mineral resources
—in particular uranium— deemed as fundamental for the national safety and development (ibid.:
109). On the other hand, the crash of the caribou herds, largely influenced by the
overexploitation of the many ‘white’ trappers that moved into the north and the ‘white’ poisoners
that sought to decimate the wolf population, distorted the fluctuant but resilient relationships
between human, wolf and caribou, driving the Dene into villages in order to avoid starvation
(Sharp 2001: 7). Thus, although Dene people have always been attuned to the periodic
fluctuations of caribou herds’ population, at that time the behavioral consequences were
different. On one hand, the ecological distortion was much deeper than in previous times, taken
until the 1990s to start recovering. On the other hand, the Dene had, in the governmental new
investments, an alternative set of resources to relieve their critical situation (ibid.: 7). Thus,
deprived of caribou, the Dene turned to the resources offered by ‘white’ Canada, staying in the
villages for longer and longer periods of time (ibid.: 9). Nevertheless, far away from the common
perception that colonial settlers and governments had of this indigenous attitude as begging and
mendicant, Dene understanding of the situation (and probably of any other hunter-gatherer
people) was quite different. From the indigenous believe of official treaties as establishing a
kinship-like alliance with white’s governments (Goulet 1998: xix), to the usual declaration by
whites to be indigenous friends, those people the world over have considered Europeans and
other colonizing powers “under obligation to furnish them with food, clothing, and hardware
quite simply because whites possess these items in seemingly unlimited quantity” (Martin 1993:
47). As Martin remembers us:
“Friends, by definition, shared wealth —an aboriginal principle few whites
grasped, and, among those few, very rarely embraced with enthusiasm.
(Martin 1993: 47, 48)
But, even when Dene people began to settle into villages around the north in search of colonial
help, they did so “on their own terms and through their own efforts” (Sharp 2001: 11). Thus,
although they built small log cabins easily crowded, the Dene could place their homes wherever
they chose; preferably close to those of their kin (ibid.: 11). However, with the major
governmental infrastructure investments for resource exploitation in the 1960s and the
impossibility of carrying on a full subsistence life from the ‘bush’, Dene communities began
asking colonial institutions for English educational facilities and better job opportunities, as well
as for better living conditions in general (Goulet 1998: xxi, xxii). Thus, in the mid-1960s
governmental health, housing and schooling programs began to be developed (Goulet 1998: xxii;
Legat 2012: 109; Sharp 2001: 11, 12). Nevertheless, what public investment primarily brought was
a logic of ‘planning’, in order to deliver efficient public services (Sharp 2001: 11). On one hand,
schools, sanitary facilities and, even, new communities, were placed wherever western technical
logic deemed as more appropriate (Goulet 1998: xxi; Legat 2012: 115), despite any Dene opinion
and will. On the other hand, town planning was based on Canadian suburban grid systems, just
as “houses were prefabricated frame constructions that followed a standard design used
throughout western Canada” (Sharp 2001: 11, 12) and, therefore, quite non-functional for most
northern latitudes. Thus, although Dene people sought those new houses because of their greater
space and prestige, the fact that the location and adjudication of the new houses was, at first,
determined by the town plan, led to the distortion of the social arrangements in the settlements.
As the anthropologist Henry S. Sharp explains, “[i]t was not until the Dene themselves gained
control of the administration of the housing program and began to build the houses where
people wanted them that the problem vanished” (ibid.: 12).
Nevertheless, and although, first, settlement life have brought the Dene “more material
possessions than at any previous time in their history” (Sharp 2001: 15) (whether, beyond a
productivist way of life, that is a valid measure of anything, it is another issue); secondly, the
problems of housing supply have been nowadays mainly overcome as the Dene population
growth have been slower than governmental construction (ibid.: 19); and, third, housing
administration is finally managed by the own Dene institutions, I believe that a much deeper
problem remains mainly unnoticed and unattended. That is, from the population crowding and
permanence into villages that leads to the over-exploitation and contamination of the local
resources (ibid.: 16-18); the continuous spreading of settlements that prevents trapping as
distance grows and free time declines; the actual detachment between settlements and animal
migration routes that makes hunting a matter of flying from one spot to another (ibid.: 2); and the
lack of knowledge and skills to live from the land of those first generations reaching maturity for
whom life in the village has been the only experience they have (ibid.: 15); to, finally, the
prefabricate building materials that come from far south: settling permanently and the industrial
processes of building the environment seem to deeply affect the processes of walking the land,
becoming knowledgeable and the re-generation of the relations with-in the land, involved in the
continuous balancing needed to maintain a long-lasting socio-ecological resilience.
… Or, too many paths not walked again?
Most anthropologists would argue that if an indigenous language is lost or eradicated the
knowledge of the land carried in that language is lost with it. If so, then, does it also mean that
when the practices and skills of ‘learning from the land’ —such as in walking, hunting, building
and dwelling— are forgotten, the knowledge of the land is also lost? Or is it our ‘place in the
world’ that is lost? Such questions lead us to think of the shaping of the environment as neither
an ‘epistemological’ problem nor an ‘ontological’ one. It reappears, rather, as a problem of
‘ontogenesis’. Architecture —if it can still be called like that—, then, could be much better
understood as an inscription from our personal and cross-generational ways of ‘walking the land’
and finding ‘something’ in the way. Just as it happens with other aspects of the material culture
among these circumpolar people —for example, when most clothing is imported from the
industrialized south (Brown 2014: 79)—, as the patterns of supply and the processes of
materialization change in the building of the environment, many paths are no longer walked, less
stories are remembered, many ‘truths’ from the past are no longer experienced and, thus, less
relationships with-in the land are attuned and correspond, preventing their continuous re-
generation and resilience. Therefore, I believe, the different ways of ‘walking the land’ —that is,
moving ‘across’ or ‘along’ the land— while making architecture are what lead us move between
different degrees of socio-ecological correspondence and resilience, from these involved in
building and ‘controlling the land’ to those, on the contrary, ‘allowing the land to teach
us’ (Joanne Barnaby, in Legat 2012: 2).
A ‘post-humanist anthropology of architecture’, I suggest, would allow us to discern different
degrees of future ‘uncertainty’, helping us to move from the conventional ‘futures of
planning’ (and control) to ‘futures of resilience’ (and trust); with all their many social and
ecological implications. This shift of posture would help us to understand how to shape futures
of resilience not just for the indigenous people around the world but for people everywhere.
Because, if we all are inexorably enmeshed in the continuous re-generation of the braid of life,
then, we all are in a way ‘indi-genous’ —that is, ‘in-the-genesis’ of reality— and, therefore, in
position to play a part in the constitution of a better world.
From this, my key question follows: how does ‘learning from the land’ through the building of the
environment affect the way we understand and confront the future?
To answer this question, I will carry out field research among the Dene people in the Canadian
Northwest Territories (NWT), where I can take advantage of the fact that, today, in those
communities, many different ways of building the environment are proceeding concurrently,
calling for a comparative study.
Thus, through formal practices of architecture, (1) I will work with Dene chiefs to address the
housing issues related to indigenous well-being and the increasing environmental disturbances
associated by local people to climate change. In this sense, settlement life along the Mackenzie
River has been recently disrupted by occasional floods, putting at risk people’s houses and
institutional buildings. In need of housing and urban solutions, local communities are willing to
launch participative processes of planning and building, addressing the importance of their
indigenous understandings from the land. Through this process, I will have the opportunity to
work as a ‘consultant architect’, collaborating in the community design’s conception and building
activities. For the development of the projects, I would follow quotidian paths of personal
experience enmeshed with traditional stories, as well as the many human and other-than-human
processes in the land that overlap their different space-time ranges of environmental inscription,
in order to shape a critical understanding of a more-than-human participation and its
potentialities for design. To complement the formal dimension of building the environment, (2) I
will work, too, in an office of architecture in Yellowknife (capital of the Northwest Territories) to
explore institutionalized processes of architectural delivery and conventional conceptions
relating space and health.
Through informal practices of building, in addition, while living in different settlements along
the Mackenzie River and engaging the local people, I will both, (3) focus on the indigenous
customization of governmental housing, and (4) research the everyday informal practices,
activities and movements deployed by Dene people in the building of the environment and the
frictions they engender in an increasingly bureaucratized context. By doing so, I will have the
opportunity to understand the relationships between conventional government practices of
housing and planning and the indigenous ways of experiencing them. To this effect, I will focus
on the different indigenous degrees of housing customization, distinguishing between the
institutional obstacles for personal appropriation and identification, the distortions those
buildings induce in indigenous ways of understanding and dwelling the land, as well as the
improvements these buildings have brought to indigenous lives. To enhance the informal
understanding of building, (5) I will also participate in the making activities of ‘bush-camps’,
which aim to rekindle traditions by learning from the land. In this regard, the Dechinta Centre
for Research and Learning, situated on Akaitcho territory east of Yellowknife, is a northern-led
initiative delivering land-based, university-credited educational experiences, led by northern
leaders, experts, elders and educators that aims to engage both northern and southern youth in
transformative curricula based on the present needs of Canada’s North. As with similar ‘First
Nations’ educational initiatives in other parts of Canada, the focus is on searching for a resilient
future by ‘learning from the land’ while living in the land as a community. With this concern for
the rekindling of tradition, headed by community elders and based in ways of teaching, knowing
and making oriented in a ‘more-than-human’ understanding of the land, Dechinta provides an
ideal context for reaching a deeper understanding of architecture and the building of the
environment as an unfolding inscription with-in the land and its implications for the future. In
this regard, and throughout each one of the multiple lines of research enumerated, particular
attention will be paid to indigenous understandings of well-being and their relationships with
the building of the environment and climate change.
To this end, and although acknowledging ‘participant observation’ as a fundamental tool for
anthropology, I would like to go further, on one hand, by undertaking research through the
collaborative processes of planning and building with the Dene community and, on the other
hand, by following the ‘participatory action research’ (PAR) method wherein social scientists
participate with community members to both, understand an issue through research and support
the community in its effort to find a solution and to take action (Legat 2012). Drawing on
collaborative tools of anthropology (Schwarz and Lederman 2011) and architecture (Hamdi 2010),
along with Dene practices of dwelling and building, participative research would be a way of
understanding through making that enhances collective correspondence and well-being. This
will allow both, to develop a critical understanding of ‘participation’ in its fullest extent —from
‘consultation’ to ‘collaboration’—, thus, taking seriously not just western perceptions of people’s
circumstances or indigenous world-views but Dene ways of living, as well as to analyze the
relation between the particular ways and degrees with which conventional contractors,
experienced builders and inhabitants participate in the building of the environment and the
different degrees of socio-ecological resilience developing along the processes.
To conduct the research through collaborative processes of designing and building, as well as
following PAR methods, at the different settlements where I will stay along the Mackenzie River,
in particular, (1) I will help community leaders and local administrators to develop and
coordinate the conceiving and constructing sessions of settlement projects. These meetings
would consist on both, cross-generational workshops for deliberation, consultation and
collaborative activities of drawing, modelling and building, as well as, traditional experiences of
dwelling that would allow us to engage with both, the many other-than-human beings in the
environment and the indigenous understanding of living and ‘learning from the land’.
Furthermore, to understand, on one hand, (3) the processes of personal appropriation of and
identification with conventional houses provided by the government and, on the other hand, (4)
the frictions between the different Dene ways of living and the increasingly bureaucratized
building of the environment, I will conduct formal and informal interviews collecting relevant
stories, as well as helping the local people with their own current housing transformations. As
developed by the anthropologist and architect Trevor H. J. Marchand among the masons of
Djenné, in Mali (Africa), I will try to highlight “the decision-making process, improvisations, and
problem-solving strategies at each stage, as well as the subtle innovations introduced and
creatively negotiated” (Marchand 2009: 24). Thus, the quotidian involvement and practice among
the community would allow me to record the social relationships between the many stakeholder
groups at play through the processes of research, design and building as well as to examine the
interface between local building traditions and foreign interventions (ibid.: 25). At Dechinta, in
particular, (5) I will help community educators to prepare and develop classes and workshops.
This would entail not just a conventional way of learning but also of ‘telling stories’ and ‘walking
the land’. In addition, I will be involved in the collaborative processes of building structures,
developing my skills and orienting my attention through practice. With and apprentice-style
method, I hope to gain firsthand experience of indigenous processes of construction and their
conditions of emergence (ibid.: 8). Thus, from attentive walking with local people to interviews,
oral testimonies, group discussions and story-telling; from the description of seasonal calendars
and daily routines to the drawing and modelling of participatory design and stakeholders’ role
play; from collective writing to the attentive building of the environment with an emphasis on
personal practice in the constitution of well-being and the process of becoming knowledgeable; I
will engage with the ‘more-than-human’ understanding of participation in the regeneration of
the land and people’s well-being particular to the Dene.
Therefore, I believe that all these different participative experiences, along the Mackenzie River
settlements and the Dechinta Centre, can lead me to better understand not just of the knowledge
of the people at work, but more generally of processes of engagement along with materials,
people and the land. That would lead to a deeper insight into the relation between building
activity, social life (Marchand 2009: 24) and the ecology of the environment, in the hope to re-
generate ‘the resilience of the land’. In this regard, my research aligns with the objectives of the
project ‘Knowing From the Inside: Anthropology, Art, Architecture and Design (ERC-funded,
2013-18), based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, to which I will
be affiliated. It will also come under the aegis of the University’s interdisciplinary research theme
on ‘The North’.
In any case, to acknowledge the transformational powers of mutual understanding through
collaborative practice means that on entering the community with which I will carry out my
research, the interests, foci and methodologies described above would partially change.
In the course of my fieldwork, I will mainly focus my research on three different projects, each of
them in need of different approaches and therefore particular ethical considerations. In any case,
each of them will be, in some degree, encompassed within the practices of participant
observation, participatory action research or collaborative anthropology involved in the processes
of designing and building together with the community.
For the projects of participative conception and construction in settlements along the Mackenzie
River as well as the educational activities at Dechinta, the required consents would be needed
just for my personal involvement in what already are two community driven initiatives. As for the
collaborative activities held in both contexts, participants would be informed about the
methodology developed within the community, my intentions as researcher and the possible
theoretical and methodological outcomes. Those outcomes could be the development of strategic
approaches for similar future situations in which community designing and building would be
involved, as well as theoretical reflections and practical approaches to collaborative and
indigenous ways of knowing, making, perceiving and educating.
On the personal practices of customization of governmental housing and urbanization, required
consents will be personal. Built on the confidence of personal relations, to rely on formal
bureaucratic procedures can result problematic, making valid for some cases the ‘verbal consent’
of those persons involved in the research.
Of general consideration, is the partial use and understanding of English in these regions. But,
although the traditional language is not English, this is one of the official languages of the
Northwest Territories and spoken by many of the indigenous people. Therefore, despite of not
speaking the indigenous languages, I suppose the research will be conducted with minimal
language impediments.
This research will challenge conventional conceptions and practices of anthropology and
architecture, as well as the corresponding theories of knowing, making, perceiving and well-
being. By replacing ‘futures of planning’ with ‘futures of resilience’, it will contribute, in
particular, to the resilience and well-being of Dene communities and to the delivery of
architecture by and for indigenous people in circumpolar north environments. In general, the
research will promote practices of sustainability more attuned to the human endeavours and the
regenerative rhythms in the ‘land’, not just for the Dene but for people everywhere.
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... Finally represented in histories, sociologies and anthropologies, they will have a political "voice" in the constitution of the "we" of our "democratic assembly". Their conclusion, therefore, seems to be that as much as, 46 on the one hand, we will have to resist categorising care so to emphasise its potential to disrupt the status quo and, even, totalisations; so much so, on the other hand, in order to know "how many are we", we will have to count with all means of research, if we want to begin orienting ourselves in the mesh. Ultimately, as not only point-views have multiplied but life-points too, first and foremost, 47 we will have to "describe", "count" and "include" all the concerns attached to the becoming of per- And thus, only thus, while "waiting for a profound change of our social system and its civilization", we could begin to make of care "the central value in our political world". ...
Full-text available
Just at the twilight of disaster, between the dusk of a COVID-19 crisis almost gone and the increasing personal alienation, societal unrest and disruption in the always changing climate, that signal the dawn of a catastrophe yet to come, there might be nothing as important for us as “care”; if the sustainability of everything is to happen and persist. Yet, care is not only everywhere but inevitably ambivalent. Thus, calls for more care, in order to trouble an unsustainable status-quo and enlarge the possibilities for our sustainability, seek to extend the list of agents represented within a more-than-human politics. For, as care is everything we do to maintain, continue and repair the world so that we can live in it as well as possible, it is vital to all beings. Therefore, only growing “armies of experts” with increasing means to research the process, life and continuum of those agents identified by care, would be able to orient us all within the “network” of “factishes” with “responsibility” for “sustainability”; as people search for an Authority under which to inhabit at the brink of Catastrophe. However, there is no real process, life or continuum along the dialectical iterations of whatever type of “ism”, but a mere broken mirage of their movement. To such an extent, current calls for an unqualified care towards impossible factishes, neither just violently reduces the uncertain realisation of fluxing entanglements into the Certain Reality of Discrete Entities, through the essentialisation by dialectical iterations; nor only mimics the accounting, planning and enforcing of globalism-mongers. Ultimately, it leads to the accelerating extraction, accumulation and mobilisation of more-than-human surplus value, for the increasing competition for power over others, of an escalating “war for Authority”, that has gotten us further “stuck” into personal distress, social hierarchisation and environmental destruction. For care can be fatal, too; as it can also preempt our possibilities. By qualifying the kind of gestures, that constitute the moods of care, that thread our ways of habitation, we might be able to fray the limits of catastrophe into the sustainability of everything.
Research Proposal
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It seems that Humanity is in danger; increasingly shocked by recurrent epidemics, societal unrest and disruptions in the changing climate. And all claims to Authority, to confront it, might not just not prevent it but aggravate it, through unsustainable theories and practices in the Pursuit of Control for Salvation. To reverse the current depletion of life, health and imagination, in our path towards a sustainability of everything, we would have to go beyond the tendency of essentialisation at the roots of the Major Gestures of an authoritative (because authoritarian) way of habitation, which is leading us to the brink of catastrophe. However, in spite of all Scientific, Financial and Governmental Management, we are as far from sustainability as ever. Thus, the more scientists, financiers and rulers remark the complex constitution of ecological relations, contrarily, the more they abound into an anti-ecological economy of Major Gestures to impose upon the world as becoming. For the Unsustainability of Authority is not exclusive of Financial Capitalism, Commodity Capitalism or Colonial Capitalism, but stems from the advent of the Earliest States, in particular, and the shift from trust to domination, in general; as it has gotten us —humans— “stuck” into inequity, hierarchy and all claims to Authority. Nevertheless, it might be along the minor gestures from farming, building and healing of those who are cautious, critical or, even, overtly opposed to such dynamics of authorisation, that we might find the attention, care and respect with which to fray the limits of catastrophe into sustainable ecologies of habitation.
Conference Paper
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It seems, Humanity is in danger, increasingly threatened by recurrent epidemics and climatic disruptions. And Authority might not just not prevent it but aggravate it, through unsustainable theories and practices in the Pursuit of Salvation. Among those who are cautious, critical or, even, overtly opposed to such conceptions, however, one can find everyday gestures of attention and care, with which to fray the limits of Catastrophe into sustainable ecologies of health and habitation.
Making offers a series of profound reflections on what it means to create things, on materials and form, the meaning of design, landscape perception, animate life, personal knowledge and the work of the hand. It draws on examples and experiments ranging from prehistoric stone tool-making to the building of medieval cathedrals, from round mounds to monuments, from flying kites to winding string, from drawing to writing. The book will appeal to students and practitioners alike, with interests in social and cultural anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art and design, visual studies and material culture.
What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing and writing have in common? The answer is that they all proceed along lines. In this extraordinary book Tim Ingold imagines a world in which everyone and everything consists of interwoven or interconnected lines and lays the foundations for a completely new discipline: the anthropological archaeology of the line. Ingold's argument leads us through the music of Ancient Greece and contemporary Japan, Siberian labyrinths and Roman roads, Chinese calligraphy and the printed alphabet, weaving a path between antiquity and the present. Setting out from a puzzle about the relation between speech and song, Ingold considers how two kinds of line - threads and traces - can turn into one another as surfaces form or dissolve. He reveals how our perception of lines has changed over time, with modernity converting to point-to-point connectors before becoming straight, only to be ruptured and fragmented by the postmodern world. Drawing on a multitude of disciplines including archaeology, classical studies, art history, linguistics, psychology, musicology, philosophy and many others, and including more than seventy illustrations, this book takes us on an exhilarating intellectual journey that will change the way we look at the world and how we go about in it.
In August 1975 at Foxholm Lake on the reserve of the Chipewyan, a Northern Dene people, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, the anthropologist Henry S. Sharp and two members of the Mission Band encountered a loon. Loons are prized for their meat and skin, so the two Chipewyan tried-thirty times-to kill it. The loon, in a brazen display of power, thwarted these attempts and in doing so revealed itself to be a "spirit." In this book, Sharp embarks on a narrative exploration of the Chipewyan culture that examines the nature of a reality within which wild animals are both persons and spirits. In an unforgettable journey through the symbolic universe and daily life of the Chipewyan of Mission, his work uses the context and meaning of the loon encounter to show how spirits are an actual and almost omnipresent aspect of life. To explain how the Chipewyan create and order the shared reality of their culture, Sharp develops a series of analytical metaphors that draw heavily on quantum mechanics. His central premise: reality is an indeterminate phenomenon created through the sharing of meaning between cultural beings. In support of this argument, Sharp examines such topics as the nature of time, power, gender, animals, memory, gossip, magical death, and the construction of meaning. Creatively argued and evocatively written, his work presents a compelling picture of one people engaged in the human struggle to create meaning.