Indigenous People's Day: An Interview with Brian Skeet, IDSA

Oct 12 2020 - 11:04am

 

Brian Skeet, IDSA is an Indigenous (Diné - Navajo) designer and one of the leaders of IDSA's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. A graduate of Arizona State University and a 2019 IDSA Student Merit Award finalist, Skeet was born in Tuba City, AZ and raised on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Strategically, Skeet's work focuses on energizing future Indigenous creatives to illuminate systemic issues, disentangle bureaucratic dependence and cultivate culturally-centered solutions within Indigenous communities. This includes working with the IDSA-Phoenix Chapter and the IDSA Student Chapter at ASU. Today he will present on a panel for RISE 2 VOTE: a livestreamed show with an Indigenous DJ and other Indigenous Initiatives in the Phoenix area, in which poster submissions will be projected onto buildings in downtown Phoenix. Watch the livestream, starting at 6pm MST, here.

In honor of Indigenous People's Day, a reclamation of the Columbus Day holiday in the United States, IDSA met with Skeet over Zoom to learn about his lived experience and how different cultures "can meet on the bridge" to learn from one another. Additional resources for self-education are listed at the end of the interview.


IDSA: From your perspective, what are the ways in which Indigenous design and ways of thinking differ from Western design and Western ways of thinking?

Brian Skeet: I took a class at ASU taught by a First Nations instructor [architect Wanda Dalla Costa] and it was really amazing how she structured everything. It wasn't her telling us what the curriculum was; it was the students making the decisions on the way the class was going to go. Usually Western education is more like, 'Here is what I'm going to teach you, and here's what you are going to produce at the end.' [This class] gave me a new perspective on how we perceive what we learn, from what we're used to and what our parents teach us.

I started to understand that my worldview as an Indigenous person didn't always jive with Western culture and worldview. For a long time I thought, even growing up,  'Why am I like this? What's wrong with me? Why is everyone getting this but I'm not?' This class helped me to understand that there's nothing wrong with me as an Indigenous person; [the Western way of thinking] is just not how we've been programmed. We are very much in tune with the land and what we build, and what we build is for a purpose. When we cultivate food or gather water or any sort of natural resource that keeps us alive, there is a purpose to that and we don't own that. Water and food are not for us to own. That is for our community and for nourishment; and when we take something, we always give something back.

Understanding this empowered me to realize that the way I am is not a flaw. It's actually helping to set us up for the future, by keeping these teachings in the family and in the community. Now, a lot of capitalism and Western-world thinking is reverting back to Indigenous knowledge. But it's kind of crappy at the same time, because a lot of that Indigenous knowledge has been wiped out. Within the past century or so, we've been forced to conform, we've been forced to lose our language, we've been forced to fit in to this Western box.

Sustainability, circular design, biomimicry—a lot of this is being repackaged as new and groundbreaking when it sounds like this has been part of the Indigenous worldview for a long time. These are not new ideas. 

Exactly. That's the frustrating part. We may be on the same wavelength or you by coincidence may have the same idea...but it's frustrating to see new programs around sustainability or biomimicry being "innovative." It's been here! Again, it goes back to being dismissed as 'these natives who don't know anything.' We've learned from the land, we've learned from each other. We already know these things. 

When thinking about and designing meaningful products that last, what can all of us learn from Indigenous people and communities?

A basket is one of those tangible products that can be used for utilitarian purposes like carrying water, but there also is something celebratory in the process. It's a communal process and it's healing, because you get to socialize as well. And when you're weaving the basket, there's a story woven into it, into the patterns of the basket itself.

When it comes to products [in the Western worldview], it comes down to capitalism. People need to make products to feed themselves, to make some kind of money. But does it always have to be that way? 'I make the product, I sell it, therefore I live'? What about: 'I make this product for myself or my community, and it lasts'?

It's about blending the two worlds together and deciding when you're making the product if it really needs to be there. Until we start viewing 'things' as 'things that have meaning,' I don't think the way we produce products will change.

A video on Skeet's personal background, pathway to industrial design, and design philosophy: "Your design is good, but does it do good?"

What design isand what we've been taught in design school on the process of design and why we have design, is very familiar, because it's very much what we do as Native people already. Take COVID, for instance. We didn't depend on the government to give us what we needed. We turned to our neighbors and found ways to get personal protective equipment to those who needed it. We used our local channels to get these products where they needed to go: calling our aunties and relatives and those in our clan system to make sure everyone was ok.

That's really what it comes down to in my community, the Diné community: We look out for each other. We look out for our elders and we look out for our youth. We knew there was nothing coming for us for quite some time, so we needed to figure out solutions to help our families. We created food drives and ways for people to get tested, and we ended up becoming a model for what we're all supposed to do with COVID. It really shows how much community can make an impact. And when it comes to design, it just feels so familiar. Like sustainability, which to us feels very natural, design is very natural for us as well. 

What is something you're working on right now?

One thing I'm working on is taking the ASU IDSA energy and transferring that over to the professional chapter, and building on top of that. The reason why I want to start here is that [the Phoenix metropolitan area] is the hub for Arizona in terms of industrial design, and even through New Mexico, parts of Colorado, and parts of Utah. There is a lot of potential here. I'm also seeing a lot of funding and investment going into tribal colleges and universities, especially on Navajo Nation. For instance, the Navajo Technical University. The facilities they have there are beautiful, and they have traditional knowledge built into the curriculum: learning Navajo and the stories of Navajo. That is the ideal place I'd like to see IDSA create a chapter, because you not only have the faciltiies to do what you need to do to be an industrial designer, but you have that knowledge base of who you are as a Diné or Navajo. You have an understanding of how you can blend those two worlds together, but still be able to seperate them as well. 

Recently I've noticed there's been more awareness around the importance of decolonizing design education, which includes, in part, de-centering the Western model most often taught in design schools. What are your thoughts, based on your experience?

I think the most important thing to understand is that Indigenous worldview, especially in my community, and Western worldview are very different when it comes to time. When you bring students into a place to learn something, especially when they're coming to an Indigenous community, and they leave and take away something, it is expected that you have a solution for that community in the next year or so. Well, it's going to take a lot longer than that, and I think that tends to lead a lot of Indigenous communities to mistrust those who come into the community. That's one thing I'd like to have students understand, especially those who are doing research.

When you go into a space like my community, remember: You are taking something. If you want to understand the real issues, then take the time. 

It could take one year, or it could take four years, or longer. The four-year program is very Westernized.

But I do think, when it comes to decolonization, there is a benefit to both: to the Western side and to the Indigenous side. We just have to be able to meet on the bridge, to listen to each other and take away what we can. And we don't have to stay on that bridge forever; we can go back to our respective sides. But when someone says, 'I'm going to come over the bridge and tell you what you needs to happen;' that's when it becomes an issue. When people seek power, and their way is the only way, that's when humans become terrible people. 

For those looking to learn more about Indigenous design, where are some good places to start?

That's a good question, because I'm still searching, too. One good resource comes from Julia Watson. She wrote a book on traditional ecological knowledge [Lo―TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism]. 

Heather Fleming went to Stanford and worked with Catapult Design in San Francisco. She now lives in Denver and started an initiative on Navajo [and Hopi Reservations] called Change Labs. It's the first business incubator for people on Navajo Nation, and it's a really great place to see the resilience of Native business owners. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.


MORE RESOURCES:

Note: We're just getting started! Please send additional resources to media@idsa.org.

Reading:

Studios and designers:

  • Indigenous Design Collaborative at ASU | a community-driven design and construction program, which brings together tribal community members, industry and a multidisciplinary team of ASU students and faculty to co-design and co-develop solutions for tribal communities in Arizona (Tempe, AZ)
  • Indige Design Collab | a nonprofit that seeks to bridge cultural ideas between communities by way of advocacy and the implantation of design principles (Phoenix, AZ)
  • Manapan | a furniture design business owned and operated by the Yolngu people on Milingimbi Island (off the coast of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia)
  • Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture | a 100% Native-American and women-owned firm that provides Architectural and Planning solutions through community partnership and involvement (Albuquerque, NM)
  • Dewayne Dale, @indigenous_designer on Instagram | Global footwear designer at KEEN (Portland, OR)
  • Shon Quannnie | brand designer and owner of 4X Studio (Phoenix, AZ)
  • Nicole Monks | a trans-disciplinary designer and artist of Yamatji Wajarri, Dutch and English heritage (Sydney, Australia)