How can design sustain cultural identity & the environment?

by Elise Glisci

My thesis inspiration came from the experiences of my own life. I’m Native American of the Mohawk nation, but grew up in a dominantly Caucasian environment. Growing up outside the reservation, I never had a strong sense of a cultural identity. I tried keeping my heritage to myself so I wouldn’t be asked embarrassing questions like “do you live in a tipi?” It wasn’t until I came to college that I discovered and experienced what being Native is all about. I learned the pride and sense of community that Native people share, regardless of the nation to which they belong. This has created a strong cultural identity within Native groups all across the country.

Once entering a reservation, you’re overcome with the feeling that you’re home. You feel like you belong and that you’re a part of something greater than just this small area of land. It’s because of these reservations and a balanced lifestyle that our culture has been able to survive in a world of assimilation and colonization.

I started wondering how Americans define themselves. While individuals often identify with their countries of origin, they have not established a sense of American roots or American identity. This is creating a loss of connection between places, people, and things. We live in a country that’s based on mass production and exporting almost everything without any thought of the effects. Designs draw on the looks of various cultures in order to establish some identity. This is especially evident in designs that are associated with Native American culture. Since we are such a small group of people, many don’t know about our way of life and when using our culture for inspiration the designs are not representative and are often offensive. People don’t know much about us, our lifestyle, the meaning behind our artifacts; they assume that if it looks Native, it is Native.

I began searching for answers for what makes a culture the target of appropriation in American design and why Americans are unaware of our modern day presence. The United States became stuck in a “design for all” attitude, forgetting about the environment and their designs’ longterm effect. Can the Native way of sustaining their identity and the environment influence American design? Design has become a pool of innovation, blending together without any sense of individuality. So America, why not stop designing shades of grey and instead, work on preserving the colors and the Earth.

The Education Problem

The main problem is that schools are not providing adequate instruction about Native Americans. I remember in middle school and high school the section of our textbooks dedicated to Native American history was only one to two pages long. We only learned about the French and Indian War and the Trail of Tears. There is so much more information on Native Americans and “American” history than those two subjects. Stay tuned for more info.