The Architecture of Heritage

While accepting the Diversity Recognition Award at the AIA National Conference in Denver, I was invited to participate on a panel discussing Social Justice issues within Architecture.  I sat among colleagues of many races and backgrounds, including a Native American architect.  I was bragging proudly about the positive effects that our program has had with a diverse population in inner-city Buffalo, when this particular architect interrupted with a question that would forever change my outlook on outreach and diversity.  He asked what programs we provided to Native American students, considering our geographical location ... I was speechless.  I knew the facts.  Native American architects make up the least amount of professional architects, and he was correct in saying that the Western New York region has a large population of Native American communities mainly from the Seneca and Tuscarora tribes.

After returning from Denver, I worked to create a program that would bring a Native American architect to our region to provide programming to Native American students.  Our first program was held in 2015, and will be run annually, growing in capacity each year.

Encouraging Diversity in Architecture

A few years ago, after joining the American Institute of Architects National Diversity and Inclusion Council, I learned a statistic that I would like to share with you.

Less than 0.5% of AIA members are Native American and less than a handful are Native American women architects.

I found this statistic shocking.  Shockingly unacceptable.

We are fortunate in the Western New York region to be geographically located near many Native American communities. We have the opportunity to reach out into these communities to provide programming to children and adults who may not otherwise have opportunity to learn about architecture and design.

Tamarah is one of only a handful of Native American female architects, and because of this, she often does outreach into Native American communities to encourage more Native Americans to pursue careers in architecture.  Even in her own firm, Tamarah has long been committed to hiring and mentoring junior Native American staff and students. 

However, educational outreach is not to only inspire future architects, but for students not interested in architecture as a profession, we are educating future clients and building occupants about the power and benefits of good design and architecture.   

Teaching Culture in Architecture

“Yá'át'ééh!” proclaimed Tamarah.  This translates to “Hello” in the Navajo language.  Each of the 30 participants, 28 of which were female, exclaimed this greeting followed by an introduction of them.  Some of the girls were shy, giggling through their short introduction; some of the girls were confident and proudly expressed something that was unique about them.  The two honest male students admitted to being in attendance because of the free doughnuts, although fully participated in all of the workshop activities.

Navajo culture is rich with symbolism, and this symbolism affects many aspects of their culture.  The students were introduced to the ‘Circle of Life’ diagram and the Navajo Creation Story which are symbolic of lifespan - birth to death, sorrow and happiness, rich and poor, good and bad.  The Circle illustrates the personal power that people have within themselves that enables them to be whole, complete and balanced, something that all adolescents can connect with. 

Students sketched the Circle of Life and their interpretations of the symbols within each world covered in the circle.  Over three days, Tamarah described each of four worlds within the Creation Story and their meanings within Navajo culture.  Students were encouraged to go home and ask their grandparents about the Seneca creation story as a way for the students to connect into their own heritage. 

Many aspects of the Navajo culture are affected by this symbol and story – including architecture, design and community planning.  Tamarah illustrated how the symbolism within the Creation Story guides the Navajo planning principles she uses within her practice. 

The traditional Navajo dwelling is a Hogan, which is a circular dwelling with a central smoke hole and an east facing entrance to welcome the rising sun.  The form of the Hogan, location of the entrance, and the path of which you navigate through the Hogan are all based on the ‘Circle of Life’ diagram. 

Each of the 30 students built their own log Hogans using thousands of popsicle sticks.  The participants worked hard to meticulously measure, cut, stack and glue hundreds of popsicle sticks together, similar to the building technique of the full sized Hogan.  Preciseness and architecture go hand-in-hand within all cultures.


Tamarah Begay, AIA visited Buffalo, New York to share her unique story of becoming an architect, and how her heritage has shaped the focus on her research, practice and outreach.

With funding and support provided by American Institute of Architects National Diversity and Inclusion Council, Tamarah Begay visited Buffalo, New York to work with Native American students from the Seneca Nation at Lake Shore Middle School in Angola, New York.  She also gave a public lecture at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.
Tamarah is the first female member of the Native American Navajo tribe to become a registered architect and an AIA member.