We Are All Related

by Sam Olbekson, AIA, NOMA, AIA Minnesota President

A beautiful aspect of Anishinaabe culture is that there is no word for “architecture” or even “art” in traditional Ojibwe language. This reflects a world view where beauty, function, and cultural meaning are interwoven seamlessly into culture and daily life, rather than being compartmentalized into separate and distinct concepts.

Everything is related.

Many years ago, I asked an elder how I might say “architect” in Ojibwe. I was given the phrase “Nimazini bii-aanan chi-waakaa’iganan ge-ozhichigaadegin mii iiw enanokii’yann” or “I draw the houses, the ones that will be built, for my work.” I was told to keep that phrase close to me to remind myself of who I am and that I must bring this knowledge back home to help rebuild our community. Years later a different Ojibwe speaker created and suggested the phrase Ozhiga’igewi-mazinibii’igewinini, or “he who designs/illustrates construction.”

I know that if I asked other traditional speakers for a phrase to describe architecture, I would get a different answer from each of them based on their individual perception of what we do. There is no one word or phrase for architect in Ojibwe. A lesson I take from that is we all can uniquely define for ourselves what this profession means to us and why we do what we do. Reducing the opportunities of our profession down to one label perhaps misses a chance to create greater meaning or intention in our role as community-builders. We could all create a meaningful phrase that is unique, complex, and more accurately describe the heart, aspirations, and purpose of each of our efforts.

On another occasion many years ago, an elder who heard I was studying architecture abruptly stopped a group conversation, told me to get into his pickup truck and promptly drove me across the reservation to where the government-provided public housing was sited. Pointing at the dilapidated living conditions and with anger in his eyes he said, “we need you to come back and do something about this!” That is a powerful moment in my life and is still a big part of what gets me out of bed every day. Another elder in my community told me to stop making buildings out of rectangles and that we needed more circles. Another told me to make sure to build in a way that does not hurt the earth. Another elder told me to make sure everyone has a home—everyone. The lesson here is that elders seem to like to tell me what to do…  

What we do is much more complex and impactful than simply drawing houses or illustrating construction and I still look for a definition of architecture that captures the heart of what I really am trying to contribute. Architecture and other related design professions play a vital role in keeping culture alive. We are storytellers and culture keepers. We are artists and meticulous detailers. We are dreamers and innovators. We are community-builders. And we are still responsible to make sure everyone has a home.

AIA Minnesota is a strong and resilient community. We are all related, and we all are incredibly important to our professional community and to the communities and people we serve. What is the meaningful and aspirational phrase you would create for what you do? Whatever that is for you, thank you sincerely for what you do for our profession!  I invite you to be an active and involved member of AIA Minnesota and our local chapters and I look forward to continuing serving our community with you in 2023.



View the January 2023 edition of Matrix.