American Indians have long been denied fair access to homes, health care, schooling and jobs. For Joseph Kunkel M.Arch. ’09, the mission to change that is personal.
By Sala Levin ’10
Photos by John T. Consoli
IN A VAST OCHRE and beige vista, the Wa-Di Housing Development almost disappears into its surroundings. This eight-acre cluster of adobe-style homes between Albuquerque and Santa Fe sits in the center of a triangle formed by the Sandia, Jemez and Sangre de Cristo Mountain ranges, a circular hamlet braced against the tumbleweed-dotted desert.
Inside Chaslyn Crespin’s small studio, a more colorful scene unfolds. Trained by her parents in the art of jewelry making, Crespin grinds blue-green turquoise, reddish pipestone and purple sugilite to fashion them into necklaces, earrings, bracelets. Her mother and father, she says with pride, were once invited to Harvard to give a presentation on their traditional jewelry and the thunderbird motif that represents the Kewa Pueblo, the federally recognized tribe also known as the Santo Domingo to which the family belongs.
Crafts are vital to the Kewa; pottery, silverwork and jewelry are major contributors to the tribe’s income. But the work is messy. Grinding stones sends fine particulate matter flying. Firing clay pots requires dangerous heat. In the central village of the pueblo—a historic, Indigenous town that predates European settlement—multiple generations of families typically live in small houses; with no dedicated workspaces, artisans can’t help but expose elderly grandparents and toddlers alike to the hazards of their labor. For years, everyone in the village shared the same cough.
When Joseph Kunkel M.Arch. ’09 started work on Wa-Di, a few miles from the village, in 2013, he understood the importance of providing a well-ventilated space for each of its 41 single-family homes. That’s why every house has an individual accessory unit, a space where artists can safely pursue their craft.
Roomy homes for rent have one, two, three or four bedrooms and a large communal living room for hosting feasts and other events. The space allows for the multi-generational living arrangements common to the Kewa Pueblo; the housing imposed by the government, typically mobile homes, wasn’t conducive to the practice, causing loss of language and disruption of other traditions often passed from grandparent to grandchild, or absorbed by living with aunts, uncles and cousins.
For Kunkel, who’s now a principal at international architecture firm MASS Design Group, the affordable housing at Wa-Di is one example of his work around the country to provide Native people with the resources they have long been denied: high-quality homes, health clinics, child care centers, marketplaces. Kunkel knows about these needs intimately. A citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, he spent childhood summers on the tribe’s reservation in southeastern Montana, where he saw the effects of shoddy housing and poor infrastructure.
“I always knew I wanted to be working for my own tribe.”
Joseph Kunkel, principal, MASS Design Group
“Whenever I got there, my aunties and uncles would say, ‘Welcome home. This is your home. This is where your people are from,’” Kunkel recalls. “But the architecture and the community didn’t reflect that strong sense of identity.”
He works alongside tribal housing authorities, members of tribes, community development financial institutions, architects and other partners to create places that take into account the aesthetic and cultural values of specific Native groups.
“I always wanted to try and figure out how I could be working in Indian country,” says Kunkel. “I always knew I wanted to be working for my own tribe.”
AS A KID, the damp, salty air off the Atlantic Ocean smelled like home to Kunkel, who grew up in Point Pleasant, N.J., just one Bruce Springsteen song away from the shore. He and his two younger siblings decorated a Christmas tree every winter, and his mom learned how to make spaghetti sauce and sausage and peppers from her Italian in-laws.
But home was also the dry mountain air of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, where he’d been given the name Spotted Hawk. Every summer, he’d spend time at St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Mont., put up teepees with his family and hang out at the tribal museum. He ate traditional Native foods like sweet-tart chokecherry jam and the commodity items that his relatives were used to—blocks of cheese or hot dogs his cousins
called “tube steaks.”
Kunkel’s mother, Carol, was a full-blooded member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Born on the reservation, she was adopted at a young age after her mother died by Father Emmett Hoffmann, a Capuchin priest assigned by the Catholic Church in 1954 to serve at the local school. There, he became a beloved part of the community and one of only two white men ever to earn the title of honorary chief.
He also fell in love with his secretary, Mary McGarvey, who’d joined the mission from New Jersey. Forbidden from marrying Mary and having a biological child, Hoffmann adopted Carol and the pair raised her together, splitting time between Montana and New Jersey, where Mary eventually returned. Hoffman died in 2013; Carol, who died in 2016, met Joe, Joseph’s father, in Jersey City while she was in nursing school and he was in college.
Like his mother, Kunkel was of two worlds—and noticed the differences. “In New Jersey, you had a warm house to go to at the end of the day, had food in the refrigerator and cupboards, and air conditioning worked on the hottest days of summer,” he says. On the reservation, houses had leaky roofs and broken windows; the toilets often backed up or the faucets didn’t work. In New Jersey, Kunkel’s parents dropped him off at school in the morning and he made the easy walk home alone in the afternoon. In Montana, his cousins had to board a bus two hours before classes started.
Still, Kunkel didn’t think much of his dual identity until 2002, when he arrived at the University of Hartford. “College students are inquisitive,” he says. “They were like, ‘You don’t look white. What are you? You must be Hispanic. No, maybe you’re Asian. No, neither of those.’’”
Kunkel earned a degree in architectural engineering, then came to the University of Maryland for a master’s in architecture and urban design. In College Park, he developed a seminar called “Community, Culture and Place,” in which he took 12 fellow graduate students to the Northern Cheyenne reservation to learn about the roles that architects, designers, artists and community members play in shaping a physical space.
“He knows what change he wants to see happen, and if there’s no mechanism for enacting that change, he’ll build the mechanism.”
Madlen Simon, professor, UMD School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
“He was doing so much more than the typical student,” says Madlen Simon, a professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “Starting a summer program is an enormous undertaking, and the way he was able to build relationships and make it happen, both on the tribal side and on the bureaucratic UMD side, was super impressive.”
After graduating, Kunkel worked in corporate architecture firms before eventually receiving an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, which matches young architects with leaders in community development to design and build sustainable, high-quality, affordable homes. Kunkel went to southwest New Mexico to work with the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority.
Along the way, he and two other Rose Fellows, Jamie Blosser and Nathaniel Corum, developed the nonprofit Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative (SNCC), which focuses on building culturally and environmentally responsive housing for Native people.
“He’s got this marvelously entrepreneurial attitude,” says Simon. “He knows what he wants to see in the world, he knows what change he wants to see happen, and if there’s no mechanism for enacting that change, he’ll build the mechanism.”
KEWA PUEBLO LOOKS LIKE a town that America forgot. Residents drive rough dirt roads to leave the pueblo, and they can’t count on internet access. Other than crafts, a gas station just off I-25 is the pueblo’s main source of income; inclined toward a traditional lifestyle, the Santo Domingo have resisted building lucrative casinos on their land.
The Santo Domingo are just one example of the disenfranchisement and disillusionment that haunt many Native peoples. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health reports that, as of 2019, 20% of Native people lived at poverty level, compared to 9% of non-Hispanic white Americans. Studies have indicated that poverty is even higher for those living on tribal lands than those in cities. Native populations consistently have higher unemployment levels and less schooling than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
Moreover, Native people still lack access to the financial institutions that allow other Americans to build wealth.
“I always say, English common law was used as a weapon to dispossess Native people, and Western-style finance was withheld as a tool that could help to rebuild tribal economies,” says Dave Castillo, who is of Nahua Indian descent and is CEO of Native Community Capital, a community development financial institution that offers home and small business loans to American Indians.
A 2022 report by the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee confirms this, adding that Native entrepreneurs are more reliant on informal financing, like credit cards, for business expenses.
Kunkel intends to rectify some other historic wrongs. He helped design the Caddo Nation Child Care Center in Hinton, Okla., and the All Nations Health Center in Missoula, Mont. He’s also worked on projects like the Big Valley Rancheria in Lakeport, Calif., a housing complex for elders of the Pomo Indian tribe, and has led the team working with the Willamette Falls Trust in Oregon to ensure access to the falls for the five tribal communities with ancient connections to the site.
In 2019, Kunkel expanded his influence by merging SNCC with MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society), a global firm that focuses on socially conscious projects: hospitals in Rwanda, a Japanese American internment camp memorial in North Dakota, the Gun Violence Memorial Project in Chicago.
“I’m so inspired by him and what he’s been able to do with MASS in the last four years and with the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative before that in terms of reframing what architects do and how we can be in service to community,” says Shawn Evans, a principal at MASS. “I was Joseph’s mentor for the architectural exam process, but I’ve learned so much more from him than he learned from me.”
IN ALBUQUERQUE’S BARELAS neighborhood, Kunkel walks through the cavernous wood frame of the future Barelas Community Kitchen, designed by MASS. Just over 11,000 square feet, the unfinished building is hidden behind a series of worn-out strip malls, easy to overlook until you see it, after which you can’t believe you didn’t see it before.
Early on this September morning, Barelas is quiet. Located between the Rio Grande and freight railroad tracks, the district’s main artery, 4th Street SW, is home to auto repair shops, churches and local restaurants. Once Tewa land, Barelas became a stopping point on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the historic highway connecting Mexico City to Santa Fe. Its position at a natural ford across the Rio Grande also made it a landing place for many people who crossed the river. A village sprung up, aided by the presence of a railyard, which primarily repaired steam locomotives. By the late 19th century, Barelas grew to have a strong commercial district and bilingual business owners.
Advances in transportation technology weren’t kind to Barelas. By the middle of the 20th century, diesel had largely supplanted steam power, and the railyard floundered, mostly turning into storage until it closed in the 1990s. Businesses buoyed by the railyard’s workers shuttered, and poverty rates soared. Nearly a third of Barelas’ residents moved out.
The Barelas Community Kitchen is an effort to kick-start the neighborhood’s revival. A 2020 survey found that job training and educational opportunities were top priorities for residents, so the main tenant, the nonprofit Street Food Institute, will offer classes on how to start food trucks and pop-up eateries, as well as on healthy cooking. Outside, a garden will sustain native corn, squash, beans and other produce to use in demonstrations. Upstairs, individual studio space will be available for artisans and creators to rent.
“The idea is to impart this notion of density,” says Kunkel. “We’re in the West—there’s a lot of space, seemingly. But historically, the dense, kind of urban form is really important to lift up (neighborhoods).”
On the second floor, Kunkel looks out one of the massive windows that frame the Sandia Mountains, visible from nearly anywhere in Albuquerque. The sky is a piercing blue as the sun crests the mountains. He’s facing east, ready for a new day. TERP
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