Tammy Eagle Bull, AIA, NCARB, draws together community and tradition to define an architectural practice.
Corey Rourke Tammy Eagle Bull, AIA, NCARB, draws together community and tradition to define an architectural practice.

Tammy Eagle Bull is president of the Native American, woman-owned firm Encompass Architects, in Lincoln, Neb. This year she also became president of AIA Nebraska. With her husband, Todd Hesson, AIA, as partner, 80 percent of the firm’s work is for tribal nations; the remainder includes commissions for public schools in South Dakota and Nebraska, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But for Eagle Bull, the work for the tribes is especially satisfying.

We work mostly in South Dakota, where I’m from, and in the Southwest and Nebraska. Since the federal stimulus funds for schools and infrastructure dried up, we’re focusing a lot on—sad to say—the growing need for detention facilities, especially youth detention and rehabilitation centers. The tribes had been sending people off the reservation for these services, but now they want to keep their people nearby as they help them deal with issues. A lot of people don’t know the basic needs and some of the deplorable conditions that exist on reservations.

To design for tribal nations, we work very closely with the communities. We did a K–8 school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Porcupine, S.D., funded through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We asked the kids what they wanted. The overwhelming response was a safe place where they could get away from issues at home. We designed the school as an “ideal home,” with spaces like a living room, a family room, and areas they can identify with and feel safe in. It’s the first LEED Silver–rated school in South Dakota. Yes, the tribes want sustainable architecture—they were green before green was green.

My dad grew up on a reservation and wanted to be an architect, but his 1950s high school counselor talked him out of that. My dad helped me realize that if I could improve the built environment of Indian people, I could help improve their lives. We need to look ahead. When money comes to the tribes, they think, “What can we build?” Our focus for the next few years is to offer infrastructure, project and master planning, so when funding returns they’re ready.

My practice is not glamorous and you don’t win awards, but it’s very satisfying. When we work with tribes, I stay visible. I hear, “You’re a girl and you’re an architect?” I say that it’s about courage, and being an architect can be a way to give back. They’re interested. And unlike in my dad’s day, not only the boys but also the girls know it’s possible. As told to Edward Lifson.

To hear more Voices, visit architectmagazine.com/AIA.