The Apsáalooke Nation, known as the Crow Tribe, is located on one of the largest Native American reservations in the country, south of Billings, Montana on the border with Wyoming. With a backlog of 1900 affordable homes and high unemployment rates on the reservation, the Tribe has been aggressively exploring several strategies for economic development. One of the main efforts over the last several years has been to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Division of Energy and Mineral Development (DEMD) to develop a job training program that takes advantage of naturally occurring soil deposits on the reservation that are ideal for making compressed earth blocks (CEB.) Not only will producing CEBs on the reservation reduce the cost of housing, but their production will also create steady light industry opportunities.
After soil engineering data was confirmed by the DEMD geologists, the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at the University of Colorado was approached to help develop building plans for three different homes using CEB for construction. Several preliminary designs were passed over because of their lack of comprehensive passive solar strategies and floor plans that failed to meet the particular practical and cultural needs of the Crow Tribe. We began working on this project in the fall of 2009.
Crow legend says that their people have three mothers: their birth mother, their home, and the earth itself. The civic pride that this project had brought to the Crow is immeasurable. This is also among the most successful career training and affordable, sustainable housing programs in the BIA and HUD portfolios. The chair of the Apsáalooke Nation and other tribal representatives have presented this work to the US Congress and the University of Colorado has been asked to work with additional tribes in the coming years, exploring the possibility of expanding this program to their nations.
While the spirit of the Apsáalooke Nation is in many ways being recaptured in the microcosm of their new homes, biophysical and sociocultural questions about their larger cultural landscape remain. Traditionally nomadic, the Crow were master horsemen who’s clans followed the seasonal migration of the buffalo herds. Despite the disappearance of the herds and creation of permanent towns, the tribe’s members have remained resolutely in motion, first riding and now driving long distances daily. I am exploring the impact that transportation systems, beginning with the Northern Pacific Railroad’s completion in 1883 (which bisects the Apsáalooke’s traditional territory east-west,) and the completion of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system in the 1960‘s (which bisects the traditional territory north-south) have had on economic opportunities for the tribe, on their self-identification, and on their perception of their cultural landscapes. In particular, I am looking to the successes of the Good Earth Lodges CEB program for reclaiming native materials and traditions in home construction, and postulating urban and landscape planning strategies that promote a similar organic balance between traditional lifeways and contemporary desires for economically and environmentally sustainable development.