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Native architect achieves personal, business goals while assisting tribes
Photo: Mike Laverdure, left, Debbie Desjarlais Stockholm and (not pictured) Randy Wagner collaborate on Native American projects. Photo courtesy of DSGW Architects
When individuals or businesses work across cultures, issues of trust are more apt to arise, and there’s a greater chance for misunderstandings to occur. Having someone on board to serve as a trustworthy and knowledgeable liaison can help smooth the path.
Those issues came to mind in 2008 when Michael Laverdure was looking for a position in the architecture and design field. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, his goal was not only to find work, but to find it with a company that would help him reach his long-term goal of launching a Native-owned architecture and design firm that works closely with the American Indian community.
Duluth-based DSGW Architects helped him hit both targets. He was hired to work in the company’s Lake Elmo office, from which he began pursuing his larger goal.
“Over a period of four years, we formulated the concept of having a Native-owned planning and design firm that would complement DSGW, and both companies would work together,” explained Laverdure, a DSGW partner who also is majority owner of First American Design Studio, the spinoff.
A variety of architecture, engineering and design firms have worked with tribes for decades on projects ranging from clinics to schools to housing units. DSGW entered that arena in the 1990s and has assembled a portfolio of about 125 projects. Having accumulated that experience, the company’s goal is to broaden its footprint beyond the immediate region.
“We had established a pretty good relationship with a lot of tribes in Northern Minnesota and in Wisconsin,” said DSGW partner Randy Wagner, who worked on many of those projects. “When Mike came on board, because he is Native, it opened up doors in some other areas, particularly in North Dakota, where he’s from.”
It can be difficult for a non-Native organization to develop trust among tribal officials with whom they’ve not had a prior relationship, Wagner said.
“Mike is well connected, and if he doesn’t know anybody where he’s at, the barrier is immediately dropped because he is Native. We saw First American Design Studio as an opportunity for Mike to accomplish his personal goal of having his own firm while benefitting our firm as well. It does open up doors that we couldn’t otherwise open,” Wagner said.
Laverdure’s connections reach far beyond the Turtle Mountain Reservation, the majority of which lies on 67 square miles of north-central North Dakota. He’s also a board member of the Minnesota American Indian Chamber of Commerce, a Sequoyah Fellow of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and has served as a volunteer on a variety of other Native boards. Laverdure’s personal and learned experiences have fueled his passion to advocate for tribes and help them succeed.
“I’m not just there because they’re paying me. I’m there because there’s a need. I’m empathetic to that need and say ‘I’m going to help you because I believe in you,’ ” he said.
Laverdure, Wagner and Business Developer Debbie Desjarlais Stockholm (who also is Native American) work as a team to help tribes build the physical structures they need. Their assistance often begins by helping tribal members refine a rough idea into a solid concept.
At first, “They’re not always looking for an architecture firm. They want someone to help plan things out,” Laverdure said.
Typically, the next step involves funding. “We help them find money for projects if they don’t know how to do it,” he said. That can involve writing grants or tapping into the wide variety of state, federal or foundation-based money that’s available.
Also important is to ensure projects include cultural amenities – ones that go beyond capping a structure with a design element that resembles a headband.
“Clinics are a good example. In the 1950s and 60s, they were white and sterile. Everybody was scared to go into them,” Laverdure said. “Today, they’re culturally relevant and welcoming. The clinic in Bad River has tobacco stands where visitors can offer a prayer. There are cultural reflection stations. Once a month, an elder comes by and prays over tobacco. We plant sage or sweet grass outside. These are culturally relevant touches.”
Being Native-owned immediately gives First American Design Studio some advantages. Beyond being an icebreaker, it allows the company to receive preference points from some tribes.
“They’ll give you a real shot of getting their project, and if a tribe needs something outside of our expertise, we’ll look for other Native American companies to come in and help them,” said Laverdure, who also is active in Buy Indian, a seller of authentic Native-made products.
As part of the business relationship, First American Design Studio and DSGW became philanthropically involved with their Native customers.
“We’ve donated money for numerous community pow-wows. It’s just a huge hit,” Stockholm said.
So far, the new company has been well received. “I’ve been to quite a few conferences now, and all the response has been real positive,” Laverdure said.
Much work remains to be done, but he already has his eyes set on another goal.
“I’d like to get one other person to be a native architect. There used to be many, but they’re retired or retiring. I’m trying to get more kids out there to be interested,” he said.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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