University of Saskatchewan student Omeasoo Butt is tracing the history of housing in two indigenous communities, showing that homes speak volumes about the way people think, express their values, and live their lives.
“Where we live is so much more than four walls and a roof. How we situate ourselves physically says a lot about the way we think,” Butt says.
While many historical studies have tried to define aboriginal self-governance, Butt’s work will be the first to look at the role western-style architecture and community planning played in shaping aboriginal leadership and family structures in Canada.
Her PhD supervisor Keith Carlson says that “beginning in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the government allocated money for housing, but demanded a certain design that had a huge effect on aboriginal self-governance.”
“This work has the potential to re-orient the history of aboriginal governance in Canada,” he says.
Later this year, Butt will travel to the Salish community of Sliammon in B.C. and the Cree-Dene-Métis community of Île-à-la-Crosse in Saskatchewan to interview people and look into records kept by missionaries and the federal Department of Indian Affairs (DIA). Her aim is to understand what housing looked like before native-newcomer contact, and how exactly it changed.
“The style and positioning of houses can transform the way leadership works,” Butt says.
In Sliammon, people were forced to switch from communal longhouses, where hereditary leaders could see the actions of the entire community, to individual European-style homes.
“When 200 people were living in a longhouse under one roof with no walls between families, leaders could constantly monitor and ease conflicts between people,” Carlson says.
“Building separate homes organized around the nuclear family decentralized authority.”
Butt hopes her research will help people think seriously about their own houses–not only as homes, but as meaningful reflections of identity, culture, politics, and place.
Her work is supported by a fellowship from Canada Research Chair Jim Miller. Butt is president of the U of S Graduate Students’ Association, and recently helped revive the Indigenous Graduate Students’ Council. In August, when Governor General Michaëlle Jean visited the U of S, Butt was chosen to participate in an expert panel on women’s rights as human rights.
Until now, historical scholarship about aboriginal governance has focused on formal political systems and policies such as the Indian Act. Little has been written about how systems of governance relate to architectural space.
Butt’s study places the family at the centre, examining the effect of housing on how family members related to each other and their community.
“For some, changes to housing can reflect an acceptance of new values. For others, it can show a rejection,” Butt says.
She cites the example of one indigenous community in which some families chose to live in canvas tents as a rejection of imposed values, rather than move into government-built bungalow-style houses.
Butt’s work could be applied to other non-aboriginal cultural groups because she aims to demonstrate how people express themselves through architecture.
Selected as one of only 40 students to participate in the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute this summer at the University of California in Berkeley, Butt will talk to leading scholars about oral history, conducting interviews and using oral accounts as historical evidence.
“Her research is sure to make a mark in Canadian scholarship,” Carlson says.
Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.
This article first ran as part of the 2017 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.