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Alexa Sharp on Conflicting Landscape Values
23 November, 2023
Rina Swentzell utilizes her childhood memories of school to illustrate the importance of place in a person’s development. Born into a Pueblo in Santa Clara, ones’ connection to the cosmos and the earth was considered vital. Her community consisted of a large courtyard building that was constructed of earthen materials by everyone in the Pueblo. Short ceilings and hand-plastered edges created feelings of intimacy, and the uniform dirt floors were nearly identical to the desert outside, blending interior and exterior spaces. Socializing, working, and playing occurred simultaneously in the large central courtyard and people could move in/around/on top of the buildings. Children were encouraged to learn, as in their society “to breathe or to be alive is to learn”, and through this curiosity they were empowered to make their own decisions and take care of themselves.
When the Bureau of Indian Affairs school was constructed a quarter of a mile away, life changed for the author and her fellow children. The new school building was surrounded by barbed wire fences and the landscape within had been scraped bare. Sanitization of school buildings through foreign western architecture made it impossible to become “a part of the place, the buildings, or the lives of teachers who lived there.” Pueblo students were cut off from the natural world they were used to, and encouraged to praise individual achievement rather than collective progress; Even within the same classroom students were segregated based on their reading abilities. The western notion of upward mobility into higher grades and different classrooms was totally foreign to the children, who had previously been encouraged to settle into the earth and become content with the present.
Swentzell ends the reading by concluding that there are long-lasting consequences of uprooting someone’s understanding of place and their relationship to the world; The Pueblo students who went to the BIA school developed confidence issues and feelings of inadequacy. I found this account of her time at the school to be both incredibly uplifting and sad. Learning about the Pueblo’s supportive community and their freedom as children to be curious and take responsibility for themselves only highlights the harsh divide between the Pueblo and the day school. It must have been so confusing to go everyday from a place where you were supported, trusted, and felt connected to the earth and enter the rigid, stark, and isolating classrooms of the day school. This reading brings into stark relief the power of space and architecture, both as a tool for good and for harm. The spaces we inhabit shape our lives from the moment we are able to remember them: Laughing at a kitchen table, stress at a school desk, happiness at seeing a loved one’s front door. By ripping away familiarity and introducing a foreign system, we are both physically and mentally adrift in a world we cannot recognize, struggling to find our place.