Thursday, April 21, 2011

Indigenous Community Enterprises: Building Sustainable Futures, One Home at a Time

Edward and Rose in their Hogan home 

Zoe Levitt, 
Consultant for Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE), a Women's Earth Alliance Partner Organization

March 14th was a bright, windy day in Window Rock.  I waited outside the Navajo Nation Museum to meet Hazel James from Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE) for the start of my site visit to gather photos and conduct interviews for their new website.  She had kindly offered to be my guide on a tour of several of ICE’s Elder Hogan Homes and Green Homes projects on the reservation. 

As we set out on the road, Hazel began to share with me some of the important elements of the traditional Hogan - a round dwelling structure that has significance for Navajo people who practice traditional religion.  “The sacredness of the Hogan is understood as the womb of mother Earth, with a fireplace at the center of the home representing the center of the four mountains, and the hole at the top of the dome conveying a connection to the universe” she explained.

It is with these sentiments in mind that ICE has developed a graceful solution to the contradicting land paradigms of the U.S. government and Navajo traditions. Yes, ICE was securing the right to build homes in line with Western concepts of land use via the homesite lease program, but they were building homes that connected generations--that stood as testaments to ability of the Nizhoni Dine culture to thrive in the face of forced assimilation.

Indeed, as the homeowners showed us, these elegant yet simple Hogan homes were strongly tied to people’s sense of dignity and self-sufficiency. An elderly couple we visited beamed recalling how the modern conveniences of their new home were critical for elderly people like themselves. Edward, 73, struggles with heart, kidney, and prostate problems and is blind in one eye.  Before receiving their ICE home, Edwards and his wife, Rose, were living in their daughters’ home without electricity or running water.  Due to his deteriorating health, Edward had several accidents slipping on steps while carrying wood and walking into doors because of the lack of light. Today Edward and Rose, receive many visitors stopping by to admire their home and find out who built it.  “It’s warm in the wintertime and it’s nice and cool in the summertime.  And I really like that the doors are wide, so if anyone has a wheelchair, you can go in and out very easily…You know, it’s just beautiful…We’re very, very blessed.”

In recent years, ICE has added another a “green” element to their building philosophy. For ICE, building “green” is about providing housing solutions that are economically practical and environmentally sustainable.  Two of the alternative materials they use, Strawbale and SIPs, or Structurally Insulated Panels, are highly energy efficient, which is particularly important in the Southwest’s desert climate. ICE has also equipped some of their homes farther off the infrastructure grid with solar panels and water cisterns to enable basic utilities in lieu of power lines and water pipes.

Throughout my short but jam-packed site visit, it became strikingly clear how important ICE’s home-building is for people living in some of the most remote areas of the reservation, where access to formal infrastructure is not logistically (or politically) feasible. The work that ICE does is rooted in a strong respect for Navajo culture and the ripples of the work have effects beyond the local level.  Every home that is built using energy efficient materials reduces the demand for energy from power plants that poison local communities and pollute the air.  As Navajo Nation leaders struggle to strike a balance between economic expansion and cultural and environmental preservation, ICE serves as a powerful example of how indigenous economic development and self-sufficiency can go hand in hand with cultural and environmental integrity.

Indigenous Community Enterprises’ mission is to work directly with indigenous communities to identify and develop community and economic development opportunities that respect and incorporate traditional culture, foster responsible stewardship of the land, maintain and enhance the well-being and self-reliance of communities, and support and protect the dignity and responsibility of individuals.  In addition to affordable home construction, ICE supports economic empowerment and cultural preservation through financial literacy workshops, Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), and a Native Foods project.  For more information, contact Hazel James at hjames@icehome.org

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