Connecting the Dots—The People are Beautiful Already

October 14, 2020

By: Theodore (Ted) Jojola

Registration is open for the ArtPlace America Virtual Summit, a celebration and culmination of a decade of work as part of an extraordinary community of artists, community developers, culture bearers, designers, government officials, philanthropists, and researchers coming together from rural, suburban, Tribal, and urban communities across the United States. This blog post is part of a series from our BIPOC affinity group leaders. These are peer led, community organized sessions that meet a couple of times before, during, and/or after the summit. 

The virtual summit is free and open to the public. For more information and to register visit

Follow the summit conversation on social media via #ArtPlaceSummit

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This year, at the upcoming ArtPlace summit, the University of New Mexico’s Indigenous Design and Planning Institute (iD+Pi) will host three Affinity Group conversations around Placemaking and Placeknowing. The staging of this event comes at the heels of a new ArtPlace funded project called Engaging Indigenous Creative Placemakers—Connecting the Dots through PlaceKnowing. For brevity, let’s just call it Connecting the Dots.

The project is a learning collaboration which is intended to share case studies and curricula among like-minded programs at the country’s Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). As ArtPlace sunsets at the end of 2020, the concept for the project was borne from need to link the wealth of experiences garnered from twenty-three ArtPlace-funded projects throughout Indian America with the TCUs.

The genesis of the idea was actually launched at the 2017 ArtPlace Summit in Seattle. Alongside other projects, iD+Pi  found itself among a number of other Indigenous mobilizers who were involved with ArtPlace-supported placemaking projects. Although nothing formal had been organized around these projects meeting, an informal call was sent out to join up and meet during a scheduled break. To our surprise, a couple dozen folks showed up who for the most part were strangers to one another.

It was our mobalizing moment. Our iD+Pi group took these instructions to continue our own discussion to the ArtPlace leadership and organized a series of staging events at future convenings to continue the discussion. One of these was held at the 2018 ArtPlace Summit in Louisville, Ky. This effort culminated with a post summit “think tank” session facilitated by another placemaking luminary, Leslie Kimoko, at the 2019 ArtPlace Summit held in Jackson, Miss.

At that session, we were able to angle other national conversations that we had concluded on the meaning of placemaking among a wide array of tribal planners, scholars, students and community advocates. That project had been funded by the NM based McCune Foundation. Over the course of a year, these conversations challenged assumptions about placemaking.

It was a result of these discussions that an Indigenous based framework was formulated. There was a great deal of push-back on the notion of placemaking, principally because many participants felt that place-based communities such as tribes already had made their places. Instead, that Indigenous people in the moment, intuitively took their instructions from their ancestors, or the past, in a very purposeful way.

This concept is best captured by a traditional Maori proverb, ka mua, ka muri or “walking backwards into the future.” The essence of this idea is that people must look at the past in order to inform the future. This was the basic premise that was brought to the table and upon which discussions began building consensus around the concept of placeknowing.  Why this?  Because it acknowledged the fact that Indigenous communities were far more concerned and involved with keeping their culture and languages intact by knowing the meaning of the places that they inherited.

It is in that spirit, therein, that our efforts push forward in the future. Connecting the Dots was formulated from the fact that there is almost a one-to-one correlation in physical proximity between the Indigenous Artplace projects and a local tribal community college nearby.  When we asked the Indigenous Artplace attendees, “have you been working with your tribal community colleges, and have they ever reached out to you?” The resounding answer was, “not really." 

The goal of Connect The Dots is to bridge the divide between the ArtPlace projects and their respective TCU counterparts. The effort has begun with iD+Pi’s work with Diné (Navajo) College in Tsaile, Arizona, the oldest tribally controlled college on the continent. That partnership is a two-step process. In the first year iD+Pi will work directly with their newly established Bachelor of Fine Arts program in order to see how they can integrate Indigenous planning concepts into their curriculum. This will include engaging and integrating local Diné artisans into placemaking/placeknowing studios designed to empower them by formulating regional approaches to create a diversified, local economy.  

In the second year, iD+Pi will use them as an example for other tribal community colleges to see whether or not they might be interested in following suit.

This effort is also staged around how a MainStreet model that iD+Pi developed with the Pueblo of Zuni in western NM succeeded in creating a Zuni Art Walk among native artists in the village.

The alliance assisted the tribe in revitalizing the local economy through the preservation of artistic and cultural traditions. It was driven by community engaged planning and architecture studios that will also become the model for Diné College.

The Connecting the Dot Affinity Groups will stage this conversation in the following order.  

At the first convening, we will stage conversations around the question, “How do you use your artists as assets to diversify local economic development.”  We will hear from our ArtPlace partners from Zuni Pueblo.  

At the second convening, we will continue the discussion by asking, “How do you create curriculum to foster local community engagement?”  We get guidance from our partners at the Diné College and the American Indian College Fund.

The third and final convening, we will have a concluding discussion around the theme of “Placeknowing—walking backwards into the future as next steps.”

Connecting the Dots will hopefully become a point of motivation for everyone. When we see our own people, in their own communities, doing things that are meaningful and matter to them, it’s no longer an abstraction. Art is an expressive force that invests in our place-based communities.  That force acknowledges that the people are beautiful already and that it is our role in this generation to pass those things we’ve inherited to the born and yet unborn in a manner that is better for all.



iD+Pi was founded in 2011 by Theodore (Ted) Jojola, a Distinguished Professor and Regents’ Professor in the Community and Regional Planning Department in the UNM School of Architecture and Planning. He is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta, in central New Mexico, and has forged a career teaching, researching, and writing in the fields Indigenous Planning and Design and Indigenous Studies.