For Native Americans ...
Domes Blend Their Ancestral Past with the Modern World
By Carol Lanham

 

 

Deep in the Grand Canyon, in a remote area accessible only on foot, by horseback or by helicopter, a dream is taking shape among members of the Havasupai tribe who inhabit the land. It is a dream for a better way of life, in harmony with their ancestral past yet in step with the realities of the modern world.

It is a dream that began with Uqualla, a Havasupai tribal chief and medicine man, but soon came to involve others throughout the United States. The dream has a name — the Jeva Project — and a purpose —  to bring round, sustainable housing not only to the Havasu Canyon but to other Native American communities as well.

The Jeva Project, named for the Havasupai word for healing, involves building Monolithic Domes to replace aging and cramped housing on native lands. Made of steel-reinforced, insulated concrete, the domes offer a number of advantages over traditional buildings.

“The true ceremonial shape is the round circle, symbolic of Mother Earth, Father Sun, Sister Moon, and one’s life circle,” says Uqualla, who not only is spearheading the Jeva Project but also travels the world in his work as a medicine man. “Our ancestors knew this as evidenced by their round floor plans that were continuous with no beginning or end.”

The dome homes offer practical advantages as well. Due to the materials used in their construction, they are permanent structures designed to last for centuries and offer protection against severe weather. They also are energy efficient, costing 50 percent less to heat and cool than traditional buildings of the same size.
Perhaps most importantly for Native Americans in remote areas, locals can be easily trained to build the domes and most of the construction materials can be dropped in by helicopter if necessary, making them a cost-effective alternative to traditional housing.

“The hope is by showcasing several of these dwellings in the beauty of the Havasu Canyon area, other tribal nations could see the benefits of this housing technology that incorporates the original dwelling concept of the ancients for use in the modern world,” according to the mission statement posted on the project’s website.

Rick Crandall, a Mesa-based architect who designed the five domes that will be constructed in the Jeva Project’s first phase, says the buildings are in keeping with the traditions of several Native American tribes. “Many of the Arizona and New Mexico tribes consider circles to be a sacred shape, and this is especially true of Pueblo, Tewa, Anastasi, Hopi and Navajo tribes.

Round buildings aren’t new and indeed were part of the basic culture of the American Plains natives going back for many centuries,” he says. “It was only when the westward expansion began in the 1840s that square buildings were introduced to these tribes and all of the square buildings were constructed for them.”

Monolithic Domes planned for the Havasu Canyon would not be the first to be built for Native Americans. Several dome schools have been built on Indian reservations throughout the state of Arizona, as well as in New Mexico and South Dakota. In Oklahoma, plans are currently under way for a multipurpose Monolithic Dome building to be used by the Muskogee Indians.

Monolithic Domes were invented in 1978 by three Idaho natives who believed that nature’s perfect shape offered a better way to build. David B. South had become fascinated with domes after hearing a lecture on geodesic domes by their inventor, Buckminster Fuller.

But South thought he could build a dome more efficiently. After much experimentation, he and his brothers, Barry and Randy, came up with a way to build a one-piece, concrete structure that today is known as a Monolithic Dome.

The building process begins with the placement of a ringbeam footing and the pouring of a circular steel-reinforced concrete slab floor. An Airform, a tarp made of tough, single-ply roofing material, is then attached to the ring base and inflated. Once the Airform is inflated, work moves to the interior where three inches of polyurethane foam is sprayed on the structure.

A grid of steel rebar is then placed into the foam and later embedded in Shotcrete that ranges from 4 inches at the top to 8 inches at the base. This process creates a safe, permanent and energy-efficient structure.

In the three decades since their invention, Monolithic Domes have been built all over the United States and around the world. They are being used as homes, schools, churches, storage facilities, gymnasiums and performing arts centers. The Navajo Nation was the first Native American tribe to build a Monolithic Dome.

In 1996, a school district on a Navajo reservation in Arizona commissioned Crandall to design two Monolithic Dome school buildings largely because of the relatively low construction costs and energy efficiency, but also because the buildings’ shape would be in keeping with the tribe’s sacred traditions.

Leupp School, with students in grades kindergarten through 12, completed its Monolithic Dome library and parent center in August 1997. The building, located in Leupp, Arizona, is also available to the community for town meetings and social get-togethers.

In nearby Birdsprings, Little Singer Community School completed a multipurpose dome building a few months later. The dome includes a gym, complete with a basketball court and jogging track, as well as classrooms.

To make the building compatible with sacred traditions, four entrances were incorporated into the dome, one for each direction. In addition, each entrance features three designs symbolizing the full circle of life. That totals 12 — an important number in Navaho cosmology.

Ron White, who was assistant superintendent of Tolchii Kooh Charter Schools, which was in charge of building both schools, said the domes have met expectations for durability and energy efficiency. But he pointed out that the idea initially met with some resistance simply because the domes were so different from the traditional buildings that were part of the modern-day reservation. “We learned that trying to make changes in the building mindset is difficult to do,” he says.

School officials in Whiteriver, Arizona also encountered some skepticism when they recommended construction of a Monolithic Dome elementary school on the Apache Reservation. Although the Apaches traditionally built wickiups — wood and grass structures shaped like a tepee with a smoke hole at the top — they now live in traditional, square buildings.

By making the dome designs and plans available to the community, providing tribal members with information, and welcoming spectators at the construction site, the doubts were soon eliminated. In 1998, the three domes that make up Cradleboard Elementary opened to rave reviews.

Soon, there will be Monolithic Dome homes on a reservation as well. The first dome housing community is slated for completion this summer on the Navajo Reservation in Taloni Lake, Arizona.
Built by Dome Technology of Idaho, 36 concrete dome shells are completed, but work still needs to be done on the interiors of these new homes. “It is believed that with reasonable care, these buildings will stand long after other housing projects have gone the way of the world,” White says.

Meanwhile, construction on homes for the Havasupai tribe has been temporarily delayed due to the unexpected death in April of Archie Eschborn, who along with Uqualla, was spearheading plans for the Jeva Project. It was Eschborn who first came up with the idea for building Monolithic Domes in the Havasu Canyon after getting to know Mason Rumney, a long-time dome owner in Sedona.

Upon meeting Uqualla, Eschborn realized they both had a similar vision for the Havasupai tribe and they became actively involved in securing financing necessary to make their dream a reality.
Before his death, Eschborn was working with several U.S government organizations, including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior, among others.

Eschborn’s widow, Linnea, along with Uqualla, Crandall and Rumney remain committed to making the project a reality. Uqualla, who teaches globally, is already making plans to host medicine meetings in the Jeva Project’s ceremonial complex once it is completed.

“I know that the Jeva Project is now up to me, and Archie’s wife, Linnea. We’ve been given the talking stick, and take the responsibility of carrying the project through. My hope is to have the Havasupai tribe be the leading force in the return to tribal traditions.”

For more information on the Jeva Project, visit www.jevaproject.com. For more information about Monolithic Domes, please visit www.monolithic.com, www.uqualla.com, or call Mason Rumney at (928) 300-7352.

 


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