Courtesy National Endowment for the Humanities
Johnpaul Jones, an architect of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage recently received the National Humanities Medal which was presented by President Barack Obama.

Designing for Life: Six Questions with NMAI Architect Johnpaul Jones

Brian Daffron

Johnpaul Jones has spent a lifetime designing buildings and settings for the Native community. Drawing from a Choctaw and Cherokee heritage, he incorporates themes learned by visiting with elders throughout the United States.

His childhood was divided between Okmulgee, Oklahoma and California, where his interest in drawing became steered toward the study of architecture. At the University of Oregon in the 1960s, he realized that Native architecture before the colonial period wasn’t even mentioned. Working out of the offices of Jones & Jones in Seattle, his designs and collaborations have included the National Museum of the American Indian, the Vancouver Land Bridge, the University of Oregon Many Nations Longhouse, the Woodland Park Zoo and the National Zoo of Belize.

His most recent honor included being a recipient of the National Humanities Medal awarded by President Barack Obama, with an additional letter of congratulations from Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton.

Jones recently sat down with ICTMN for an interview following the award.

What does it mean to you personally to receive the National Humanities Award?

It means quite a bit. When I first went to college to be in architecture, I didn’t know much about Native architecture. I knew a lot about the Choctaw culture and related cultures in Oklahoma, but I didn’t know much about Native architecture throughout the country.

At the University of Oregon and most schools, it’s a five-year program. Of that, for two years you have to take history of world architecture. When they came to the United States, they started with colonial times. There was a lot left out. The richness of our indigenous architecture, I didn’t know about it until I got out of college. During the course of doing work at Jones & Jones and other places, I was able to get a chance to go through the West and the Northwest and other places throughout the country and look at our rich, indigenous architectural heritage. I got inspired by all of that. I’m still inspired by it. Not a lot of people know of the richness of that heritage that we have here in this country. That’s what I’ve dedicated the rest of my life to do that.

What was it like for you personally to be on the team that designed the National Museum of the American Indian?

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It took 12 years of hard work. The difficulty is what kind of Native architectural style or character do you use when you’re dealing with the diversity of Indian people in North America? They’ve all got different things. What I tried to bring to the team discussion is what my Choctaw grandmother passed on to me: “Whatever you do in life, make sure you respond to the Four Worlds around you—The Natural World, the Animal World, the Spirit World, and the Human World.”

In addition to those Four Worlds, what else is a part of your design process?

I feel very lucky because I get to work with a lot of diverse Native communities here in the West, in the Rocky Mountain areas. It's the stories—it's the verbal stories that I hear from the elders, from what information they give me, that I'm able to hang the architecture on these stories. It seems kind of abstract, but you get together with the elders, and they just have so much to share from their experiences. It's magnificent.

Secondly, I work with the Native kids. There's nothing more exciting than getting the kids together from grade school and high school. They come with a lot of good information and things to share.

Are there some common Native design elements that you use? Is one of them a lack of linear design and more circular?

That's a connecting geometry. It's a connecting spiritual thing. It's a connecting element that's common to all Native people. You can find that everything I'm doing nowadays, the Circle is involved.

Were you able to work with Dianne Fossey with the Seattle Woodland Park design?

We share the world with other creatures. It's something that has always been important to me and my wife. To have the opportunity to work on a gorilla exhibit here at the Woodland Park Zoo 35 years ago was a wonderful experience. Dianne Fossey, living in Africa with the gorillas, she came to town and we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with her, show her what we were doing. She absolutely said, "What you guys are trying to create here is like their home in Africa. That's wonderful." Animals are living creatures, and we need to give them as many advantages as we give ourselves.

What advice would you give to Native students who want to study architecture?

The best advice that I can give is it's a great field for Native people to get into. What's happening right now across the whole country is that Native people are starting to manage their own affairs, and they have the wherewithal to be able to do that. They want schools, and they want cultural facilities. They want housing. They want good planning. There's lots of good opportunities coming for trained Native architects to get some good work and be satisfied—work for their own People. Our culture gives us a lot, and we bring a lot to design and planning. Go for it.

Interview edited for clarity.

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