My idea was to create a process which in turn would create a fort with only the materials and tools I could find in the woods adjacent to the Chapel parking lot at the University of Richmond. I purposely ignored how North American indigenous peoples created shelter. The purpose of the project was to use myself as a tool to examine how my perceptions of indigenous peoples influenced me. The examination of my perception is important because many people often do not realize that their perceptions of other people are not a matter of fact. To be clear, when I refer to Indian I am referring to an imaginary perception invented by settler society. Millions of settler children pretend to be Indian as they learn about themselves and orient themselves to the land they live on. Many other societies have thousands of years of either oral or written history to be able to teach and orient their children to the physical world. However, American settlers who have a much shorter history often only have the myth of Indians to emulate. The danger of this emulation is that it risks being taken as a complete representation of what it actually means to be Native American. To be Native American is as general of a description as to be North American. There are countless tribes, cultures, languages, histories, which are all unique, under appreciated, and oppressed due to the brutal expansion of the United States throughout North America.
During my project I spent most of my time in a sliver of woods adjacent to the University of Richmond Chapel parking lot. I collected sticks, made my own pathways, and listened to the creek run when I needed some peace in my life. With the branches and sticks I built a fort in my parking lot space. Despite falling many times, the fort eventually withstood heavy rain and wind. Once I completed the structure I realized that two experiences I had in the woods defined my project. So, I went down into the creek, found some sharp rocks and carved a few words that I felt captured the feeling of these experiences. Mine, Disconnect, and Expose.
The first experience happened late into the semester when University of Richmond facilities workers brought a huge piece of machinery into the woods to remove some trees. I heard a loud noise and saw that they were intruding on “my” land. It was a very strange feeling because I knew that technically I did not own the land I was on, and technically they had every right to work on it. Regardless, because of my intimacy with the woods, I felt that the workers were alien and that they were mistreating my home. While I would imagine the scale and severity felt by North American indigenous people is far greater, the feeling of being defensive and hopeless must be telling of how indigenous people felt when settlers evicted them, and how Native American’s feel as white America continues to marginalize minorities.
Secondly, an older lady was walking by the woods on the adjacent bridge. She stopped halfway on the bridge above the woods, looked down, and stared at me with the utmost confusion. She looked at me as if I was a strange squirrel standing on its hind legs sipping tea at fancy restaurant on the top floor of a New York City skyscraper. Even when I looked back at her and smiled to let her know I was human she stared at me confusedly. Eventually, I ignored her and carried on with my work because that’s the kind of “A” student I am. I have no idea how long she stared at me but I found it interesting that a human picking up sticks in the woods has become something so foreign that it warrants dumbfounded staring in an industrialized world.
Materials and Process:
I used only items I could personally carry to my parking spot from the surrounding woods. If I needed a tool to cut something, I’d break a rock. If I needed more support for the fort I’d find the right branches that would be easily interwoven.
The project was a process rather than a product. I would collect as many branches as possible and pile them up. Then I would prepare them by shaping and pruning them to my liking and finally I would carry them up to my spot. I repeated this until I felt I had a large enough pile, which would allow for enough unique branches to solve the many problems which soon arose when I began assembling. Once I had my pile, I would organize the branches into strength, size and shape categories. I did this because certain types of branches work best for certain types of problems. For example when I need to cross brace, I used skinny, flexible, straight branches. After I had my pile sorted I began placing the branches upon each other so that their interdependent weights would compliment the strength of the overall structure. I did not use glue or strings to keep the sticks together but only gravity and friction. On average I would collect sticks for about two hours and then assemble for two hours, repeating several times a week.
The outcome of the project for me is about how I will work in the future. Pyramids were built one stone at a time and the fort reinforced this concept. Instead of trying to build the finish product each day, I solved a smaller problem over and over again, until I ended up with the finished product at the end of the process. I learned a lot about how I should collaborate with others. Often collaboration is thought to be two people doing half the work. In my experience this model actually leads to both people doing less than half the work as they wait for each other to pick up the slack. During my project I stumbled upon an alternative model of collaboration. Firstly, by taking full responsibility for the outcome of the project full commitment became non negotiable. Secondly, by removing my ego and understanding what I should and should not ask for help for, collaboration became efficient and natural. For example, I could have tried to read every book on contemporary Native Americans and North American Indigenous peoples but instead I reached out to Professor Monika Siebert who is an expert. The key to productive work is to balancing asking for help with solving your own problems. It also did not hurt that I designed my project to have the least amount of problems I couldn’t solve myself. I started with manageable problems and slowly worked out from there. Before I knew it I had solved a problem that I would not have been able to do at the start of the project.