Connectivity, Design Criticism

The Impermanent Beauty of Cree Design

Tanis Worme

Apr 5, 2024

Historically, architecture prioritizes structures that satisfy criteria of monumentality and permanence. Architecture and good design employ language that users innately understand; however, interpretation of space, like art and tools, must be considered within cultural context, and more importantly, within a specific cultural context. Plains Cree architecture can be intangible and immaterial, but it succinctly reflects our perspectives in that nothing can exist purely in a physical state. Our inextricable link to land subverts barriers that establish indoor and outdoor space, and our fundamental laws contradict permanent structures.

It is well documented through the existing historic art collections that North American colonizers paid specific interest to Indigenous Pacific Coast art. Douglas Cole writes in Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts, that by 1875, there were more Salish pieces in “Cambridge than in Comox,” and that “the city of Washington and New York City probably housed more British Columbia material than British Columbia herself. In a lecture by one of the Indigenous designers who worked on the Canadian Museum of History, he explained that its Grand Hall references architecture of Indigenous Nations of the Pacific Coast because Plains Cree lifestyle didn’t allow building to the scale and complexity that would accommodate that space. He went on to say that the Plains Cree were preoccupied with survival. This is by far the most common and widely shared misinterpretation of Plains Cree life. Upon settler arrival, North American was not an untouched oasis. 

Our architecture is not defined by our survival; our worldview defines our architecture. 
Tanis Worme

Given its prominence in international art collections, Plains Cree architecture and design remains a poorly considered topic in academia: When our work is included in texts, it is clearly researched through a Western lens. Our structures are misrepresented, and thus perceived to be driven by a constant struggle for survival. The tipi, for example, is an aesthetic structure that merges abundant material to a sophisticated comprehension of strength of form. My sister Tara Worme, who has prioritized learning our language at Blue Quills University, took a tipi-making course that merges design, language, and collaborative making practices. Their professor, master tipi maker okimāwiskēw Margaret Cardinal, recognizes that our language needs to be activated with the body and is learned in tandem with the revitalization of our culture. Morphemes are investigated with action and collective creating offers a deeper understanding than direct language translations. Tipis can be reassembled and transported for continual reuse, giving years to its life cycle; however, its simplicity belies the complexity of Plains Cree knowledge that make its design possible. Our architecture is not defined by our survival; our worldview defines our architecture. 

A landscape of a grassland with clouds just above the horizon.

White Cap Dakota First Nation, Saskatchewan, Canada. Photo by Milo Redbear.

Indigenous peoples coevolved with the land and had knowledge of when and how to sculpt the environment in ways that would make the land fruitful for animals and humans alike. For instance, it is necessary to incite controlled fires to create nutrient-rich soil that would spawn new growth for desired vegetation, and in turn, certain foliage would invite specific fauna that would serve as a food source for another population of beings. Buffalo, the main food source for my Cree ancestors, played an active role in the design of the grasslands they inhabited. Plains Cree knowledge keeper Glenda Abbott conducted personal research on buffalo relations and indigenous plant species of the Plains; her findings confirm a critical symbiosis: the survival of Buffalo and Indian bread root requires a thriving interspecies relationship. The buffalo itself, which is generally associated with the Plains Cree, were hunted in large numbers to sustain enormous tribes. The landscape was transformed with cairns creating specialized drive lanes that would lead buffalo off cliffs, called buffalo jumps, that were disguised within the landscape. Neolithic caves and rock-hewn temples which are considered amongst the oldest relics of architecture, like buffalo jumps, are naturally formed in their entirety. They show honest reflections of cultural value imbued with thousands of years of human evolution. 

With spaces I’ve built and continually re-create with my extended kin, I connect to Plains Cree ontologies, specifically Plains Cree concepts of space. Notions of impermanence are not analogous to installation art but instead exist independently as an essential component of design and construction methodologies. My Cree ancestors understood concepts of site-specific architecture and enduring structure but there was little practicality for permanent building when their pedagogies, as witnessed through enduring intellectual traditions, centered land relations and resource sustainability. Every aspect of Plains Cree ontologies recognizes human beings’ insignificance and so our time in the physical realm is designed to give back and show gratitude to the Creator and the land. 

I have learned to bridge my studies in the academy to my learning from land, and I interpret with a Cree lens the pedagogies of my extended Inuk and Anishinaabeg kin when I am invited to the respective territories they call home, including Whitefish River First Nation. I learned to clean fish on these shores and decorated their rocks with blood and guts. Though these shores have changed shape over the years, Lake Huron’s vast scale sees wind change shores within hours, while our activity in motorboats sends oscillations toward the shore within minutes. Rock formations we recognized are suddenly hidden below a shimmering surface. With great movement water eventually wipes rocks clean, returning discarded fish parts back to the water. 

During a recent visit with my Inuk kin in Baffin Island, we built a smokehouse into the land. We only used construction items that had hitched a ride on creeping tides and two sides of exposed tundra rock. We carefully hung 20 to 30 arctic char on rungs of driftwood and draped the rock with a tarp. When we finished, we disassembled our building, returning the space back to its original form. 

Former design president of Braun Dieter Rams says that “[good] design is honest...[it’s] unobtrusive...[it’s] long-lived...” and that it disguises its complexity in the simplest terms possible. These principles in design and architecture need to be revisited when considering Plains Cree architecture. While the Indigenous architecture I continue to find defies narrowly defined Western notions of permanence and monumentality, it communicates ingenuity and significant value to our intellectual traditions and future generations.


Douglas Cole, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts (Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1985), 286.


Dennis Martinez, Melissa K. Nelson Enrique Salmòn. Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2008), 88-115.


Glenda Abbott, personal correspondence, Feb. 13, 2024.


Alberta, Travel. “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump – Travel Alberta, Canada.” Youtube. October 28, 2013.


Objectified 0:12:35/1:13:45

Tanis Worme is a Plains Cree/Nehiyaw artist born and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—Treaty #6 territory. They use she/they pronouns and are a proud a member of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, with maternal roots in Mistawasis Nehiyawak and paternal roots in Kawacatoose First Nation. Worme’s growing body of studio work considers notions of memory through blood and storytelling while questioning the impulse of colonial thought and dichotomy. Since 2016, Tanis has been living in Ottawa Ontario where they graduated from the Ottawa School of Art's Fine Art Diploma program, specializing in traditional printmaking methods and oil painting. The scope of their practice most recently involves installation and architectural expression, playfully exploring traditional materials used by Nehiyawak since time immemorial. Tanis is currently a design student at the Azrieli School of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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