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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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New Porcupine School Christened as Natural Learning House
by Mary Garrigan, Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal staff
credits: photo by Kristina Baker, Rapid City Journal staff

PORCUPINE -- Architect Tammy Eagle Bull wanted to build a school that belonged in its community. On Friday, during the grand opening of the $15 million elementary school she designed, Eagle Bull told the 182 students of the new Porcupine Day School that she wants them to build a culture of respect around it.

"Respect the school, and respect yourselves. In it, you'll grow to be Lakota men and women of tomorrow," Eagle Bull told the student body. "Most of all, have fun here. But don't break anything!"

Seventh-grader Brandon Pourier was having lots of fun Friday when the school welcomed dignitaries and officials from tribal and federal governments.

Sen. Tim Johnson canceled his scheduled appearance due to the death of his mother, Ruth, on Friday. Former Sen. Tom Daschle sent a recorded message encouraging the students to find freedom through education at their new school. And Oglala Sioux Tribe vice president William Brewer told students, including his grandchildren who attend there, that they should "take ownership of it, take pride in it and take care of it."

The "Home of the Quills" gymnasium, with its environmentally conscious bamboo floor, was filled with students, school staff and more than 100 community members during a morning of speeches and honoring songs, followed by a traditional wacipi, or powwow. When Emerson Eskeets of the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked the crowd, "How do you like the new school?" people cheered and clapped their approval.

"It's great," Pourier said as he showed a visitor around his new school building. "It's bigger and brighter."

Natural light floods the two-story, 75,000-square foot building that Eagle Bull and her Lincoln, Neb., firm, Encompass Architects, designed into the side of a hill in Porcupine, just a stone's throw away from the old, deteriorating elementary school.

Designed to be three schools in one, the building is divided into three "waunspe tipis" or learning houses, for grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8.

Students were involved in the design process, which began four years ago. "We wanted to get the essence of what the kids wanted into the school," Eagle Bull said. Many kids told the planners, in drawings and letters, that they wanted to feel like they were coming home to a safe place when they came to school. So Eagle Bull designed a "flex" classroom at the center of each tipi that is used as a sort of family room for group activities, art projects and other gatherings. And a secured student entrance is open only to buses and keeps students safe from other vehicle traffic, which is routed to a separate visitor's entrance.

The exterior colors of the school reflect the reservation it inhabits and allow the different grade levels to identify their areas from the outside as well as the inside, giving them a sense of identity. Three different bricks -- schoolhouse red, muted yellow and purple-hued -- are complimented by muted greens, creamy neutrals and natural stone that reflect the ever-changing tones of the sky, the cedar-covered ridges and the distant Badlands.

Inside, there are subtle Lakota star quilt designs on the flooring and a dream catcher motif on the media center's ceiling. The computer lab has 24 student computer carrels, and another 25 wireless laptop computers are expected. A life-skills room teaches cooking and kitchen skills.

With its many energy-saving designs -- including geothermal heating system, low-water landscaping and environmentally-friendly roofing materials -- the building hopes to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver rating for its sustainable design and energy efficiencies.

Nature is integrated into play areas and landscaping that forgoes the usual sod lawn and sprinkler system. A trike path and hillside climbing area behind the K-2 section encourages the youngest students to engage with nature, replacing the standard-issue swings and slides. "They used to know the names of birds. They used to not be afraid of bugs. That's how we mostly grew up, and we wanted to give that back to kids. When the kids play outside here, they'll be playing in nature," Eagle Bull said.

Eagle Bull grew up in Aberdeen, but her roots are in Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where her parents live now. She earned her undergraduate degree from Arizona State University and a master's degree from the University of Minnesota.

Porcupine School Board President Paul Iron Cloud said the young Lakota architect is a proud role model for kids like Brandon Pourier.

Brandon wants to be an NBA basketball player when he grows up, but the educational opportunities afforded by his new school just might help him find a different career path, in case the NBA doesn't work out. Math is his favorite subject, he said, and he thinks being an architect might be cool, too.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or

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