a Tribe or not a Tribe?

a version of this post was originally published on the Post Reservation Blog (12.09.15)

by Annie Coombs

Present day tribal relationships with regard to family, community and membership have little similarity to tribal relationships prior to western engagement with the indigenous population in the United States. Where previously tribal membership was fluid and defined by community, today enrollment is defined by science and law. Today if you have Native American ancestry, you have membership to the tribe your ancestors belonged to at the time they engaged with non-natives (assuming you have the legally designated percentage of blood from that tribe to qualify as a member). You cannot move between tribes, where in the past you could do this through marriage or adoption by. Today, membership through marriage is allowed by a few tribes and not allowed by others. Previously the benefit of being part of a tribe was sharing communal resources (including food and shelter), building relationships through families, and safety provided by being part of a group, today those benefits are primarily provided by financial remuneration from the US government, ‘tribal’ governments who answer to and are financed by the US government, and ‘tribal’ police who have little authority on reservations and no authority with non-tribal members. When tribal membership shifted to legal status rather than community inclusion, claiming legal tribal membership became less about belonging to a group, and more defined by individual ownership, property and eligibility for remuneration from the US government. That is not to say there is no community on reservations, but rather a new legal definition of membership into tribal communities and its associated individual financial benefits, re-framed the traditional concept of tribal membership.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Pow-Wow | Eagle Butte, SD | September 2015

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Pow-Wow | Eagle Butte, SD | September 2015

At the turn of the century as physical boundaries and reservations were outlined, tribal membership suddenly gave an individual benefits such as trust land (land that was once  shared), free food, free education, and free housing. Enrollment in a federally recognized tribe was a way the government could track native non-citizens prior to full inclusion in the United States.  Most people native to the United States weren’t offered US citizenship until 1924. This US citizenship was a double edged sword, offering inclusion into US society but simultaneously forfeiting sovereignty for tribes. As traditional sources of food, such as the buffalo herds on the plains, rapidly disappeared, many had no choice but to ‘enroll’ with their tribe and accept new ways to sustain themselves through individual benefits for  ‘tribal members’ rather than through the traditional tribal community. While treaty arrangements between tribes and the US government justly provided financial and sustenance remunerations for lost land and a way of life, they also corrupted the communal notion of tribe, which was the fabric of Native American life.

A present day legal battle within the Chukchansi Tribe (This American Life, 491: Tribes, march 29, 2013) over membership illustrates a corruption of the traditional collective notion of tribe. The Chukchansi tribe in California is actively dis-enrolling members in an attempt to increase individual payouts from a local tribally owned Casino. With each member dis-enrolled the remaining members receive higher payouts from the casino’s income. In this case, membership in the tribe is no longer about community, but rather about individual entitlement to money and favoritism. The commodification of tribal membership through competition for benefits and limited resources, including Casino payouts, government financial payouts, food stamps, housing and land allocation fractures intratribal relationships. The Chukchansi example is extreme, but shows how in this case benefits rather than community are now defining membership to a tribe.

The corruption of tribal communities through their engagement with the west (or what many refer to as the white world) has left many Native Americans in limbo between a lost way of life in their community and an alien American culture to which they are also outsiders. When the US government created a legal designation needed for recognition of tribal membership it ultimately divided people rather than protected them by incentivizing self-interest over communal aspirations.


"Energy: Yes! Quality: No!"

By Ashley Gange

As another summer in NYC wound down to a close and chilly breezes swept in deadlines, engagements and meetings like fallen leaves, I found myself drawn back to memories of an anonymously sweaty day spent in the Bronx visiting the ‘Gramsci Monument’-- a temporary piece of art -- a few summers ago.  Somehow this day leaves an equally odd and striking impression in my mind.  I was a spectator on the sidelines of an urban intervention that seemed completely arbitrary at the time.  Only now have I begun to unfurl what is salient and lasting about this ‘sculpture.’  

The Dia Art funded folly sat on the grounds of The Forest Houses, a New York City Housing Authority development in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, New York from March through September 2013. The artist, Thomas Hirschhorn aimed to: “Establish a new term of monument; Provoke encounters; Create an event; Think Gramsci today.”  Essentially, the piece was a plywood and MDF multi-room pavilion which housed a children's art studio, a community run radio station, a small ICT lab, a cafe and garden, and a ‘Gramsci Archive’-- a reading room devoted to texts written by and/or about Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Socialist political thinker.  What was fascinating less content than was the way that people who lived in The Forest Houses activated these spaces- they were not sitting empty, people seemed to want to engage and enjoyed using the pop-up.  Who wouldn’t?  Where else can you find a community asset like this?   What I couldn’t at the time get beyond was that the Gramsci connection felt absurd and tenuous at best.  Why couldn’t this just be a temporary community space?  What did this combination of useful and unprecedented resources have to do with an anti-Fascist, Italian Socialist?  Sure, Gramsci has an ‘empowered by education,’ Bolshevik origin story-- fighting his way out of poverty to become an educated Proletariat thinker-- and there are certainly ripples of the oppressive downward force of capitalism present in the NYCHA housing complex, where the artist chose to site the project.  Yet, would this project not have been just as strong if this element was removed and the useful services, spaces, and community ownership remained?  

Incapable of  reconciling these questions, I filed this place away in my mind and only now, as OIKOS is working with organizations in need of a ‘Vision Plan’ have I found the ‘Gramsci Monument’ relevant.  As program and mission-driven organizations begin Capital Campaigns, one of the materials they need is a visualization of their long term plan to transform their space and clarity around how it would increase their capabilities programmatically- how these theoretically ideal spaces will change the future for them and their communities.  Obviously, these plans are effective consensus building tools and also allow for a structured and disciplined phasing strategy, but what about the present?  What about the people who spend their valuable time contributing personal insights to this community charretting process?  The people who show up, time and time again- hopeful that this beautiful and well-considered image will one day soon be the community that they and their children enjoy?  These things take time, yes, of course…

What does this have to do with that day in the Bronx years ago?  Everything. What if what phased Master Plans, Architects, Owners Representatives, charts and proformas can’t address, public art can?  What I am lobbying for is immediacy, experimentation and the generation of temporary operational spaces that harness and reflect the best intentions of these long-term visions. Where buildings require funding and approvals in layers and in excess, public art has the benefit of agility. Hirschhorn, of his work states that it has “energy yes, quality no…”  I understand this as a call for action.  What can be learned from all of this planning and ideation and what too can we gain from doing something now, with what we have that gets us somewhere other than where we now are?




Building Blocks

by Annie Coombs

Last Friday, I attended the retirement party for a middle school teacher of mine, Stan Brimberg at the Bank Street School. He affected generations of students, which was demonstrated by the crowd that showed on Friday, with graduation dates going back to 1986. At the event, Stan told a story of a period in his life where he thought teaching might not be for him. It was the mid-eighties, and he had been teaching in a difficult public school in New York City. The prescribed curriculum was stifling and ineffective and he thought maybe it was time to do something else. He looked to alternative teaching techniques.

One day he went to a workshop and saw a video of two children playing  one a few years older than the other. The older child meticulously built an elaborate structure out of blocks while the younger one watched uninvited or unable to participate. When the older child was done, the younger one came over and knocked the whole thing down. This simple gesture served as an 'aha' moment for Stan. The lesson he took from the interaction was that the younger one destroyed the structure because he hadn’t built it and therefore felt no connection to it. Stan deduced from this encounter that he needed to give students the tools to answer their own questions rather than providing answers on how to do things.

The story resonated with me, because I realized that much of my philosophy on life and building came from the message in this story. It speaks to the behavior of people of all ages and the need for people to feel an attachment to the places they live or use if they’re going to enjoy them and maintain them. Attachment doesn’t come from being given something without choosing it. Rather it comes from making choices. Choices build bonds. Choices can be as small as picking a paint color to choosing where you live or how it is laid out, but all of these choices strengthen a person’s connection to a space.

At Bank Street, one way they work with the kids to connect to their space is by allowing the students to paint murals in the stairwells.

At Bank Street, one way they work with the kids to connect to their space is by allowing the students to paint murals in the stairwells.

A core belief of ours at OIKOS, is the idea that people should have a hand – literally and/or figuratively – in the making of their space. This is why we push for community engagement in all phases of a public interest building project, as we believe it is at the core of making a more inclusive and engaged community comprised of happier and more connected individuals.


The Power of the Collective: A Real Estate Investment Co-op

On April 28th, OIKOS and our collaborator Sure We Can presented a vision for Sure We Can's site at the kick-off meeting of New York City's 1st Real Estate Investment Cooperative. We were surprised by the overwhelming turn out for the event and interest in the idea of sharing investment in property. People spoke about  the difficultly and frustration many New Yorkers share trying to preserve their culture and lifestyles as their neighborhoods are developed by individuals and corporations with no connection to them.

The Real Estate Investment Co-op was born out of those frustrations and peoples' desires to have power in the development or preservation of their neighborhoods. We presented with Sure We Can, because their organization has community and environmental sustainability at its core, and is at risk of having their lot sold out from under them to developers in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The organization is New York City's only nonprofit redemption center for canners, people who collect bottles and cans on the street for a living, and provides economic and emotional security to a marginalized group of New Yorkers. Below is our presentation of the project with Ana De Luco, Executive Director of Sure We Can.


The Cost of Redemption

Since the fall of 2014, OIKOS has been collaborating with a non-profit bottle redemption center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Sure We Can. We have been working with them to strategize their expansion into a sustainability center. The planned growth will better support their bottle redemption operation, create a more robust composting program, a teaching garden and an urban-sustainability learning center.

Bottle Sorting -  photo courtesy of Sure We Can

Bottle Sorting - photo courtesy of Sure We Can

Sure We Can is New York City’s only nonprofit redemption center. It is made for and run by canners, people who collect bottles and cans on the street and redeem them as a source of income. Canning is an appealing source of income for over 6000 New Yorkers for a variety of reasons: some don’t speak english well and therefore have trouble getting other jobs, some are elderly people trying to do productive things with their time, some struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, but all benefit from the flexibility of the work - making their own hours and not having to report to a boss.

Many canners in the city work alone and bring their cans to a grocery stores to redeem 5 cent deposits on them from a machine. The store in turn receives a 3.5 cent handling fee for every bottle they process. Sure We Can’s model is different. The canners at Sure We Can live and collect their bottles in Bushwick and the neighboring high density areas. They sort them together at Sure We Can, so collectively they are able to receive 8.5 cents for every bottle sorted. This money pays canners for sorting & collecting, four staff members and rent on the Sure We Can property. This model of canning differs from the grocery store model, because Sure We Can is able to provide a community space and much needed support network for canners. Canners are a hard working group of people working on the fringe of New York City’s economy and society, they play a vital but mostly invisible role in cleaning our streets and improving our environment.

Photo courtesy of Sure We Can

Photo courtesy of Sure We Can

As of late, Sure We Can has run into a major issue, their landlord has put their lot up for sale. Sure We Can has been exploring ways to secure their lot at 219 McKibbin Street, including appealing to their local council people and looking to a newly formed Real Estate Investment Cooperative to loan them money to help purchase their property or have it held in trust for their organization. So far some money has been pledged, but nothing near what is required to secure the land and develop it to it’s fullest potential as a sustainability center. Without a government intervention and/or corporate sponsorship, Sure We Can operates at the risk of having their land sold out from under them leaving their already vulnerable community without an alternative. As gentrification pushes deeper into Brooklyn, it is critical that organizations such as Sure We Can, whose services rely on density, can remain.

Sure We Can, 219 McKibbin Street

Sure We Can, 219 McKibbin Street

We’d also like to explore another option for funding, unredeemed bottle deposits. For every redeemable bottle made for sale in New York State, the distributor is paid an extra 8.5 cents from retailers so that the bottle can later be redeemed. However, many bottles are put in recycling bins in residences and commercial buildings and are picked up by the city’s sanitation system. Those bottles never get redeemed, so what happens to the 8.5 cent? Who’s money is that? We would argue it’s yours.

Since 1982 when the bottle bill was passed, New Yorkers have paid extra money on every bottle we’ve purchased with the assumption that it will be returned and redeem. However, until recently if you didn’t return that bottle, that money was kept by beverage distributors. Eight and half cents may seem like small change, but it historically has added up to millions of dollars in extra revenue for beverage distributors. In 2008, policy makers recognized that that money didn't really belong to distributors, and amended the law so now 80% of that unredeemed money goes to the New York State government. In 2013, the law was changed again stipulating that that 80% should go to the EPA’s fund for New York State. But we still wonder a few things: who’s money is that? why do distributors get to keep 20% of that money? should the 80% go to the EPA or should it actually go specifically to recycling related funding? In 2014, $15 million of the EPA’s funding came from unredeemed bottles. While the EPA is a worthwhile investment, it seems to us that that money should be used in the spirit of the bottle bill, which was created to incentivize recycling and reduce litter.

Sure We Can collects and returns seven million bottles per year, many of which would at best end up in a landfill and at worst end up in our oceans. Sure We Can acts as a vital source for sustainability for the city, not just environmentally but also culturally. The organization cleans up our environment, is improving it with new initiatives for composting and urban farming, provides a social and professional network for a marginalized population and teaches school children about urban sustainability. We propose using unredeemed bottle money to help Sure We Can secure their lot. Is it logical? Yes. Is it feasible? Tell us what you think.

Let's keep Brooklyn in the house!

Let's keep Brooklyn in the house!