Wampanoag Tribal Building Reflects Native American Values

The new facility on the island of Martha's Vineyard aims for minimum disturbance and maximum use of local resources

FROM the outside, the Wampanoag Indians' new tribal building looks simply like a large house. It is made of wood, has gray shingles with maroon trim, and sits unpretentiously on the side of a hill.

Inside the facility, however, is a treasure trove of environmental features. This energy-efficient administrative building uses a state- of-the-art lighting system, includes a composting toilet, and features recycled materials in its floors, carpets, insulation, and room dividers.

This unique building, which opened its doors in January, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on the southwestern tip of Martha's Vineyard. In this island town of Gay Head the Wampanoag Indians live on 160 acres of tribal land.

On a humid summer afternoon, tribal chairwoman Beverly Wright offers visitors a tour. Delighted with the new facility, she says it embraces the same environmental ideals Indians valued for centuries.

``As native Americans, we have been environmentally sensitive all of our lives,'' she says. ``We only take what we need from the land.... And when we take something, we thank the Great Spirit and hopefully we replace it.''

Tribal offices are under one roof instead of the three separate run-down houses used previously, places mice found inviting for chewing on office computer wires.

Now, all tribal health, education, economic, and natural-resource offices are in the new building, as well as several meeting rooms, a library, kitchen, and outdoor deck. A total of 20 people work in the $1.3 million build-ing, funded through a combination of federal loans and tribal money.

Though simple in construction, the building offers subtle Wampanoag-inspired design features. Created by the New England-based environmental-architecture firm ARC Design Group, the building features in its indoor archways the curved style of the Wam-panoag weetoos, traditional round covered tents. Green wicker chairs with colorful cushions decorate the lobby and meeting rooms.

Another important design feature is the comfortable look and feel of the building.

``When we first asked the Wampanoags: `What is the soul of this building going to be?' their response was that they wanted it to be a home and didn't want it to feel institutional,'' says John Abrams, a partner at ARC.

The building is set back from the main highway on a newly paved road surrounded by freshly cut grass. A hillside location, rather than a hilltop, was chosen so the building would present less of an unnatural obstruction on the land.

Inside, ample sunlight from windows and skylights contributes to the spacious, homelike atmosphere. Windows are made of specially coated glass or low-emissivity glass. The special glass helps draw in sunlight and heat on the building's southern side. The glass also draws in sunlight but excludes heat during the summer on the northern side.

In fact, 65 percent of the windows are on the building's south side for optimal sunlight exposure. On the first level, sunlight bounces off light-reflective surfaces on ``light shelves.'' These shelves help distribute light throughout a room.

Electric lighting works in tandem with sunlight. A control system actually dims or strengthens the lights in proportion to sunlight. Lights are also triggered by motion sensors and will automatically turn off when people leave a room.

SING sunlight helps cut down on the building's energy costs substantially, notes Marc Rosenbaum, engineer at ARC Design.

``Lighting energy is very typically the highest energy user in commercial space,'' he says.

There is no air-conditioning except in the photocopier room. The building is heated by sunlight and an oil-heating system.

Recycling and composting are key features. The composting toilet, which is odorless, converts human waste into compost that is later used by a local farmer. Wash-water waste from sinks (graywater) is filtered and sent to planting beds in the lobby and meeting room. The water is then used for house plants, flowers, and even lettuce and parsley patches.

Recycled products are used throughout the building. Ceramic tiles, for example, are made from automobile windshields, carpets from old plastic milk bottles, doormats from old tires, and insulation from recycled newspapers.

Office employees are pleased with their new facility. Beth Kaeka, tribal property and supply officer, is glad the tribe conducts all its business in one building instead of three. She admits, however, that she was at first put off by the composting toilet.

``It was a very new thing and I was a little nervous,'' she says.

Matthew Van der Hoop, tribal natural-resources director, says the environmental aspects of the building are important, especially on Martha's Vineyard, which relies on only one aquifer for its water supply.

``We have to be very conscientious of what goes into the ground here on the island,'' he says.

Besides its new tribal building, Wright hopes to build a new gymnasium here, 30 new family- housing units, and a light industrial area with a post office and restaurant. The tribe is also negotiating with state and federal officials to build a new gambling casino in New Bedford, Mass.

The Wampanoags were only recognized as a tribe by the federal government in 1987. The new tribal building is the first the Wampanoags have built as a tribe in hundreds of years.

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