By Douglas Sydnor
Becoming a licensed architect is a challenging path requiring a minimum of eight years, including a professional architectural degree, a three-year internship, and passing the rigorous licensing examinations. So, it is impressive to learn of someone that overcame these hurdles who faced challenging circumstances growing up. Dennis C. Numkena, AIA, is an inspiring story who pursued his dream of becoming an architect.
1976 Pyramid Lake & Paiute Tribal Museum, NV
Numkena was born in Moenkopi Village, a remote farming community located south of Tuba City on the Hopi Reservation in 1941. He grew up in a small stone house as the youngest of five boys and was a Snake Clan member.
Numkena left the reservation at age 13 after his Kiva initiation ceremony. He was more academically and socially inclined than his brothers, so his father allowed him to attend the Phoenix Indian School, a government boarding school that educated Native American youth. “He was the one who told me to go away and never come back until I could provide some kind of service,” Numkena said.
The future architect stayed until his sophomore year, when “I finally ran away from it. At that time, there was no philosophy there. It was a regimented way of trying to raise Indian kids.” Numkena escaped one evening to a McDonald’s just across Central Avenue and called a young speech teacher. She took him home to live with her family in Scottsdale, and he spent his junior and senior years at Scottsdale High School.
Numkena was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy but had trouble envisioning himself at sea, commenting, “What do Hopis know about sailing ships?” Instead, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, which assigned him to Governor’s Island outside New York City. Numkena attended a nearby computer school and visited the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The building inspired him to become an architect. "That was the first time I really got a look at structure,” he commented.
His final year in the Army was 1964 at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona. In civilian life, Numkena worked for a computer company but soon pursued architecture. That year, he entered the University of Arizona architecture program and, the following summer, worked for architect Bennie M. Gonzales, FAIA. Numkena subsequently transferred to Arizona State University, where he received his 1970 Bachelor of Arts Degree in Architecture. His architectural aesthetics were influenced by Gonzales' work, using similar materials and approaching his buildings in a sculptural sort of way.
Numkena then formed the first Native American-owned architecture firm, Numkena Associates Architects AIA, which opened at 7 West Adams Street in Phoenix. Numkena was dedicated to the idea of reinterpreting the language of the Southwestern indigenous people and particularly the Anasazi, ancestors of the Hopi.
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This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Mar/Apr 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 2.