Born a member of the snake clan from the Hopi village of Moencopi, Dennis Numkena left the reservation shortly after his initiation ceremony in the Kiva his father maintained in their village. Seeing his youngest of four boys both academically and socially inclined, Louis Numkena Sr. gave an adolescent boy into the care of the Phoenix Indian School, one of the many government sponsored boarding schools for Native Americans. Dennis stayed until his sophomore year of high school, successfully escaping one evening across Central Avenue to the landmark golden arches of McDonald’s. With no one else to call, he contacted a teacher. She brought him home to live with her family in Scottsdale where he completed his secondary education at Scottsdale High School. His good grades and a determination for higher education landed him at the Severn Naval Academy Preparatory School, in Maryland. When trying to picture himself months at sea Numkena laughs, “What do Hopis know about sailing ships?” He enlisted into the Army and was trained in computer engineering.
At 22 years Dennis Cecil Numkena was worlds away from his village, living in New York City, standing in the Guggenheim Museum, and suddenly inspired to become an architect. Under the tutelage of his early mentor Benny Gonzales, Numkena received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture from Arizona State University. In 1971, at the age of 30, he formed the first Native American owned architectural firm. The rich architectural history of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest, especially that of the Anasazi, ancestors of the Hopi, caused Numkena to dedicate himself to reinterpreting that language. All the while Numkena and Associates successfully competed for projects, not far from the drawing table, evidence of other passions poured from brushes applying bold colors to canvas. Many signature Numkena buildings also house paintings he created alongside building designs, working drawings and scale models. Art and architecture comfortably share the creative genius of Dennis’ mind.
It was in the Kiva that the boy Numkena was given his gift of art, painting Katsina masks for ceremonies, and it was at his father’s bidding that he travel to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, the “red city.” Louis Numkena Sr. may have been prophetic about his son’s path. He died many years before Dennis made the trip into the Mexican jungle, where in the mid 1990’s Numkena met the ancestors his father told him about. “It’s evident in the architecture,” he maintains. Numkena’s path, set upon him as a youth, has been far from home and yet his life’s work illustrates he’s always en route of his cultural heritage.