Artwork alive with rolling waves of colour covers the windows and massive doors are inscribed with a graphic carefully crafted to reflect Indigenous values and teachings.
You’re clearly meant to feel a strong sense of arrival when you walk into the new kihêw waciston Indigenous centre, but the true story behind this space is in how people feel when they leave.
“Our hope is that people – all people – walk out of kihêw waciston feeling inspired, hopeful and connected,” says Terri Suntjens, kâ-nêkânêstahk iyiniw pamihtamowina – director of Indigenous initiatives at MacEwan.
Making sure that happens has been a multi-year project that involves both creating a new physical space for the Indigenous centre and an environment in which it could flourish. Three years ago, Terri explains, Indigenous initiatives at the university were expanded to include not only Indigenous students, but all faculty and staff members and the community, and the resulting demand quickly outstripped the capacity of the old kihêw waciston space in Building 7.
It made sense then, says Terri, that the journey of creating a new home for kihêw waciston would also be grounded in the openness, learning and trust that Indigenization demands.
“There was an understanding that Indigenous initiatives should be led by Indigenous people, and we – our kihêw waciston staff, our Elders, our Indigenous Advisory Council and our students – were all trusted to do that. Our contributions were valued.”
“Our hope is that people – all people – walk out of kihêw waciston feeling inspired, hopeful and connected.”
Stuart MacLean, associate vice-president, Facilities, says that this project was unlike any other he has seen in his 20 years at the university. Rather than starting with discussions around functional infrastructure and improving building conditions, the process of creating a new kihêw waciston was rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being.
“We weren’t talking about Indigenization with this project – we were living it,” says Stuart.
From the beginning, Elders and Knowledge Keepers were deeply involved, sharing their perspectives, teachings, ceremonies, and ways of knowing and being with the design team, including the university’s facilities and kihêw waciston staff, and architects from DIALOG.
“This new space is about deconstructing a colonial narrative,” says Roxanne Tootoosis, Indigenous Knowledge Keeper with kihêw waciston. “Our Indigenous worldview is about looking at things for the benefit of all – it’s about how everything is interconnected, and that is what we want people to see when they come into this new space.”
Translating layered, complex ideas and teachings into building specifications and blueprints that would facilitate sharing Indigenous knowledge fell to lead architect Donna Clare of DIALOG. “There was an openness from the Indigenous community to help us understand this project through their lens,” she says. “A gentleness and a willingness to tell us when we did not get things right.”
The result of this open, honest and inclusive design process based on truth and learning is a space built to facilitate each of those things on an ongoing basis.
It’s what makes the new kihêw waciston a place of profound potential, says Roxanne. “Here, reconciliation is not just the buzzword of the day.”
A massive block of basalt stone juts out from a block of figured wood.
“The welcome desk represents the pipe in our sacred pipe teachings – the stone is the bowl of the pipe and the wood is the stem,” explains Terri. That’s meaningful, she says, because pipe ceremonies are places where participants are truthful, and where decisions and agreements are made.
It’s just one example of how the elements of kihêw waciston are steeped in meaning. Look down and you’ll see the hardwood floor is positioned to reflect the four directions. Look behind the desk you’ll see tipi poles. To the left an office is flagged with a bright block of yellow, representing its easterly direction on the medicine wheel. Everywhere there are connections to ceremony, treaty, learning, healing – and the land.
“I hope people feel the spirit of the place and how grounded it is in being of the land,” says Donna. “In our time with the Elders, they explained how important it is to stand on the land – to respect the land and to learn from it. I think this will be something that I will carry through on all my design projects going forward – how important it is to be authentic to the land around you.”
A safe place to land.
kihêw waciston means "eagle's nest" in Cree, reflecting one of the centre’s key goals: to provide students with a place to grow and be nurtured. Staff at the centre work hard to "feather the nest" – to provide a warm, welcoming space for students to gather, study, relax and connect with their roots.
While a second home wasn’t exactly what Bachelor of Commerce student Chase Soosay was looking for when he first visited kihêw waciston – he wanted information about scholarships and places to study – it was a welcome surprise.
“I always heard growing up that it’s not the house, it’s the people that make a home a home,” he says. “Everyone was so welcoming from the get-go. We started joking and laughing.”
For many, kihêw waciston is a home away from home – it’s a space to study, socialize, recharge and be included.
Chase remembers days in the old centre when a student would walk in, see the centre was full, and leave. “I look forward to being more inclusive – including everybody that wants to come here to study or participate in the events going on.”
Additional student space is a key feature of the new centre. Rows of computers and a large grouping of tables leading into the kitchen area are all designed to encourage students to work together. There are private spaces for students to meet with advisors, Elders and Knowledge Keepers who can address students’ questions and concerns, dispense advice and information, or lend a sympathetic ear. And they’re here for everyone, says Keestin O’Dell, student engagement advisor at kihêw waciston.
“We have workshops and learning opportunities, but you don’t have to have an appointment to come here,” he says. “There’s lots of learning and sharing that happens just organically by spending time together.”
Look up and see the night sky.
Based on photography by Wilfred A. Buck, science facilitator at the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, this special feature shares the story of the achakos ininewuk (the Star People). “We will have Elders come in and do traditional teachings of of the constellations,” says Terri.
Under the night sky installation is a hammock-like swing (the wîwîp’son Indigenous Therapeutic Swing created by Dr. Darlene Auger), which uses the traditional parenting practice of rocking babies to sleep. For adults, it’s a way to reduce stress, promote healing and reconnect with one’s self.
This is a wellness space – a place for Knowledge Keepers to share teachings and traditional stories and for students to connect. Creating this space required the design team to use an Indigenous approach to well-being.
“Elders explain well-being as connecting to each other and to Mother Earth, but also connecting to your past and with your future – we need to understand how the decisions we make today will impact the next seven generations,” says Donna. That meant looking at the long-term impact of the spaces being created, and the need for them to resonate with the people who will follow.
A huge flat-sawn circle of wood anchors a massive kitchen island.
“When we think about our own homes, our kitchens are often the heart – it’s where people sit around the table and have conversations and share food,” says Krista Hanscomb, community engagement coordinator and student advisor with kihêw waciston. “There’s really something about sitting together and sharing a meal, and a lot of our students do that.”
Food is also tied to reciprocity, explains Roxanne. “When we invite people into our home, the first thing we offer is food. If they make the time to come visit us, we give them sustenance to help carry them when they leave our home.”
Even the process of creating the centre at times involved sharing food. “It was really powerful, the willingness of the Indigenous community, to help us understand the world through their lens by inviting us to feasts, celebrations and ceremony,” says Donna.
Curved white panels float overhead.
A round segment of grass-green carpeting is underfoot and floor-to-ceiling windows create a connection to the outdoors, shaping a space for ceremony, teaching and socializing that takes its inspiration from the tipi.
“We always open and end in circle because in our circle process, there is no hierarchy,” says Roxanne. “We come together and share food, culture and teachings. Everyone is allowed to speak their minds and their hearts regardless of their worldview. We leave our titles and academic credentials at the door. It’s a place to be with each other.”
The gathering space was much needed – the ability to accommodate large community activities allows kihêw waciston to facilitate the kind of connections that advance reconciliation. Now there is a purpose-built spot to host gatherings with community partners, and the programs and initiatives that come out of them.
Communities come together in different ways, for different reasons and with different needs, so in order for the large gathering space to truly embrace and support the idea of community, it had to be flexible, adaptable and accessible. Seating can be configured to accommodate everything from pipe ceremonies, drumming and crafting to meetings, classes and teachings. AV technology allows for video conferencing and remote workshops, allowing people to gather no matter where they are on the land.
Stretching onto the campus grounds and edging toward the neighbourhood.
To the north there is a firepit and space for a tipi. To the south, the university’s Treaty 6 marker – a sculpture entitled Mother Bear Prays for Earth’s Healing. And along the western walls of the centre, a medicine garden will be cultivated.
These outdoor elements not only announce the presence of kihêw waciston – and the university’s commitment to Indigenization – to people passing by, they also support land-based teaching, an important part of many Indigenous cultures. In order for that teaching to be authentic, the land itself had to be authentic.
“We were talking about some different plantings and materials that could be used on the site, and at one point the Elders and Knowledge Keepers said, ‘That's from Alberta, but not this part of Alberta,’” says Donna. “They reminded us to really think about where we are and the specific beauty of this place, and to stand on that ground and connect to it.”
Mother Bear Prays for Earth Healing
“The bears that I carve are spiritual beings who help humans bond to Earth. That is the first role of the bear – to care for the Earth’s healing when there are imbalances.”
Indigenizing this university and embracing the role it plays as Edmonton’s downtown university means inviting people in, creating understanding and sharing knowledge.
And while the Indigenous centre’s new spaces were carefully designed to be welcoming and inclusive, and to encourage open and honest communication and learning, says Stuart, success depends less on the physical spaces themselves and more on how they are used. “It’s in how those spaces will bring people together to share teachings, experiences and knowledge.”
The best way for students, faculty, staff and community members to do that?
“Come visit,” says Terri. “Ask questions, talk to people and explore this space. Everyone is welcome here.”