Re­con­nect­ing with the land

In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den at Assini­boine Park will nour­ish mind, body and soul

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - JEN ZORATTI jen.zoratti@freep­ Twit­ter: @JenZo­ratti

HEN ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign­ers David Thomas and his daugh­ter Cheyenne were asked to help de­velop the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den — one of the gar­dens that will make up Canada’s Di­ver­sity Gar­dens at Assini­boine Park — he be­gan think­ing about the project the way an en­vi­ron­men­tal de­signer would: with a sketch.

He didn’t think about shiny new build­ings. He was think­ing about the word Assini­boine.

“Assini­boine is a Cree word, which means the stone peo­ple, the peo­ple who cook with stones,” he says.

“So I cre­ated this big field of stones that sig­ni­fied the rocks peo­ple would cook on.”

He left the draw­ing in his sketch­book, but re­vis­ited it during a con­sul­ta­tion work­shop.

“You think of Assini­boine Park, Assini­boine Credit Union, Assini­boine River — you think of it as kind of a cor­po­rate, com­mer­cial name,” he says. “But when we looked at the sketch and took that word and put it into the con­text of what it rep­re­sented, it kind of blew every­one’s minds to see this im­age. It took the word Assini­boine and cre­ated a dif­fer­ent iden­tity.”

The Assini­boine Park Con­ser­vancy’s vi­sion for the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den was to cre­ate an in­clu­sive gath­er­ing space that would hon­our In­dige­nous per­spec­tives, tra­di­tions and cul­ture.

WGer­ald Diele­man, the project di­rec­tor for Canada’s Di­ver­sity Gar­dens, rec­og­nized that such a project must be led by In­dige­nous peo­ple. “We knew we couldn’t just draw some lines on a piece of pa­per and say, ‘This is what that gar­den will be,’” he says. “It would be so in­ap­pro­pri­ate and just not what it was meant to be.”

And so, the Thomases, in part­ner­ship with HTFC Plan­ning and De­sign, hosted two work­shops last fall, invit­ing In­dige­nous peo­ple from all walks of life to of­fer in­sights and ideas.

“We had close to 60 peo­ple — el­ders, ed­u­ca­tors, sci­en­tists, peo­ple who worked with plants — all In­dige­nous peo­ple,” David says. “We had Kevin Brown­lee (cu­ra­tor of arche­ol­ogy) from the Man­i­toba Mu­seum, and Christa Bruneau-Guen­ther from Feast Café.”

The work­shops were un­like any­thing David had ever been a part of during his decades of work­ing in de­sign.

“I think peo­ple re­ally held the process close to their hearts,” he says. “They were ac­tu­ally in­vested in tak­ing that vi­sion for­ward. There was a lot of com­mit­ment from the peo­ple who par­tic­i­pated, and I think that’s be­cause we didn’t run it like a reg­u­lar de­sign work­shop. We told sto­ries. El­ders had teach­ings. We tried to cre­ate an In­dige­nous space to speak from. We talked about mu­sic, we talked about the stars and the Earth, and opened things wide open. I think it’s the spe­cial part of what we Each month, the Free Press takes you down a dif­fer­ent path through


were part of, ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing this de­col­o­nized space.”

For Diele­man, the process made him re­think about how the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den fits into Canada’s Di­ver­sity Gar­dens as a whole, and how its four com­po­nents — the Leaf, the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den, the Cul­tural Mo­saic Gar­dens and the Grove — shouldn’t ex­ist in si­los.

“David was one of the first to say, ‘You need to blend these spa­ces to­gether in­stead of di­vid­ing them into four spots’— that was re­ally en­light­en­ing,” he says.

“Some­thing that res­onates with every­one is food, so we’re look­ing at what we can do with food sources that have been here for­ever. Christa from Feast, she brought so many great ideas and thoughts that in­flu­enced how we look at the Kitchen Gar­den (one of the fea­tured gar­dens in the Cul­tural Mo­saic Gar­dens). This was that idea of blend­ing these gar­dens and find­ing ways for them to speak to each other.”

The de­sign plans for the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den echo what’s hap­pen­ing at some of Win­nipeg’s cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions — namely the Win­nipeg Art Gallery, whose ground­break­ing In­sur­gence/Resur­gence is prov­ing that In­dige­nous art (and artists) can be con­tem­po­rary.

After all, In­dige­nous cul­ture doesn’t ex­ist solely in the past. It lives in the present, too.

“I think we wanted to cer­tainly avoid some stereo­type kind of ideas peo­ple have,” David says. “As a de­signer, when­ever you’re in­volved in In­dige­nous projects, every­one wants the 100-foot teepee — that al­ways comes up — or tur­tle-shaped build­ings and things like that. We wanted to cre­ate some­thing new. Not that we should move past those things, but we wanted to move in a di­rec­tion where we’re cre­at­ing new pos­si­bil­i­ties for iden­tity.”

“One of the things we’re try­ing to do is get peo­ple to con­nect on a dif­fer­ent level, to have these spa­ces where we can con­nect with peo­ple who are not In­dige­nous,” Cheyenne says.

“Like, the out­door kitchen is a space where we can have el­ders cook­ing and non-In­dige­nous peo­ple can come and it’s a free space to con­nect and build those re­la­tion­ships with them. And show­ing them tra­di­tional ways, not just sur­face things about us, but the core val­ues of be­ing a na­tive per­son, an Ojibwa per­son, that we’re com­pas­sion­ate and all these things that have brought us re­silience and adapt­abil­ity.”

Although the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den won’t be open un­til late 2019 and many of the specifics must be de­cided, both David and Cheyenne have a strong vi­sion of a place that will nour­ish mind, body and soul.

“It’ll be an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence for any­one who wants to learn about our cul­ture,” David says.

“And that’s for our youth, too, who have been re­moved from their com­mu­ni­ties. It’s a place to re­con­nect with the land.”

“When you visit, your spirit feels bet­ter,” Cheyenne says, point­ing out that hav­ing all the pro­posed el­e­ments — the abil­ity to cook and share a meal, a place that hon­ours women, tra­di­tional plants used for food and medicine — in one place is what will make it heal­ing.

“It’s all these things to­gether in a place where every­one’s wel­come, every­one’s equal, every­one’s hum­ble.”


Ar­chi­tects David Thomas and his daugh­ter Cheyenne are de­sign­ing the In­dige­nous Peo­ples’ Gar­den at Assini­boine Park.

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