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This article was published 30/10/2017 (1124 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When design consultants 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.
Gerald 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 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."
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.