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Sacred Indigenous site opens in Edmonton's river valley

CBC News | March 29, 2023

Categories: news

'Now we don't have to leave the city to do the basic healing ceremonies that are necessary for our well-being'

Andrea Huncar · CBC News · Posted: Mar 29, 2023 6:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: March 29

A man stands inside one of eight doors of a large metal firepit at kihcihkaw askî
Project manager Lewis Cardinal stands inside the firepit at the newly opened kihcihkaw askî, a sacred site for Indigenous ceremony and prayer. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Hundreds of years ago, it was a place where Indigenous people collected ochre and precious medicines growing in the river valley.

This week, 10 young students walked those same lands at Whitemud Park — one of the first groups to visit Edmonton's newly opened urban Indigenous cultural site, kihcihkaw askî.

In Cree, kihcihkaw askî means "this place here is sacred land." The $6.5-million project is a collaboration between Indigenous elders, communities, and the City of Edmonton.

"We don't have a church, mosque or a cathedral that we can easily go to," said project manager Lewis Cardinal, on a recent tour with CBC News.

"This becomes that for us. Now we don't have to leave the city to do the basic healing ceremonies that are necessary for our well-being."

Long-awaited Indigenous cultural centre takes shape in Edmonton's river valley

Nestled in a forest teeming with coyotes, deer and other wildlife and operated by the Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre, kihcihkaw askî is a vision more than 16 years in the making.

Elders and community leaders recognized the importance of such a site to strengthen belonging and connection at a time when more and more Indigenous people were moving to urban centres.

Over three days, elders determined through consensus that the 4.5-hectare site, just south of Fox Drive, was the right location.

Rising up from the site is a grassy amphitheatre to gather and tell stories, not far off from a massive metal firepit to heat stones for sweat lodges.

Eight doors, facing various directions, can accommodate the different spiritual traditions of more than 60 First Nations that call Treaty 6 territory home.

"Each nation that comes to this nation brings with it gifts and talents," Cardinal recently told an audience at city hall. 

"When we sit in council, when we sit relatives and share, we learn and we create possibilities and a sphere of creativity that can change the future."

A 9 year old girl wearing snowshoes stands in the snow with a 4 year old girl on her back.
Emry Riemer (right) said she was 'practically floating' on the snow in her snowshoes. (Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation)

On Tuesday, sun-saturated snow glistened underneath a cloudless sky as 10 Indigenous and non-Indigenous children raced each other on snowshoes and learned how to smudge.

Among them, Emry Riemer, 9, said it's important to learn about other cultures.

"Because then you have a better understanding of other people," Riemer said. "So you can have empathy for others."

Riemer is part of the Yellowhead Indigenous Education Foundation inaugural land-based learning camp known as Blossoming Flower. Programming is based on traditional and experiential ways of teaching and learning..

'Land is our classroom'

"It brings me to tears when I think about the amount of time elders have repeatedly reminded us as First Nations people that the land is our classroom and that we have to do whatever it takes to retain our language, and to have a land-based school rooted in cultural and language practices," said Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, the foundation's executive director.

"It's really the elders' dream coming to life and I feel humbled and blessed that I'm able to help."

A brown and grey single-storey building with solar panels on the roof, beside an amphitheatre structure.
The pavilion building and amphitheatre at kihcihkaw askî, a new sacred site for Indigenous ceremony and prayer in Edmonton's river valley. (Sam Martin/CBC)

With Edmonton leading the way, Cardinal said five major Canadian cities including Toronto and Winnipeg are now pursuing similar projects, with interest from places as far off as Chicago and Melbourne.

Visitors have already included members of the Alberta Human Rights Commission and students from Edmonton Catholic and public. 

"We found that it really helped these young people stand a bit taller and a bit more positive in the sense of who they are and where they come from, and those are the kind of things that we want to see," Cardinal said.

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