Project manager Lewis Cardinal stands by one of the fire pits that will be used to heat stones for sweat lodges. The doors around the fire-department-required enclosures are designed so participants can face whichever direction the ceremony requires.

Kihcihkaw Askî Ready to Go

“Sacred Land” is a place for Indigenous culture and ceremony, and an ongoing act of reconciliation

By Michael Ganley

Nestled in Whitemud Creek ravine, just across the creek from the Alfred J. Savage Centre, kihcihkaw askî is taking shape and almost ready for a September opening.

The 4.5-hectare site, formerly part of Fox Farm, has been in the works since 2006. It has been developed with the guidance of Elders from many Indigenous communities and with the City of Edmonton as a partner. “We finally had enough momentum, enough political support and vision to make it happen,” says project manager Lewis Cardinal, an Edmonton-based artist and communicator.

Kihcihkaw askî (Cree for “this place is sacred,” and pronounced kitchekao askey) is an urban Indigenous ceremonial site. It is a space for Indigenous people to gather and celebrate culture and community, as well as an act of reconciliation, welcoming all people to contemplate and learn. The site was chosen because of its historical and cultural significance, having served for centuries as a ceremonial site and as a place to gather medicines. 

There are two small, solar-panelled buildings on the property, one with classroom space for 40 people, another for storing teepees, tools for sweat lodges and a birch bark canoe made in the traditional Cree manner. Cardinal says the Elders wanted the space to have a small environmental footprint. “They wanted to be on the land,” he says, “not stuck inside a building.”

To that end, the site features an amphitheatre for talks and performances. The amphitheatre overlooks a massive teepee circle – big enough to fit 16 large teepees, Cardinal says – with a fire pit at its centre. It is surrounded by native trees and plants, including chokecherries, raspberries and gooseberries, and a wide ring of rust-coloured flagstones. Cardinal says the stones echo the natural spring and ochre deposit that can be found on the other side of Whitemud Creek. “Springs are sacred sites,” he says, “because clean water comes straight from Mother Earth.” He says Indigenous people from southern Alberta, coming north to trade furs at Fort Edmonton, would stop in this valley bottom to gather ochre, a rare mineral that was used in spiritual and traditional ceremonies.

Cardinal says 60 different Indigenous nations are represented in Edmonton, with a vƒariety of cultural and ceremonial traditions. That means, for instance, differences in the way sweat lodges are conducted, including the direction participants face. Next to the main ceremonial circle, two other fire pits are surrounded by large metal enclosures for safety. Some doors of the enclosures open on an east-west axis, others north-south. “We want all Indigenous people to know this is for them,” Cardinal says. “This is not a Cree location. It’s a place where Indigenous youth can experience the transference of culture, traditional knowledge and connection to Mother Earth.” He says a loss of community and tradition has contributed to the social and economic disparity suffered by many Indigenous Canadians. “You don’t have to go very far to find the research that explains why, if you’re not connected and grounded in something, you become unbalanced.”

But kihcihkaw askî is also a place to practice reconciliation, a place to share and teach non-Indigenous people about cultural traditions, history, knowledge and ceremony. Already, the Belgravia and Brookview communities have reached out about programming for their leagues, and the site has already hosted corporate groups. “We’re not evangelical,” says Cardinal, who grew up in the Catholic faith. “Just explaining.” 

It has also resonated nationally and internationally, with communities as far away as Australia asking for guidance on building urban ceremonial sites. “Indigenous people in all urban centres have these issues,” Cardinal says.

The Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre will operate kihcihkaw askî. The grand opening is scheduled for September 23. 

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