Developing Indigenous Perspective Workshops

Indigenous Perspective Workshops at Fort Edmonton Park are designed to enhance the diverse Indigenous voices and perspectives while showcasing the best of what amiskwaciwâskahikan, Beaver Hills House commonly known as Edmonton, has to offer.

Centered around authentic cultural perspectives, both Traditional and contemporary, these workshops immerse participants in Indigenous world views through hands-on learning experiences, storytelling and traditional teachings. This set of workshops will be led by Natalie Pepin, a Métis woman and Harvard graduate who seeks to bring her traditions, stories and culture to life. 

“I am honored to be able to share the arts, stories, culture, and traditions of my nation with people in Edmonton through this important program with Fort Edmonton Park,” said Pepin. “These workshops not only offer a chance to learn about Indigenous arts such as birch bark basket making and working with porcupine quills but also to begin to understand the deep importance of these skills in connecting us to the land around us. In learning these skills, we are creating beautiful arts, it is true. But, more importantly, we are taking part in a legacy of stewarding traditional skills. Those same skills have allowed entire societies to thrive long enough that we should be alive today. And something truly amazing.” 

Brittany Cherweniuk, the Indigenous Experience Development Coordinator, sat down with Natalie to discuss harvesting materials for the workshops and give our audience a better understanding and a behind-the-scenes look at her process.

What are some things that are important to your process and mindset when you are getting ready to Traditionally harvest materials for workshops like ours?

Going out to harvest is a time when I try to clear my schedule. I don’t like to be rushed. Heading out on the land is a time to deepen my relationship with the plants, animals, the soil, and the water...relationships shouldn’t be rushed.

In picking a place to harvest from, I’m watching. I’m checking for places that are perhaps to be cleared already, for example, if a development is going in, a park is being built. That way I can harvest from places that will have the least possible impact from me harvesting. Otherwise, I am looking for a place with many of the trees I need...birch and spruce. Harvesting birch bark requires large straight birch trees with no branches on the lower trunk where I will harvest bark from. It took a bit of driving to find the right place.

When I found the birch stand, my first order of business was to make sure the birch are healthy. Although collecting bark doesn’t kill the tree, it will take energy for it to regrow bark the following year. The stand I found has many many birch trees in it, and they all look to be in great health. I found trees that are about 12 inches in diameter. 

So now that you have found the birch tree stand to harvest, what are your next steps, and what are some of the Indigenous Traditional teachings that you follow?

Before harvesting, it’s important to give thanks and talk to the tree. I told it why I needed the help restore our teachings of how to live on the land in a good way and to share the arts of my culture, which have been a part of how we engage with the land for hundreds of years. I offered tobacco and said a prayer.

Taking my knife, I create a vertical cut through the outer layer of bark. Checking often that my depth was right so that I avoid cutting into the inner bark (which could lead to the death of the tree from infection), I made my way down to the bottom of the section I would be harvesting. 

Using the tip of my knife, I pried up on the outer bark all along with the cut I made. Then I used my fingers to lift all along the cut, careful to not cause the bark to rip horizontally except at the very top and bottom of the section I am harvesting.

I take my time with this, as with all of the steps in working with birch bark, patients and a gentle but firm manner is important. There are teachings here.

Soon the bark starts peeling off in a large sheet. The layers are all so beautiful. After removing the whole sheet, I place it between small sheets of plywood to keep it flat as it dries (otherwise it can be hard to work with down the road). I say another word of thanks as I secure the bark in the trunk...its time to connect with some spruce. 

For this workshop, we are going to be using Spruce roots as lacing for the Birch Bark Baskets. Can you tell us what the harvesting looks like?

Down the road a little ways, there is a stand of spruce trees. They aren’t enormous but are established. The trunks are about 8-12 inches in diameter...perfect for the size of roots I need.

Again to talk to the trees, telling them my intentions and asking their permission. I lay down tobacco and offer a prayer of thanks.

To access the thin roots, I use a shovel to scrape back the loose soil over the roots. It doesn’t take long to find roots that are the right size. I follow the roots, loosening the soil around them as I go. Once I have lengths of appropriate size, I cut the section of roots and cover the earth back up.

These roots will need to be soaked and boiled before I peel them. Time to head home and start processing.

Thank you Natalie for spending some time and sharing with us. 

Special thanks to EPCOR for providing a grant from its Heart + Soul Fund to the Fort Edmonton Management Company to help support the Indigenous-focused workshops and education programs.

Indigenous Perspective Workshops have returned with two new workshops:

Introduction to Working with Animal Fibres, May 30-June 25

Learn More

Book these brand NEW workshops this spring! 

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