Museum of History: Indigenous architecture unveiled and Unceded

Douglas Cardinal. Photo: Peter Robb

Douglas Cardinal was thinking about his Blackfoot grandmother on Thursday morning.

The legendary 85 year old architect of Indigenous heritage was remembering what Martha Lee taught him as a youth. She transmitted to him her knowledge of the land of the Kainai (Blood) Nation in southern Alberta, along with the culture and respect for his many elders and all life.

“She had a tremendous love and appreciation of all life around her.”

The words of mothers and grandmothers were present Thursday morning in the Canadian Museum of History as Cardinal spoke about the exhibition Unceded which was Canada’s official entry in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Unceded is now being seen for the first time in Canada and will be at the museum for almost a year. It will close March 22, 2020.

From Unceded: Bergeronnes. Photo: Pierre Charron

It celebrates the work of Indigenous artists from Turtle Island (including Canada and the United States).

“If you look at North America from space, it is shaped like a turtle,” Cardinal said.

But it’s an exhibition that is unlike others that feature the work of architects. There are no maquettes or architectural drawings. There are lots of audio-visual presentations that introduce 18 Indigenous architects and their thinking and vision to visitors.

Cardinal, of course, is front and centre. He’s an elder today and the presenter of the exhibition. Holding an eagle feather, he was emotional Thursday in his introduction of Unceded.

“I see and realize what our people have gone through and also I feel that despite what they have gone through, they can be open and forgiving and still come from the heart. I find that amazing.

“It is something I learned from the elders. One can go to university and learn all about architecture. I felt it was important to go back to learn from the elders how you can work from the heart with your feelings, your emotions and your passion in your work in serving people.

“I was remembering all my elders are gone now. I have outlived them all. But I remember their teachings in guiding me through my life.”

He was describing these feelings in the building he famously designed that opened 30 years ago this summer, a building, he says, is a reflection of that learning.

“I think it is so important that the ideals and values of Indigenous people be shared with the rest of the world because we really need that now.”

From Unceded: Sous-bois. Photo: Pierre Charron

Cardinal said he was approached by other Indigenous architects about entering a project into the competition for the Canadian entry in the Biennale.

“They asked me if I would be the presenter and I felt it was an important project and welcomed the opportunity,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

In the project, Cardinal said he wanted to make sure “we had the guidance of the grandmothers because we always conducted our lives with guidance of women, particularly the grandmothers.” He noted that this differs from the dominant patriarchal culture in Canada.

“We wanted to immerse people into our worldview in this exhibition. Many exhibits, you may read them and look at them, but we now have the capacity through audio-visual mediums to immerse people entirely into our world.”

The exhibition presents films and other audio-visual creations to present the reality and the philosophy of modern Indigenous architecture. This was all done so that visitors would have an experience of the heart as well as the head, Cardinal, who is still hard at work,  said.

“One thing about architecture as an art, you never retire. It’s a beautiful profession and it makes a tremendous impact because you are creating living spaces. When people enter your building they experience a new word view.”

In future, Cardinal thinks that the more ” we can share our world view with others” the bigger and more important it will get. It’s especially true now, given the impacts of human activity on the planet.

“It is our home and we have to treat it better. Our elders knew that. We can’t be so selfish to make decisions that celebrate our own lives, we have to be concerned about the future facing our children’s children.”

One of the co-curators of the exhibition is David Fortin, a Metis architect and professor.

He said the idea for Unceded emerged in the wake of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation and the realization that there might be an opportunity to showcase the work of Indigenous architects at the Biennale in 2018.

The impetus started in a conversation between Fortin and some of his colleagues at the McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University.

“We were looking at previous Biennales and there has been an increasing trend of at least having Indigenous issues there in some way. Given that it was the first Biennale post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it struck me and others that this seemed like the right time.”

He cranked out an email and the next day organized a conference call. One of the first on the call was Douglas Cardinal and he was saying I’m in. When his colleague Gerald McMaster agreed to co-curate, they knew they had a strong team, he said.

In early conversations they decided to ask some American Indigenous architects to join the project.

“If we were going to call it Unceded, we needed to talk about the whole unceded thing.”

There are 10,000 registered architects in Canada and there are 18 Indigenous architects.

“That puts us at .2 per cent. We should be about 430 based on demographics. The U.S. is ahead of us but still very small.”

Indigenous architects in Canada tend to work in very small firms. Cardinal’s career is monumental in terms of what most Indigenous architects in Canada get to do.

“We are still building. We want to make architecture a path for young Indigenous people to consider.” It is starting to happen. At Laurentian, he said there are about 15 Indigenous students today.

Fortin was attracted to the profession because of the freedom it offers. “Somebody pays you to dream” and that remains very appealing.

Indigenous architecture is very connected to nature, Fortin said.

“Our school is the first to open (2013) in Canada in 40 years. The school is based on Indigenous principals. We build birch bark canoes with every architecture student. We love the birchbark canoe because it is a perfected artifact. It has never been shaped better. It is sustainable. When you are done with it you can leave it in the forest and let the earth take it back. Why can’t architecture aspire to that?”

Unlike many architecture exhibits, this one allows the architects explain the philosophy behind their work on film. Typical architecture shows don’t do that, Fortin said. Those shows detach the object — the building — from the person who designed it.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything to Indigenous people. If it’s not embraced by the community, if they don’t feel part of it, they won’t buy it.” The team thought of the exhibition as storytelling.

Museum CEO Mark O’Neill said that his team is still working on a tour of this show once it closes next March. No details yet.

Going forward, O’Neill said, the Museum of History is at work on including Indigenous people and thinking in what it does.

“We constantly are doing something on the research side and the exhibition side with Indigenous communities. We are in the vanguard of it. This cultural institution is at the head of the pack and we believe the communities know it.

“We are involved in repatriation discussions around artifacts. There have been quite a number of major repatriations over the years. There is an on-going aboriginal internship training program which we have been doing for a couple of years now.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.