By Deena Goodrunning, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – From January 23-28, 2023 the University of Alberta hosted its second annual Indigenous Celebration Week (ICW). The week was a collaboration between various University of Alberta organisations and members from the Students’ Union (UASU), Faculty of Native Studies, Indigenous Student Union (ISU), First People’s House (FPH), the ICW Advisory Committee and Supporting Indigenous Language Revitalization (SILR). Planning for ICW began in October 2022.
The first three days of ICW were organised by Danni Okemaw and took place at the University’s North Campus. Okemaw is the FNMI (First Nations Métis Inuit) Initiatives Specialist for UASU.
Okemaw said that the inspiration and motivation for ICW was to acknowledge and honour Indigenous cultures, languages and teachings. Many tragedies have happened and are still happening to Indigenous peoples, and Okemaw thinks it’s beautiful how despite everything they’ve been through, Indigenous cultures, languages and teachings have survived. While time is still needed for Indigenous peoples to heal, Okemaw thinks that Indigenous people should also be experiencing the joy that comes from the beauty of their culture, languages and teachings.
“It was my priority to bring good spirit, light, energy, happiness on the campus for that. That was my priority. That’s what I wanted to do,” Okemaw said.
The first day focused on celebrating Indigenous languages. The day started with a pipe ceremony at the Education Building. Then in the Orion room of the Student’s Union Building (SUB) opening speeches were held and various speakers and knowledge keepers presented workshops on Indigenous languages. There were language immersion hours where Indigenous elders and knowledge keepers – such as Francis Whiskeyjack, Rudy Okemaw, Sharlene Alook, Elmer Ghostkeeper, and Mary Cardinal Collins – spoke entirely in Cree.
After the immersion hours, U of A student Levi Wolfe gave a workshop where he provided an introduction on the Cree language. The final workshop of the day was an introduction to the Michif language led by Kimberly Fraser-Airhart from the Rupertsland Institute.
The second day was focused on celebrating Indigenous youth. An Honouring our Youth Night event took place at the Dinwoodie Lounge. Starting at 5 pm and ending at 8 pm there were speeches and presentations given by U of A students Anika Kuharic and Casey Caines, and Elder Elsey Gauthier and Dr. Lillian Gadwa. Roberta Alook and Marc Jr. Doire, also U of A students, emceed the event. The night ended with drumming and performances by young Indigenous powwow dancers. There were also fiddling and jigging performances.
The third day focused on celebrating Indigenous art and artisans. An Indigenous Artisan Market was held with various Indigenous vendors, including many who were U of A students, showcasing their art on the lower level of SUB. A variety of art and beadwork and products were displayed for sale.
January 26-27: Semaine de Célébration des Cultures Autochtones
For the first time Campus Saint-Jean hosted ICW events and those events were organised by Francophone student Gloria Livingston, Vice-President external of Association Universitaire de la Faculté Saint-Jean (AUFSJ). Livingston said she’d been planning the events since October after Okemaw had reached out to her about having ICW events at Campus Saint-Jean. Since then, she and Okemaw were in constant communication about planning ICW.
The events at Campus Saint-Jean on January 26th were focused on Indigenous traditions and ceremonies. The day started with a teepee set up, a smudge ceremony and opening speeches. Livingston gave a land acknowledgement in French and Okemaw gave a land acknowledgement in English. Elder Bill Bertschy and his group – the Standing Bear Community group – were invited to share their culture and knowledge. There was drumming and singing. Lunch that day was catered by Tee Pee Treats Indigenous Cuisine.
The fifth day of ICW was more focused on learning about Indigenous matriarchy, intersectionality and colonialism. Métis and Francophone student Celina Yellowbird gave a presentation on matriarchy. Zakary-Georges Gagné, a Cree and Francophone transgender woman, gave a zoom webinar presentation from Ontario on identity intersectionality. Attendees also participated in a blanket exercise and the day ended with an evening performance by Indigenous artist Melody McArthur.
Livingston said she was happy to provide a space for Indigenous peoples to share their culture and experiences with the Francophone and English-speaking community, and to collaborate where possible in planning the events.
ICW finale: U of A’s 13th Annual Round Dance
The finale for ICW was the 13th Annual Round Dance hosted by FPH. Hosted at the Van Vliet Centre, the theme for this year’s Round Dance was “Honouring Our Grads.”
A Round Dance is a traditional wintertime ceremonial dance where community members gather to dance in a circle around a group of drummers. This year’s Round Dance was attended by hundreds of people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
FPH worked together to plan the Round Dance; the lead organiser was Shana Dion who is Assistant Dean, First Nation, Métis and Inuit students. In a blog post for The Quad titled “The sacred circle of the Round Dance” she wrote: “To me, the Round Dance ceremony is the spirit of equity, diversity and inclusion that speaks to the heartwork of reconciliation on campus.”
As early as 10 am U of A student volunteers helped set-up and prepare for the Round Dance. The first dance which started around 6 pm honoured the organizers and volunteers. Free bologna sandwiches which had been prepared by volunteers were handed out to community members. The Round Dance went on for several hours and ended with a give-away ceremony.
Through the hard work and collaboration of many people, ICW was a success. The week truly honoured, acknowledged and celebrated Indigenous peoples and their cultures, histories, and languages.