As a comfortable space where Indigenous students can informally gather or meet with Elders and university staff, and as a space that will support programs designed to engage the entire campus and larger community, Wahkohtowin Lodge symbolizes a way to move forward in greater understanding of Indigenous cultures.
Pride of place
Augustana’s new Wahkohtowin Lodge creates a place for Indigenous students to honour and build relationships.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
When alumna Brittany Johnson thinks about Wahkohtowin Lodge, the new Indigenous student space at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, she’s filled with pride. “I was part of the committee that designed it and made it come about,” she explains. “It went from being just concrete to something really, really beautiful.”
What was once a plain, grey space is now filled with life and colour. Located in the Forum Building at the heart of Augustana Campus in Camrose, the lodge was created in the spirit of wahkohtowin, a Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) concept meaning “kinship.” The term refers to the ties of mutuality and reciprocity that create responsibilities to other human beings, animals and the land.
This kinship with the land is apparent in the space, where colour, light and natural elements reflect the surrounding landscape of the Camrose region. A wall of tree trunks evokes the forest, planters filled with greenery bring life to the space, and lights reminiscent of stars twinkle above a wood ceiling feature designed to evoke the feeling of a tipi. Pillars throughout the space feature work from local Indigenous artists and those from neighbouring Treaty 7 and 8 territories, as well as Inuit artists.
Jérôme Melançon, chair of the Aboriginal Engagement Committee, says this symbolism honours the traditional territories where the campus is located. “The space encourages reflection and contemplation about the Treaty 6 territory where Augustana Campus is located and about the relationships we create here with Indigenous peoples and all other groups. We have built the Wahkohtowin Lodge in the spirit of honouring the relationships that bind us together as a campus.”
The space has become a place for students not only to honour relationships, but also to build them. Students gather to spend time with friends, catch up on schoolwork and read, or play on the pool tables in the area. The location of the Aboriginal Student Services office in the Wahkohtowin Lodge also allows students to build important connections with staff and Elders. The lodge provides a space where non-Indigenous students can learn more about Indigenous people and cultures.
“Wahkohtowin Lodge is especially exciting for Augustana Campus because it furthers our commitment to serving Indigenous students and to honouring the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” explains Allen Berger, dean of Augustana Campus. “As a comfortable space where Indigenous students can informally gather or meet with Elders and university staff, and as a space that will support programs designed to engage the entire campus and larger community, Wahkohtowin Lodge symbolizes a way to move forward in greater understanding of Indigenous cultures.”
For Johnson, the lodge is an important addition to the welcoming culture Augustana has to offer to students from small communities. Many Métis students come to the campus from across Alberta, and the Indigenous campus community has students not only from the province but also from northern British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and beyond. Augustana’s small community setting provides a welcoming place for students who are coming from small reserves and settlements.
Johnson, who is now working toward her MA in native studies after completing her BA in English at Augustana last spring, explains that this small community makes a big difference. “I didn’t grow up on reserve or a settlement; I grew up in Camrose. But even for me, going to North Campus, my first couple of weeks were like culture shock. Augustana is more accessible and more welcoming because it’s a small community. Everyone gets to know each other there, so you feel supported by other students, staff and faculty.”
She’s proud of the role the Wahkohtowin Lodge will play in welcoming a new generation of students to campus and feels the new centre reflects a campus that values the participation of Indigenous people. “I’m really proud to have gone to Augustana. They really, really care about their Indigenous students.”
Dean Berger is grateful to Johnson and the rest of the committee members who helped to make the space one that reflects the needs of their community. “I am especially grateful to our own Aboriginal students and to the many Elders who participated in planning the Wahkohtowin Lodge,” Berger says. “Their visions for needed programming and student services and their advice on design and the incorporation of appropriate cultural elements guided us every step of the way.”
The Wahkohtowin Lodge represents a great next step in the university’s ongoing commitment to the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Along with the new Aboriginal/Indigenous Index of Web Links, it’s one of a growing number of initiatives across the university that are building relationships and understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at the U of A and making campus a welcoming place.
“Students succeed best when they feel a deep and abiding bond with their peers, their professors, and ultimately, their campus. As a community, it is our responsibility to create the opportunities that will form and nurture these connections—the university must be a place that fosters a sense of belonging,” says David Turpin, president of the U of A. “The grand opening of Wahkohtowin Lodge is just one example of how our response to the TRC’s calls to action will demonstrate our commitment to meeting these needs for our First Nations, Inuit and Métis students.”