Innovative building draws on Indigenous knowledge for design and materials

It's called a muskrat hut and the people behind it hope it can help alleviate some problems on First Nations and beyond.

Mobile building called a muskrat hut has a bathroom, shower, toilet and kitchen

A prototype of a muskrat hut is almost finished. (@onehousemanynations/Instagram)

It's called a muskrat hut and the people behind it hope it can help alleviate some problems on First Nations and beyond.

"The muskrat hut is a small mobile building that houses a bathroom, a shower, toilet and has a kitchen area as well," said Alex Wilson, a professor with the University of Saskatchewan and a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba where a prototype is being built.

The project is a community effort between the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and the U of S.

The small wood stove will heat the Muskrat Hut. (@onehousemanynations/Instagram)

Wilson said the design comes from community members.

They have incorporated Indigenous knowledge and connection to the land like what types of materials to use. 

"We're trying to use sustainable local materials," Wilson said. "We're trying to avoid importing things from other territories and people [on the First Nation] are helping build it themselves."

The team, which also includes Indigenous architects and the University of Manitoba and University of Minnesota, are looking at different prototypes that use a small, efficient wood stove; solar power system; and an incinerator toilet.

Land-based learning

Along with building the muskrat hut, the project is also looking at land-based learning and incorporating Indigenous knowledge into the process.

"One of the purposes of the research aspect of the muskrat project was to support, but also document the transmission of knowledge from community members and elders to the next generation and how they go about doing that," Wilson said.

A waterless incinerating toilet is being used. (@onehousemanynations/Instagram)

For example, they set up design workshops where elders and community members shared their ideas about what was important to them around the design and build of the hut.

Another would be looking to trappers for their knowledge on how to build shelters.

"They don't necessarily get acknowledged as architects or builders, yet you know that's what they're doing a lot of their time is building and repairing shelters so they can live off the land," Wilson said.

Elders were involved throughout the process, giving feedback and providing support along the way.

And this land-based knowledge needs to be passed onto the next generation, she said.

"There's been a real disconnect through many colonial processes such as the residential school era and other policies of assimilation where people were intentionally disconnected from their land-based knowledge.

"And I think it's something that the elders are wanting but also young people as well are really wanting to reconnect with lands and land-based knowledge and this was one way to do it."

Plans for the muskrat hut. (@onehousemanynations/Instagram)

She said the project is helping to validate Indigenous knowledge that's been part of the culture for millennia and that allowed First Nations to thrive in harsh conditions. 

"There is a lot of really deep knowledge, scientific Indigenous knowledge that comes along with that relationship to the land."

Muskrat name

Calling it a muskrat hut has significance too.

Wilson said prior to colonization, muskrat were plentiful and were a major food source, used for clothing and also for trade.

"And for us it's also a part of our cosmology. So it links back to our origin story of evolution, however you want to frame that story," she said. "So we have a spiritual connection to the muskrat. I know that the beaver gets a lot of fanfare in Canadian media but the muskrat is always in the background getting the work done." 

Wilson said the muskrat hut came out of Idle No More's One House Many Nations campaign and had funding from the Canadian Social Sciences Research Council.

"It's part of the Idle No More movement that was initiated because of the increasing disconnection from environmental protection and also the recognition of treaty rights and responsibilities for all Canadians," she said. 

They expect to have a finished prototype later this month.

with files from The Afternoon Edition