Indigenous designers take architecture to new level at Assiniboine park

A father-daughter duo are leading a project to design a unique garden at Assiniboine Park dedicated to incorporating the Indigenous world view and culture.

Educators, elders, youth and members from the community came together Tuesday for an envisioning exercise

David and Cheyenne Thomas are responsible for leading the design process for the Assiniboine parks, "Indigenous people's garden". (Lenard Monkman)

Assinboine Park officials once asked a First Nations lady whether she felt the park reflected her identity.

"She said no," said Cheyenne Thomas, and that was when the park decided to ask Cheyenne — who specializes in environmental design — and her father, who works in architectural design, to head a project called the Indigenous Peoples' Garden.

Cheyenne and David Thomas, of Peguis First Nation, plan to incorporate the Indigenous world view and culture into the design of the garden. It's part of the Assiniboine Park's plan to invest $200 million dollars to revitalize the park.

Indigenous designers take architecture to new level at Assiniboine park

7 years ago
Duration 2:02
The Assiniboine park is investing $200 million dollars to revitalize the park and approached the pair to lead the design process for the Indigenous people's garden -- as part of a larger project known as Canada's diversity garden.

On Tuesday, the Thomas' invited Indigenous educators, elders, youth and members from the community to join them on an envisioning exercise. They walked together through the park with the father-daughter designer team to help the pair gather information and figure out how to incorporate Indigenous design.

Future of Indigenous design

Cheyenne, who is a graduate of the University of Manitoba's environmental design program, is part of the new generation of Indigenous designers.

"I don't think that it's about teepees or turtle shaped buildings. I feel like that's another stereotype," said Cheyenne. "Indigenous design is modern, it's sustainable, it's our values that are still there as Indigenous people. It's ownership to all of these deep rooted connections with the land."

Cheyenne Thomas is a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s environmental design program. (Lenard Monkman)

Indigenous design is "one of the most innovative ways of thinking of the environment."

"We constantly have to adapt, we constantly have to rethink of how to exist in different ways," said Cheyenne.

Her father, David, who has been doing architectural design for over 18 years, says Indigenous design should be present in urban settings. 

"It shouldn't be foreign for someone to walk into a major city and see this Indigenous building that just speaks of something that is of the land and of the spirit that comes through an ancient culture that's alive," he said.

David says nowadays, there's new technologies and different ways Indigenous people see themselves in culture and in media. 

"I think that when we put ourselves into there, we empower our identity, and automatically see it in a different view," said David. "We're not left in the past. We're not galvanized to an old stereotype. So it's a chance to shoot our vision of how we see ourselves moving forward."

He would like to see more Indigenous designers and architects participate in urban planning.

"If we have young Indigenous people in the future that are creating buildings and shapes and imagery that becomes a part of what we accept Canada to be, then we need be a part of that discussion."

Indigenous Peoples' Garden act of reconciliation

The Assiniboine Park garden project is something that the pair recognizes will last for generations to come.

"When this was proposed or presented to us, we felt there was a need, a responsibility to dig down and find ways to learn about each other so that as designers we could learn about other cultures. We could learn the closeness that we share in the relation to the land," said David.

They are hoping that people will leave with a better understanding of each other when they leave the Indigenous Peoples' Garden.

"One of the elders, when we did a sunrise ceremony last month, said that 'This is a really good project and it feels really good because everyone has an open heart to what is happening,'" said Cheyenne.

"And I think you can sense that amongst everyone who's working on it. They're just really open to anyone putting in their input. Any ideas that we've had on this project they've given us all the freedom to do it."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.