Construction is set to begin on kihciy askiy, described by the City of Edmonton as the first urban Indigenous cultural site in Canada.
Meaning “sacred land” in Cree, kihciy askiy will be located on a 4.5-hectare site in Whitemud Park, just south of Fox Drive.
The city says it will be a place for members of the Indigenous community to host ceremonies and sweat lodges and to grow medicinal herbs. It will also be a place for non-Indigenous people to learn about Indigenous culture.
Construction on the $4.5-million project is expected to take 18 to 24 months. A ground-blessing ceremony was held in September.
The site will include a circular area for four sweat lodges and a permanent ceremonial stone heating device with a water source. Another area for teepees will have a permanent feast firepit for ceremonies and small group workshops.
There will also be a large tent gathering area for ceremonial feasts and cultural teachings. Future plans include a pavilion with washrooms, locker rooms, a gathering room and storage for ceremonial items.
Project manager Lewis Cardinal said kihciy askiy has been been 15 years in the making.
“Right now we’re the only people who have to leave town in order to do our ceremonies,” Cardinal said Thursday.
“We don’t have a cathedral, a mosque or a temple that we can easily get to, but now we have kihciy askiy — sacred land that is our temple, our mosque and our cathedral.”
The project is a partnership between the city and the Indigenous Knowledge and Wisdom Centre. Cardinal said 120 elders from across Alberta were brought together to work on the project.
He believes the site will be an important place for generations to come.
“Young people will be in the urban centres in the future and we have to be prepared for that,” he said.
“We know that when Indigenous people are connected into that cultural and spiritual tradition that they do a lot better. It helps in identity formation, it reinforces cultural tradition and generally makes the individual stronger, but also makes the community stronger.”
Cardinal said it will also help build bridges with people who are not Indigenous: “This is a great way to help break down the barriers that are created by ignorance.”
Among the project’s supporters is Ron Walker, executive director of the Canadian Native Friendship Centre.
“I think it’s a really good step towards reconciliation with the community, especially with Indigenous people and land usage,” Walker said. “It’s about our spiritual connection as Indigenous people, and it’s very difficult in an urban setting to have that type of experience.”
He said programs offered by the friendship centre often require participants to leave Edmonton.
“When we take youth or different people to pick medicines like sage or sweetgrass, we have to take them to different First Nations or other places that are far out of town,” he said.
Walker said he’s hopeful kihciy askiy will serve its intended purpose despite being in an urban environment.
“When you’re in a ceremony you want it to be quiet, you want it to be a place where you can be self-reflective and concentrate on what you’re praying for and concentrate on what you’re doing,” he said. “In that sense it can be very difficult.”
He said he hopes measures will be taken to make that possible. “I’m sure there will be different precautions and things put in place to try to stop the sound and try and make it more of a secluded, sacred place.”