Review: Fort Edmonton Park’s Indigenous People Experience

The Indigenous Peoples Experience at Fort Edmonton Park is everything I want it to be. More to the point, it is everything that the park’s Indigenous partners want it to be. 

Indigenous Peoples Experience at Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton, AB – Photo: Christophe Benard Photography – Edmonton Architectural Photographer

In November I was lucky enough to visit the IPE on a winter Saturday with my father, brother, and friends. A heated streetcar drove us through the rest of the closed down park and deposited us near the IPE’s entrance in the park’s back half. From there it was a short walk down to the trees (real and some interpretive panels that mimic trees) that would introduce us to a powerful museum experience. 

Creative Ways to Integrate Interpretive Panels into an Exterior

One of the transformative “ah-ha!” moments in my learning journey as a non-Indigenous Canadian struggling to understand this country’s past, present, and future with Indigenous peoples came with a book. A book by a non-Indigenous author at that. Daniel Francis’ The Imaginary Indian (1992) was a powerful indictment of Canada’s (and the Western World’s) tendency to “imagine the Indian” rather than to truly know Indigenous peoples. From the “Vanishing Indian” to the “Noble Savage” (and the “Ignoble Savage”), Francis exposed paternalism alongside racism and colonialism as one of the driving forces of the status quo. This is made worse by the fact that due to the reserve system, most Canadians do not directly interact with Indigenous persons on a day to day basis – and definitely don’t do so in a safe space for discussion. 

Fort Edmonton Park’s Indigenous Peoples Experience defeats that from the very beginning. As soon as you enter the hall, you are greeted by an Indigenous heritage interpreter. A real, living breathing and definitely not Imaginary interlocutor there to set up your experience. Now granted, this is a tough gig. The challenge is that most visitors don’t know what questions to ask, nor even how to start the conversation – especially at the beginning of their visit. Nonetheless, they are made aware that this will not be an entirely non-personal exhibit. That is, not just signs, videos, and objects. 

The panels inside are also wonderfully designed

The really juicy role is that of the Indigenous heritage interpreter at the end of the exhibit. This person gets to greet you after your quiet and engaging time for reflection. They get to introduce a dynamic short film that I’ll discuss further down, and they get to stick around for questions and conversation. Now that you’ve had a chance to read, listen, see, and contemplate, you have a chance to discuss – to peel away the barriers and interact in a genuine fashion – if you’re ready. 

Not only does this double down on the IPE’s effectiveness, but it gives central and rewarding roles to the members of the communities that helped plan, guide, and approve the exhibits. Long-term, fulfilling employment for Indigenous ambassadors who have an interest in storytelling and intercultural dialogue. 

One of the things I have begun to learn about Indigenous ways of knowing is a slightly different sense of the past and history. My Western worldview encases history in discrete eras with distinct elements. Moreover it emphasizes history as an end unto itself. The sense you have in the IPE is that history is secondary to culture. The exhibits are more about worldview and traditions, some in common and some diverse between different First Nations and Metis. There are sections on history and even some timelines, but they are very much secondary to an exploration of how diverse First Nations and Metis communities live and act and express spirituality. 

Some of the many amazing pieces of modern Indigenous art found in the building

And the emphasis is on these traditions as ongoing and not in any way “lost” or “declining.” The “artifacts” on display are all modern works by Indigenous artisans. The text is mostly quotations from living Elders. The video that ends the experience emphasizes continuity and vibrancy of modern First Nations and Metis communities. This is made even more distinct by the presence of Indigenous Cultural Interpreters throughout the exhibit, but also in contrast to the living history environment of the rest of the Park. 

Bronze sculptures of various animals surround the IPE
And they’re pretty cute too

It should be noted too, that the rest of the park has not been isolated into non-Indigenous spaces either. The last fifteen years at Fort Edmonton Park has seen the presence of Indigenous interpreters in period dress stretch throughout the park – from the tipi camp outside the 1846 Fort to the Red River Cart and Metis Camp on 1885 Street, and to the 1905 and 1920 Street eras as well. Laura Peers’ book Playing Ourselves (2007) looked at Indigenous interpretation at several different living history sites through Central and Western Canada. Among her many revelations was that by the late 1990s, most museums and historic sites had incorporated Indigenous narratives – but that they came up short in showing interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. There was a danger in sequestering Indigenous narratives in their own exhibit, but instead the IPE complements the rest of the park by providing a dedicated space where these stories are central. Meanwhile, the other exhibits (“eras”) can focus on programming that shows and engages with intercultural interactions: good, bad, and ugly. 

What is more, because the rest of the park is programmed in the living history tradition, it can suffer from visitors’ perspective of a “light-hearted” and celebratory vision of the past. Interpreters in the rest of the park must combat this expectation, but the IPE can dispense with it. No one comes into this exhibit in 2021 not expecting to be confronted. 

Lastly the Indigenous Peoples Experience gives significant literal and metaphorical space to the Métis experience. Canada has struggled since the 1870s and earlier to classify and understand the Métis Nation, and has erred most often by focusing on their mixedness rather than as a whole and distinct people, as so well explored in Chris Andersen’s book Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Personhood (2014).

Here the first part of the exhibit, justly, is devoted to a small but diverse array of First Nations – the Cree, Nakoda, Nitsitapii (Blackfoot), and Tsuu T’ina. But the second exhibit, evoking a cabin, explores the birth and growth of the post-Colonial Indigenous nation that looms so large in Edmonton’s past and present – and yet is so often forgotten. Count the number of times the Métis are name-checked in a land acknowledgement and you’ll see what I mean. Their fixedness and their post-Contact origins have often led to the Métis being seen as “less Indigenous” than their cousins. 

In fact the very name is inclusive. If the Métis were not represented here, it could more accurately be called the First Nations Experience. While the Inuit are not necessarily included here, the diversity among Indigenous Peoples living in what is now Canada is centralized and the Métis are able to find and delineate a space in Edmonton’s prime heritage “real estate.” 

An Arbour that is understandably yet to be activated

There’s more to come, I understand. Trails and activations to more truly link the IPE to the rest of the park. Education programs, adult programming, daycamps and special events. The future is bright for the IPE. It has been a long, long road to get here, and this exhibit is definitely worth waiting for. 

One thought on “Review: Fort Edmonton Park’s Indigenous People Experience

  1. Thank you. This is wonderful! 🙂

    On Sun, Jan 23, 2022 at 7:17 PM North Wind Heritage Consulting wrote:

    > hyperboreantom posted: ” The Indigenous Peoples Experience at Fort > Edmonton Park is everything I want it to be. More to the point, it is > everything that the park’s Indigenous partners want it to be. Indigenous > Peoples Experience at Fort Edmonton Park in Edmonton, AB – Photo:” >


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