EPISODE SUMMARY: On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism, we speak with Cheyenne Thomas, an architectural designer from Peguis First Nation, about her work with First Nations communities in Manitoba, and her role as a designer and advocate.
GUESTS: Cheyenne Thomas
Jade Kake v/o: Tēnā koutou katoa
Nau mai haere mai ki te Indigenous Urbanism, Aotearoa Edition, Episode twenty-three.
I’m your host Jade Kake and this is Indigenous Urbanism, stories about the spaces we inhabit, and the community drivers and practitioners who are shaping those environments and decolonising through design.
On this episode of Indigenous Urbanism, we speak with Cheyenne Thomas, an architectural designer from Peguis First Nation, about her work with First Nations communities in Manitoba, and her role as a designer and advocate.
Cheyenne Thomas: I am Anishanaabe, Ojibwe, that's my tribe. From Manitoba, Canada. I grew up in Winnipeg, my whole life, and my family is from Peguis First Nation and Saugeen First Nation, and I'm a designer in architecture, and I also do installations at a bigger scale with my father, who's also a designer. The focus is Indigenous design, and so that's who we try to work with.
JK: So we were really excited to meet you this time two years ago, when you and your dad came over, and you met all of us, this Ngā Aho crew, and we started this awesome journey together. But it was really exciting for me just to meet another young woman just smashing it. And then we went over to see you again last year. And so, I just wanted to maybe ask you a little bit about your practice and projects over back home, and what are some of things you're working on, and how have you kind of connected that with some of the exchange and experiences we've had?
CT: Okay, so, I did two buildings with my dad, we designed. They're 75,000 square foot buildings for two different First Nations in Manitoba. That was in the process when we met, two years ago. From that, we worked on the Assiniboine Park, revitalisation of the whole park, which is 1,000 acres in mass. They have a massive building, and a couple gardens. Part of it was to have an Indigenous garden, where they brought me and my dad on as lead designers. From when we did meet at the last hui, there was, it was more than just a conference, it was more people together, not so formal, where we could really connect without the labelling of architect, landscape architect, industrial designer. Where you actually have a collective of people just kind of supporting you, and from that there was different things we did during the conference, like sing songs, eat together, feast together, sleep together in the same marae. So for the Assiniboine Park I tried to architect the process, where we consulted with my community, our communities in Manitoba. So I got them to, I brought singers in, I brought food in as a component, to eat together, have discussions while you're nourishing your body. And those are all inspired by my experience at the last hui.
JK: I'm hearing that community-based process is really important, and the way we kind of bring in our own cultural lens and way of doing and being into that process with our communities. What was the process of engagement for that community project? How did that come about, actually?
CT: So that project, it actually, that park has been there for hundreds of years. And it's a European park. So they wanted to revitalise it, and they had the big building, designed by KPMP in Toronto, and they also had a couple gardens. The head of the park went to a community presentation, and this one Native girl said, I do not see myself in this park at all. So, she took, that was a pivotal moment for her, in the project. And for the Indigenous gardens, knew that was really important to have Indigenous designers. So, approached my dad and I, to start discussing and imagining this process of bringing our people into this consultation process.
JK: Now you talked about your dad a bit, and so it's pretty amazing the two of you work together quite closely on a lot of projects. Was your dad a big part of the reason why you got into architecture, or what kind of led you into architecture?
CT: I guess I was exposed to architecture, not just architecture, I was exposed to design, creativity, the whole creative process. Which at the time was not named the creative process. It was just exploring different ways of expressing building, and moving things around, creating or designing your own spaces to excite your childhood imagination, right? So I grew up with having that. Big pads of paper to draw on, this very loose way of moving around, and expressing yourself. So when I got older, went to University, all these courses I took. They weren't as exciting to me, they seemed very, not that there's anything wrong with those, I just grew up a totally different way, where I could freely express myself all the time. So, my dad exposed me to that, but I definitely chose architecture by myself.
JK: So you live in Winnipeg. How far is that from Peguis First Nation?
CT: Peguis First Nation is two hours away from Winnipeg. North.
JK: Have you been involved in much work in your community there?
CT: The first project outside of undergrad was the Multi-plex expansion on the existing hockey arena. Which we did the full construction drawings and everything for that, which took about a year. It still has yet to move forward, there was a change in Chiefs. So, politics.
JK: Yeah, we're familiar with that scenario. So is it quite rural there, on reservation?
CT: Yes, it is. We have a mall, but it's very small, it's basically a grocery store, bank, band office. And then we have a school, which is very nice. It was designed really nice, but not by native designers. Now we have a hockey rink, but we're one of the most, not progressive but biggest reserves in Manitoba. We have 10,000 people. So, I'm lucky to have that on my reserve. Other reserves don't have those things.
JK: Yeah, I think something that we experience here, there's a real tension between hau kāinga or home communities in rural areas, and the cities where a majority of our people are now living. So I guess, how have you kind of navigated that space, and how is your approach different when working on reserve as opposed to working in our urban environments.
CT: Okay, so, the one for Peguis, that project, I wouldn't say we successfully navigated that. Because, a lot of people, when you say architecture, they shut down. Because, for them, what does that mean. I am on the reserve, and never been exposed to anything like that. So we had a community presentations, and no-one would show up, really. No-one's excited about that. So, I think, that was the first project I was out of school. If I was to do that again, I would make it at schools, but not just present it on boards. I'd have interactive presentations, where you're one on one with kids, and you get them to see other than just that word. How these spaces are directly connected to how they, getting excited about things.
JK: It was great to hear you talking about rangatahi or young people, cause I think in the conventional architecture process, our young people are often kind of marginalised or not involved. And I think something that we're consistently finding with our community-based projects, is that you absolutely need to find new ways to make the overall engagement process accessible to young people, but also do specific things with them, to show that you're really, they're voice matters, what they think matters, and their experiences matter. And you don't have to do that from the role of up here, being the professional. You can actually be on the same level and have an exchange.
JK: In the last year I've had this idea, of how when you go into community you can't really get kids to get excited about architecture. They just shut down unless they've been exposed to it. I have this idea of this school, in the future, if I ever got to do this. This Indigenous design school that was not like the schools we have typically, the European schools, where you have the classroom, and you're very confined to each subject. But we have the schools where there's studios, and they're movable walls, and you can use the latest technology to interact with the wall with drawings, and it's like a big playground to learn. But how about we imagine these schools where it's just a big movable school, where we could adjust to what excites them, and we have the latest technology, projections, interactive walls where it's not just architecture, maybe it's architecture and pow-wow dancing, maybe it's singing, and poetry, and literature, where you get to explore things combined to what excites you. But you have these Indigenous teachers who are doing these really neat things that can like help you explore and expand your ideas as a young person. And it could be dance, it could be architecture and dance, it could be singing, and there's a performance stage where your community could come and watch. What is my child doing? And we have satellite schools to northern rural communities, where there's a transparency they can tune into, lectures, or studios in that home-based school. So they constantly have this access to our knowledge.
JK: And it keeps them in the community.
CT: But can stay in their community. And I have this idea of this big pow wow wall in the city, and it every week has a different pow wow. And, to be more specific, you walk into the school and it's this massive concrete wall or whatever, and you have a projection, cause in Manitoba every week we have pow wows in different communities, Saugeen, Peguis, Long Plains. And we have a live feed of the pow wow at a human scale, so when you walk in this school you immediately see your home, you have to acknowledge, okay, that's where I come from, don't forget that. You could tune in to an app and hear actually the announcer announce your family members at the pow wow, and when you miss home, you can come watch the pow wow. And it's constantly going through the summary. That's like a specific idea I have.
JK: That's a very clear vision. It's beautiful. That's how you work towards these things. Just got to have a clear vision.
JK: So the title of this podcast is Indigenous Urbanism, and the whakaaro behind that is, you know, our Indigenous communities are reaching this really critical point, politically, in the development of our disciplines, and we're increasingly able to actually have influence and lead the design of our physical environments. And I think they look very different to the colonial environments that we've become accustomed to. So, I just wanted to hear your whakaaro or your thoughts on that.
CT: I think, physically and also non physically, spiritually those aspects of our cultures and how deeply rooted they are in land, how deep we can connect to people with having those, people are starting to realise that, and missing that. So, through the cracks of society the lights kind of coming through. And, regardless, it will always be very strong. The more we move forward with this momentum. And physically, we're getting these opportunities, because I feel like it's meant to happen. For me, we get these projects, and now all of a sudden you're growing it even more, in like a more tangible way, I think, in Canada. For me and my dad. So I think it's very exciting.
JK: There's been a real shift in recent years, and I think there's a movement building, and we're really, well, we're really seeing that, both from the outside, but also together on an international level.
JK: So we've been talking a lot about being Indigenous women, working in the area of design, and it can be not only very white- or Pākehā-dominated, but also very male-dominated. And just thinking about how we might support one another, navigating these spaces. Do you want to talk a bit more about that?
CT: Yeah. Well, for example, the way we've supported each other across the ocean, in Canada and here in New Zealand, with our design family, I'd call it. We constantly feed each other information about what's going on, on each side, and at a smaller scale, for women, I think it's very important that we do something that's more articulated, to help us kind of elevate our ideas, and different problems we face in the professional work environment. We have the same problems. We can relate. How do we help each other to trouble shoot, or find a way to move past those ideas, or those problems? And even the discussion is helpful. So you know you're not alone on these things.
JK: Cause I think it's so easy if you're facing barriers or people kind of takahi your mana, it's easy to just kind of internalise it and start questioning, thinking, oh am I not good enough, what am I doing wrong? But if you kind of share these experiences and share the load together, you start to realise, actually, this is a kind of a common thing, that we're all facing, and it gives you more confidence, both in terms of emotional support, but also quite practical support. So if we know what's going on, we can actually come in and support one another, make opportunities available, and start to kind of break through some of those barriers.
CT: Yeah. Exactly what you just said. That's what I feel we need to do. Also, if we were to exchange, you come to Canada, I bring people from Canada to here, it starts this momentum where the conversation elevates above that, and we think at a bigger scale, how can we bring women across Canada and here, and let them know that, yeah, you're not the only ones going through these issues, let's all come together, maybe we hold a hui or conference, and really dwell on how we can support each other in a bigger scale.
JK: And something I've found, not just here but internationally, is that even in the Indigenous design space, a lot of our leadership is men. And there's not, there's a few, but there's not many women who are up in that next generation above us. But there's a lot in our generation coming through. And so as we're all rising together, how do we support one another and maintain positions of leadership? Because I think there is a real problem with women leaving the profession as well.
CT: Yeah, maybe more specifically, cause we have access to all this technology, video calling, database, websites, group internet chats where you can constantly have a conversation going. Maybe that in a more specific way could be something we start at. And then we have maybe a monthly meeting to start to figure out what this all means.
JK: And even just knowing that we're there. Cause I think one of the problems with, I guess when you look at the top of professions and they're all white men usually, there's like that implicit bias thing, right, where people identify people that are like them for progression, and I think, without going to affirmative action on it, I think, people might say, oh, we didn't invite any Indigenous women because we don't know any. And it's like, well, we're here. It's not too hard to find us.
CT: Exactly! So, also expanding our networks, so, say, someone on the west side of Canada, and east side, we can help each other with our resources, on either side.
JK: That's us then. Any concluding thoughts?
CT: No I think it's a good start.
JK: Keep this conversation going. Kia ora.
JK v/o: This episode was recorded on location at Nā Te Kore, the second international indigenous designers hui hosted by Ngā Aho in March 2018.
Indigenous Urbanism Aotearoa Edition is a production of Te Matapihi. Sandy Wakefield does our sound recording, editing, and mixing. Our theme was composed by Thomas Burton. I’m Jade Kake, your host and Executive Producer.
For more information about today’s show and other episodes of Indigenous Urbanism go to indigenousurbanism.net. You can drop us a line at email@example.com. And if you like what you’re hearing, please give us a review or rating on iTunes.
Coming up next on Indigenous Urbanism, we examine the role of Māori women in shaping our physical environments, and speak with two young wahine Māori practitioners about the issue of diversity within our professions.
Haley Hooper: I think it's a very male-dominated industry as we all know, and it's male power heavy too. So, yes there are a lot more women in the industry, but as you get up to the top and the more important the projects seem to be, there is still a really strong lack of women in those places, and Māori women you very rarely see them, and when you do seem them you have huge admiration for them being there and there are some very strong Māori women working in this space. But I'd love to see more coming through.
Elisapeta Heta: I think there needs to be a serious, very serious recognition of unconscious bias and what that does. That exists, that's one of those big barriers we see for women in a practice, that exists again as another layer for Māori Pacific. And I'm seeing that with some practices, they are definitely making changes, and you can see the difference between those who are being truly honest and self-aware, and those who are not.