For those looking for an authentic Indigenous experience here in Winnipeg, well, you couldn’t have come to a better place. Winnipeg is the city with the largest Indigenous population in Canada, and is filled with attractions that embrace the diverse culture of the Indigenous peoples, the first peoples, and the Métis. You really can’t tell the story of Winnipeg, or of Canada itself, without telling their stories too.
When you make your way here, you can start the day off with a meal at Feast Café Bistro. Savour comfort food favourites such as bison chili, bannock pizza and Indian tacos served up in a sunny café. It has become an important place in the community of the West End.
And there is lots of indigenous art to take in in Winnipeg. If you want to swing by some of the local art galleries with an indigenous presence, there are loads of options. There is Urban Shaman, which is an artist-run centre that present contemporary indigenous art. They regularly hold curated exhibitions of a wide variety of artists, including forays into experimental film, and new media. For a progressive look at emerging artists, Urban Shaman is a great place to stop.
Then, of course, the Winnipeg Art Gallery makes its mark by holding the world’s largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art, with more than 13,000 pieces, including over 7,400 Inuit sculptures, 4,000 prints, and 1,800 drawings. With all of these fine pieces already there, they have begun working on the creation of an Inuit Art Centre that can more fully showcase this extensive collection.
As a national museum dedicated to the exploration of human rights, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has many representations of indigenous cultural heritage, often with stories spoken directly by indigenous people, and indigenous people have free admittance. Their stories are woven through every gallery, though are most prominent in the “Canadian Journeys Gallery,” and the “Indigenous Perspectives Gallery.” Additionally, the museum offers the Mikinak-Keya Spirit Tour, which was created in partnership with a group of seven Elders representing Anishinaabe, Cree, and Dakota nations. An interpreter shows you the relationship between the museum’s architecture and the indigenous perspective, as well as how it relates to the Seven Sacred Laws.
Gorgeous architecture featuring indigenous symbolism can also be found at Circle of Life Thunderbird House, which is designed to look like the spread wings of a dove over four entrances representing the four cardinal directions, the four winds, and the four races of humankind. They invite community members to step into the circle and participate in weekly sweats and weekly drum circles, and they are always hosting interesting events for the community to enjoy, like a Pipe Ceremony, or a sewing program.
A trek to FortWhyte Alive provides countless opportunities to make discoveries through fun and educational experiences in their vast park. Among the many recreational activities are their EcoTours such as A Prairie Legacy: The Bison and its People, which lets you venture into the prairie to get up-close the some burly bison, and find out about the influence the animal had on the history and foundation of Manitoba and its effect on the lives of the indigenous people back then.
An integral part of the history of Winnipeg belongs to the Métis. Louis Riel is the founder of the Province of Manitoba, and is seen as the spiritual leader of the Métis people. By going to the Riel House National Historic Site you can see the home of Louis Riel’s family, made to look just as it was in 1886, and get a glimpse into the life of the Métis family. They have partnered with the Métis Federation, and provide a bunch of interpretive activities, like beadwork, jigging, and basket-weaving. And don’t forget to go on a tour guided by someone straight from that time period (as far as they led us to believe). Afterwards, head to the Saint Boniface Cathedral and visit The Grave of Louis Riel, where the leader is commemorated as a protector of the rights of the Métis to their land.
While you’re in the French district, St. Boniface, you’d be well served to stop at Le Musée de Saint-Boniface Museum where you can further discover the Métis heritage of Manitoba, through artifacts and historical recreations. And this time, the stories are not only around Louis Riel, as the museum has a wider scope of Métis history, including a special program called “Dolorès, Métis Grandmother” where she grabs her drums and takes you on an adventure through storytelling and legends of Métis heritage.
A great way to further embrace Métis learnings is by transporting yourself back to 1809 when they were essential to the fur trade. Fort Gibraltar is a recreation of a fort built in 1809 by the North West Company that is filled with historic recreations that provide a brief look at life during the development of the Red River Settlement, and the conflict between the two rival fur trading empires. Find out where blood was spilled, and which actions shaped Métis history.
The Forks incorporates the 6,000 years of history for this meeting place, which can be gleaned through a 90-minute oral history tour during the summer, or by just exploring the area yourself. You might make your way to the Oodena Celebration Circle a natural, shallow amphitheater that features ethereal sculptress, a sundial, interpretive signage, and a ceremonial fire pit. It’s a great place to stop after walking along the Riverwalk, or if you’re lucky, there could be a cultural celebration going on nearby.
When the need for shopping takes over, it’s hard to beat heading to The Forks Market and seeing the many different options. A great one is Teekca’s Aboriginal Boutique, which has a load of gifts that have been hand-crafted, and incorporate the history, geography, and culture of the first peoples of North America. These beautiful wares include moccasins, mukluks, beaded items and jewelry.
If you want to try some traditional attire hand-made by local artisans, stop by Cree-Ations & Artist Showcase, which boasts a multitude of authentically designed indigenous clothing. Browse traditional custom dresses, moccasins, mukluks, jackets, and they also sell items like rawhide drums, blankets and dream-catchers.
By traveling a bit outside of the city, you can enjoy a National Historic Site of Canada at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site, which offers a wide range of activities in this old fort from the 1850s. Lower Fort Garry is where Treaty No. 1 was signed in 1871 between the Ojibwa and Swampy Cree First Nations people and the Crown. Every year on its anniversary on August 3rd, the Treaty One Commemoration is hosted there as a large celebration where colourful pageantry, dancing and drumming make for an unforgettable experience. There are indigenous crafts all around, original artwork, a pipe ceremony, and an amazing powwow. Lower Fort Garry also has a sweat lodge, and incorporates indigenous narratives into all of its activities.
There are a number of indigenous events in Winnipeg that helps make the city come alive with indigenous culture. Aboriginal People’s Television Network puts on Indigenous Day Live, which has been delighting audiences since 2007. This day-long program of free family-friendly activities and a free evening concert bring thousands of people to The Forks for the largest celebration in recognition of National Aboriginal Day. The day is rich with vibrant song, music, dance, art, and storytelling, and children especially will find more than enough inspire them for a full day. The festivities feature talented people from many different regions and nations and includes the recognition of all first peoples.
The Manito Ahbee Festival celebrates indigenous culture and heritage filled with exciting events that educate, unify and inspire. The festival kicks off with the lighting of sacred fire at the Oodena Circle in The Forks, and then a whole host of events keep the sensational atmosphere going with the Metis Music and Dance Showcase, Indigenous Marketplace and Trade Show, and the amazingly unique experience of the International Pow Wow. It is an enthralling experience where over the course of two days you’ll witness over hundreds of dancers, some with audience participation, and some with world champions who are competing. Also, there are drum groups that perform and will have you really feeling the pounding of the drums in your body.
The Indigenous Music Awards Conference also take place as part of the Manito Ahbee Festival, a variety of specialty workshops for recording artists facilitated by music industry entrepreneurs (producers, labels, established artists). Over a two-day conference, participants will have the opportunity to communicate, collaborate and create new market development.
An invaluable resource for the latest happenings and initiatives undertaken by the indigenous community is Groundwork for Change, which helps non-indigenous peoples further their relations with indigenous peoples through a constantly updated listing for a variety of special events, from art shows to author talks to demonstrations, all aimed at learning and growing as a community.