Rivers and lakes should be important to all Canadians. For Indigenous groups, however, who have been sustainably caretaking and traversing these waterways for over 15,000 years, water is a sacred gift, an essential element that sustains and connects all life. That’s one of the reasons why a large tipi was erected on the banks of the Athabasca River on Canada Day, by members of the Keepers of the Athabasca.

This group, part of the national Keepers of the Water, is made up of members of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities, plus environmentalists and those living in the river’s watershed. The Keepers focus on the protection of water, land, and air, for all living things in the Arctic Drainage Basin.

“We are guided by both Indigenous elders’ traditional knowledge and western science,” says Jule Asterisk. “We want to speak truthfully about the challenges our great river, and our people, face when we reach for truth, reconciliation and healing of the water, land and people.”

Funding for the large tipi — nine metres tall and nine metres wide at its base (30 feet by 30 feet) — came from Embracing the Spirit, a United Church program which encourages innovative forms of ministry. Asterisk said group members were very grateful for the tipi, which they nicknamed “The Skyscraper.” She explained the Cree name for the tipi, “Ogeesigo Wapun,” translates as “'Close to the spirits” or “Reaching for the Spirit.” 

Keepers of the Athabasca tipi
A large tipi, nicknamed “The Skyscraper” when it was first erected, will now be used to workshops led by the Keepers of the Athabasca.
Credit: 
Keepers of the Athabasca.

The tipi’s raising came at the end of a three-day canoe voyage, covering part of the 1,375-kilometre long river. Participants were celebrated at a River Rats musical festival in Athabasca. Asterisk explains that “River Rats” was the name given to people, mainly of Métis and First Nations descent, who originally worked the river when it was a trading route.

The trip was meant to remind participants about their heritage, “and how we got to where we are today,” she says.

The voyage’s theme was “Flowing into Right Relationship.”

“As Keepers, we had to do lots of self-examination in order to partner with First Nations. In order for Canada to successfully partner with First Nations, there needs to be that same examination,” Asterisk explains. “We all have to look at our country’s history, including the chapters that are not so pleasant. This is important work, if we are to move forward. Truth comes before Reconciliation.”

On Canada Day, 49 people gathered in the tipi for a pipe ceremony, then a water ceremony. In the future, the tipi will move around to host workshops being designed by the Keepers of the Athabasca. Asterisk encourages any school, church or community organization in northern Alberta to host these workshops, which will start in the fall.

The seven workshops are:

  • The Blanket Exercise, where participants take on the roles of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and walk through pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance.

  • Indigenous Water Governance. It will be led by Caleb Behn, executive director of Keepers of the Water (this group’s parent organization), who is an expert on pre-contact Indigenous laws.

  • Explore the Treaties. “We want to make sure people understand the context in which they (either Treaty 8 or Treaty 6) were signed, and looking at whether the promises have been kept,” says Asterisk.

  • The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and how it affects citizens.

  • The 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  • Community Climate Action, which will include Indigenous-based scientific evidence, based on traditional knowledge.

  • State of the Watershed: Keepers will discuss any group’s local environmental concerns. The Keepers take direction from local Elders and those with concerns to document effects of climate change and pollution, as they assemble a report about the Athabasca watershed.

Another event the Keepers are involved with is the Healing Gathering, in Anzac, Alberta, from August 18 to 20. Asterisk explains this Gathering grew out of the Healing Walks that were once held in the area, as part of efforts to make bitumen mining in Alberta more environmentally responsible. The slogan of the Healing Walks was “Stop the destruction, start the healing,” with up to 500 people walking 14 kilometres around pools of toxic tailings, a by-product of the bitumen mining in the area.

This year, she says the focus of the Gathering “is to heal ourselves, so we have the capacity to do the work we do.” During the event, open to visitors on a pay-what-you-can basis, participants will learn about traditional medicines and food, and can take part in daily sweats and ceremonies.

“It will be a great get-together,” says Asterisk.

To find out more information about the workshops or the Keepers of the Athabasca, visit the group’s website or Facebook page, or contact keepers.communications [at] gmail.com (Asterisk). Or go here for information about the Healing Gathering.

—Paul Russell is Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.

New and diverse approaches to ministry are constantly cropping up across The United Church of Canada, and Embracing the Spirit wants to hear about them. If you are involved with a group that has found an innovative way to approach church, let us know, by filling in the Tell Us Your Story form, found at the bottom of the Spur Innovation page.