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Detail of the decals on the Humber College Welcome Centre showing the seven major stopping places in English and Ojibwe. I think I know where I am: standing on a lawn at Humber College in the Etobicoke area of Toronto. But the area was known to Ojibwe people as Adoobiigok , which means “the place where the alders grow.” I’m reminded of this because the name is marked on a tall spire of steel in front of me, which also features alder branches carved in relief. It’s the first time I have seen that name, Adoobiigok, outside of a book.

And this is no accident. The sculptural weathering-steel object, one of eight in a group, is an Indigenous cultural marker – part of a new genre of buildings, landscape architecture and art objects designed to recall that all of Canada is Indigenous land.

They are known as Indigenous gathering places and Indigenous cultural markers. A trio of such projects for Humber College sets a strong example: marking a historic Indigenous presence, evoking traditions and making a contemporary artistic statement. AwenÕ Gathering Place: Sunlight shines through the steel canopies onto the Alaskan cedar poles. That evolution marks the work of the Winnipeg-based Anishinaabe architect Ryan Gorrie, who with this and other projects has become a leader in the effort of Indigenous place-making.

“We are in a state of cultural reclamation, rediscovering culture, rediscovering language and art,” says Gorrie, who leads the Indigenous Design Studio within the architecture and urban design firm Brook McIlroy. “As we’re looking and finding the pieces along the trail, putting them back together, at the same time we’re putting them into new forms.”

That’s an effort that raises some complex questions, not just about Canada’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, but also about how architecture and landscape architecture relate to place and community.

The Humber projects have multiple ambitions. One is to acknowledge the Indigenous history of the college campuses, in suburban Toronto. “As Indigenous people, we’ve been taught that our language is written on the land,” says Shelley Charles, Humber College’s dean of Indigenous Education and Engagement. The college’s set of Indigenous Cultural Markers “is a contemporary response to that, really creating a land acknowledgment in physical form.”

The eight sculptural pieces made of Cor-Ten steel symbolize eight stopping points within that great migration. The first evokes marsh reeds at the nearby mouth of the Humber River at Lake Ontario, or, as it is known in Ojibwe, Gabekanaang-ziibi . Another represents Ishpaadina (“high hill”), a point whose name survives in common usage as the Toronto street name Spadina.

Nearby, a series of drawings depicts the Anishinaabe story of migration from what is now the East Coast of Canada to Lake Superior, and the seven original clans of the Anishinaabe, each labelled in English and the Ojibwe language. “It provides a chance to translate the language,” Gorrie says. The works "are intertwined, and they can be experienced one at a time or collectively.” Each pattern is based on one of the plants of the food forest. Another sculptural installation, now under way at the college’s North Campus, will represent the Seven Fires of Creation, the Anishinaabe prophecy. “We wanted some ambiguity in the form,” Gorrie says from his Winnipeg office. “It was inspired by, say, a feather, but could be read in other ways.”

Such ambiguity is important: Places such as this, Gorrie believes, should be Indigenous-led but should not be only for Indigenous people. The studio recently collaborated on the Awen Indigenous Gathering Place in Collingwood, Ont., with elder Duke Redbird of the Saugeen First Nation.

Gorrie’s first project of this kind was […]

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