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Artist Features

Navigating the River of Life: The Journey to the Indigenous Principle by Jacquelyn Cardinal

June 6, 2024

Photo of Jacquelyn Cardinal and Hunter Cardinal.

Jacquelyn Cardinal, sakāwithiniwak (Woodland Cree) from the Sucker Creek Cree First Nation, is a dedicated changemaker who has made it her life’s work to foster understanding and healing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Through her innovative consulting firm, Naheyawin, Jacquelyn empowers organizations to embrace the transformative power of Indigenous wisdom. Her impactful work has been recognized with prestigious accolades such as Edmonton’s Top 40 Under 40 and the UN Women’s SHEInnovates Award. In addition to her consulting work, Jacquelyn is a passionate storyteller who co-wrote and produced the award-winning play Lake of the Strangers with her brother Hunter. 

To mark the halfway point of the Connections & Exchanges plan, the EAC asked Jacquelyn to reflect on the consultation process that led Naheyawin to emphasize the Indigenous Principle as foundational to the plan.

Indigenous peoples have agency in their journeys of revitalizing and participating in traditional, contemporary and future manifestations of their culture.”

Navigating the River of Life: The Journey to the Indigenous Principle by Jacquelyn Cardinal

In the teachings of my people, the nêhiyawak, there is a concept that has guided me throughout my life and work: we are all on the river of life together. This simple yet profound idea speaks to the interconnectedness of our journeys, the shared challenges we face, and the collective responsibility we have to navigate the currents of change with wisdom, respect, and compassion.

For us at Naheyawin, an Indigenous consulting firm based in amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), this teaching has been at the heart of our approach to working with communities. We believe that true progress and healing can only happen when we recognize our shared humanity and work together towards common goals, even as we honour and celebrate our unique identities and experiences. It is in this spirit that we approached our work with the Edmonton Arts Council on their 10-year plan.

Listening to Indigenous Voices

When we were invited to contribute to the Edmonton Arts Council’s 10-year plan, we knew that we had to approach this responsibility with the same spirit of collaboration and respect that the river of life teaching embodies. We were honoured to be entrusted with this task, but we also recognized the challenge it presented. How could we ensure that the voices, dreams, and wisdom of the Indigenous arts community were truly heard and reflected in this plan?

As we always do, we began by listening. Through a series of community consultations, we had the privilege of sitting with Indigenous artists, Elders, youth, and community members from across the city. In intimate sharing circles and lively discussions, they opened their hearts and minds to us, sharing their stories, their challenges, and their hopes for the future of Indigenous arts in Edmonton.

As we listened, a powerful theme began to emerge. Again and again, we heard Indigenous people express a deep yearning for agency, autonomy, and self-determination in their artistic and cultural expressions. They spoke of the need for spaces and platforms where they could tell their own stories, in their own ways, without interference or control from external forces. Many used the metaphor of the canoe to express their desire to steer their own cultural journey, emphasizing that for too long, outside forces have tried to control the direction and pace of Indigenous arts and culture. It was time, they said, for Indigenous people to reclaim their rightful place as the navigators of their own destiny.

Treaties as a Guide

As we reflected on the powerful insights shared by the community during the consultations, we had a pivotal realization. The Indigenous artists, Elders, and community members we spoke with were not simply presenting us with a list of changes they wanted to see in the arts sector. They were calling on us to understand the development of the plan as part of the ongoing process of treaty-making and renewal.

This realization prompted us to look to the treaties for guidance as we worked to articulate a guiding principle for the plan. We recognized that the treaties are not static documents, but living agreements that require ongoing interpretation and application in contemporary contexts. They embody a set of sacred principles and responsibilities that have guided the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers for centuries, and that continue to hold relevance for us today.

By grounding the arts plan in treaty principles, we saw an opportunity to honour the wisdom of our ancestors and to bring the spirit of the treaties to life in a new way. We understood that we were engaging in the same process that our ancestors had undertaken when negotiating these agreements — the process of establishing respectful, mutually beneficial relationships in the face of change and uncertainty.

As we considered the various treaties that have shaped the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown over the centuries, we were drawn to a range of agreements, each with its own unique history and significance. The Silver Covenant Chain, for example, was a series of treaties and agreements between the Haudenosaunee and the British, French, and Dutch, dating back to the early 17th century. The Treaty of Niagara, signed in 1764, was a foundational agreement that established a nation-to-nation relationship between the British Crown and 24 Indigenous nations, based on principles of peace, friendship, and respect.

But there was one treaty in particular that stood out to us as we sought to articulate a guiding principle for the arts plan — the Two Row Wampum. This ancient agreement, originally made in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, was more than just a localized treaty. It established a powerful framework for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect that would go on to inform all future treaties between Indigenous peoples and Europeans on Turtle Island. We recognized that by grounding our work in the wisdom of the Two Row Wampum, we could tap into a lineage of diplomacy and relationship-building that stretches back centuries.

The Two Row Wampum

The Two Row Wampum, known in the Haudenosaunee language as Gä•sweñta’, is a wampum belt that tells the story of the agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. It consists of two rows of purple wampum beads on a background of white beads. The purple rows symbolize two vessels — a canoe and a ship — travelling side by side down the river of life. The white beads represent peace, friendship, and respect — the three principles that form the basis of the agreement.

The meaning of the Two Row Wampum is rich and multifaceted. On a practical level, it established a framework for how the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch could coexist peacefully in shared territory, without interfering in each other’s affairs or attempting to steer each other’s course. But on a deeper level, it articulated a powerful vision of how two distinct peoples could maintain their own autonomy and way of being, while still sharing the journey of life in a spirit of reciprocity and mutual respect.

As we contemplated the imagery and symbolism of the Two Row Wampum, we were struck by how closely it aligned with the principles and values that had emerged from our community consultations. The Indigenous artists, Elders, and community members we spoke with had expressed a deep desire for cultural sovereignty and self-determination — the freedom to tell their own stories, in their own ways, without interference or control from external forces. They spoke of the need for respectful, reciprocal relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, based on a shared commitment to peace, friendship, and mutual understanding.

In the Two Row Wampum, we saw a powerful embodiment of these same principles. We recognized that this ancient treaty offered not only a vision for a new relationship between the arts sector and Indigenous peoples, but also a roadmap for how to get there.

Embodying the Treaty Relationship

The Indigenous Principle that emerged from our consultations — Indigenous peoples have agency in their journeys of revitalizing and participating in traditional, contemporary and future manifestations of their culture” — is a direct application of the Two Row Wampum’s core tenets to the arts and culture sector. It affirms the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to cultural sovereignty and self-determination, recognizing that Indigenous artists, cultural workers, and communities must have the freedom and support to express their identities, share their stories, and shape their own cultural futures.

But the Indigenous Principle goes beyond simply asserting Indigenous rights. It also sets out a vision for a new kind of relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the arts sector — one based on the values of respect, reciprocity, and mutual support. Just as the Two Row Wampum depicts two vessels travelling side by side down the river of life, the Indigenous Principle calls on us to walk together as partners and allies, each bringing our own unique strengths and perspectives to the journey.

Importantly, the Indigenous Principle also emphasizes the ongoing, dynamic nature of the treaty relationship. It recognizes that the agreements and understandings reached by our ancestors are not static or frozen in time, but require active renewal and reinterpretation as contexts and circumstances change. By committing ourselves to the ongoing work of embodying treaty principles in the arts sector, we are taking up the sacred responsibilities that have been passed down to us through the generations.

A Vision for the Future

In reflecting on the journey that led to the creation of the Indigenous Principle, I am filled with a profound sense of hope and possibility. The wisdom, resilience, and clarity of vision brought forward by Indigenous artists, Elders, and community members during the consultation process were truly transformative. They reminded us that the work of developing the arts plan is not simply an administrative or bureaucratic exercise, but a sacred responsibility — an opportunity to honour the spirit of the treaties and to bring their principles to life in a new way.

As the Edmonton Arts Council moves forward with the implementation of the arts plan, I am excited to see how the Indigenous Principle will continue to shape and guide their work. By embodying treaty principles in all that they do, the EAC has the potential to be a catalyst for transformative change — not only in the arts and culture sector, but in our society as a whole.

As we continue on this journey together, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of this important work, and for the many hands and hearts that have brought us to this moment. Together, as treaty people, we have the power to bring this vision to life. Let us move forward with courage, compassion, and a deep commitment to the sacred responsibilities that have been entrusted to us. The future is ours to create.