After years of planning and community consultation, an Indigenous learning centre has opened at Western.
The space, officially announced as the Wampum Learning Lodge in a naming ceremony earlier today, is located at the former library of the John G. Althouse Building at the Faculty of Education. The 10,000- square-foot building has a distinctive domed roof, shaped like a turtle’s shell, depicting Turtle Island. The interior has been retrofitted with three floors of classrooms, gathering spaces, offices and a media centre, all designed to support Indigenous ways of knowing.
The opening of the centre marks the end of an extensive, strategic planning process, led by the Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII) to increase dedicated gathering spaces for Indigenous Peoples on campus where cultural ceremonies and practices could be experienced and shared.
Steps to realize this vision began in 2016, following the release of Western’s first Indigenous Strategic Plan. The plan, developed in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings and Calls to Action, aimed to “elevate Indigenous voices and agency to engage all faculty, staff, students and communities in advancing excellence in Indigenous research, education, and campus life.” This commitment was renewed in the university’s current strategic plan, Towards Western at 150, launched in June 2021.
Christy Bressette, vice-provost and associate vice-president (Indigenous Initiatives), reflected on the journey toward the new space, created with input from students, staff, faculty and Indigenous communities.
“This new, magnificent building embodies the dreams and vision of so many who have gone before us, including those who have worked hard since 2016,” Bressette said. “While it meets the objectives of the Indigenous Strategic Plan, it does so much more. It will be a touchstone for Indigenous Peoples and communities to engage with Western, by bringing Indigenous communities to our campus. It will connect people at Western who share the goal of Indigenization and decolonization.”
The Wampum Learning Lodge offers a safe space for Indigenous Peoples and allies at Western and beyond. A place for all of us to share our gifts and where we can all learn to see the world from a variety of perspectives.” ~ Christy Bressette, vice-provost and associate vice-president (Indigenous Initiatives)
President Alan Shepard noted the opening of the Wampum Learning Lodge is a historic moment for the Indigenous community and for Western.
“This important addition to our campus is the most visible expression of Western’s commitment to advancing reconciliation with Indigenous communities and signals our desire to shape a better future founded on mutual respect, harmony and learning. We are grateful for the many Indigenous colleagues, students and community members who guided the creation of this culturally significant space. On behalf of the university, I want to thank the Office of Indigenous Initiatives for its leadership in facilitating this project to a successful completion.”
Dedicated to Indigenous teaching and learning, the space will be a home-place for Indigenous students and Indigenous initiatives at Western and will bring Indigenous ways of being and knowing to campus.
“This is a space where a lot of important work is going to be accomplished,” said Paula Cornelius-Hedgepeth, community relations and space coordinator for the Office of Indigenous Initiatives. “I see it as a place of cultural reclamation, reconciliation, revitalization, and respect. This space will be a hub for the Western community and Indigenous communities.”
The building name was chosen under the guidance of a Council of Elders. “Wampum,” a widely recognized term from the Narragansett language, means “white string of shell beads.” Shell beads have long been used to record history, create agreements and treaties, tell stories and mark extraordinary events.
“We felt it appropriate to give the name “wampum” to this space because it records history here,” Cornelius-Hedgepeth said. “It marks a great event. It tells a story of how we are writing a new chapter in the history of the university.”
The space was designed by Wanda Dalla Costa of Saddle Lake First Nation, Canada’s first female Indigenous architect, and founder of the Tawaw Architecture Collective. The on-site architecture partner was Tillman Ruth Robinson Architects.
Drawing on input from local Indigenous communities, Dalla Costa worked with the OII to create a culturally responsive design, with the interior of the building featuring:
- An innovative use of glassworks to draw natural light and warmth into the heart of the building;
- A prominent moss wall symbolizing the Indigenous worldview that all of creation is connected;
- References to the equinox and the four cardinal directions, which hold great significance within Indigenous cosmology; and
- Indigenous artworks and languages throughout.
The site repurposes “cookies” from a 350-year-old oak tree predating London and Western. The tree lived beside the river on campus until it succumbed to disease. Parts of the tree were saved as “cookie slices” and cross-sectional slabs. These slices are mounted in the main gathering area and the lower level and have corresponding interactive story maps. In the worldview of Indigenous Peoples, the tree is an ancestor who is to be revered and thanked for the teachings it has given and continues to give.
An outdoor ceremonial space is sheltered by an arbor, whose dramatic shape is inspired by the turtle and its layering and patterning inspired by a traditional Haudenosaunee lacrosse stick basket. From the side, it forms an infinity symbol (Métis). Adjacent to the ceremonial space is a terraced Indigenous food and medicine garden, dedicated to revitalizing Indigenous agricultural and medical knowledge.
Engaging the community
In the days and years ahead, Cornelius-Hedgepeth wants to see the Wampum Learning Lodge “as busy as possible,” as a host site for workshops, speakers series and social events.
Community engagement is also a key goal. Those in London and region are encouraged to book the site to host events relevant to Indigenous communities or those that have Indigenous themes.
In June 2023, the site will serve as the central hub of Universities Canada’s Building Reconciliation Forum, a three-day national event bringing academics and other stakeholders together to discuss reconciliation in universities across the country.
Supporting Indigenous students
Cornelius-Hedgepeth said students are at the heart of the work supported by the centre.
“This space was designed with students in mind,” she said. “Having a space where Indigenous youth can see themselves and want to attend Western because this space exists is one of the most exciting things for me.
“It’s a space of growth, of hope, of opportunity. And that’s what students have been looking for. We want it to be a home away from home.”
Starting next week, the Wampum Learning Lodge will be open to visitors during regular business hours.