Nourishing mind and body at Whiskeyjack Art House
Whiskeyjack Art House was named for owner Lana Whiskeyjack’s great-great-grandfather, as well as an homage to the resilience of her people who were forcibly relocated. Like traditional galleries, its walls are white to allow the art to shine, but the energy of the intimate Indigenous-owned art space in the heart of the city is welcoming. Visitors can get comfortable on the plush leather bench in the centre of the room and take in the work of Indigenous artists from all over Alberta. On the bright Saturday morning when I visited, the gallery was showing the Mistatim exhibit, honouring our four-legged relative, the horse. The installation included paintings, mixed media expressions, drawings and photography alike, using the shared focus of the horse to link the pieces together, as opposed to keeping to any one artistic style.
Nestled inside Whiskeyjack Art House is Pei Pei Chei Ow, not so much a restaurant as an extension of the gallery where food is the medium. Founder and chef Scott Jonathan Iserhoff approaches cooking like art, inspired by the land, its seasons and Indigenous ways of cooking to evoke memories and comfort. The name of the restaurant means “robin” in the Omushkegowin or Swampy Cree language and it’s the name Scott was given by his grandfather as a child.
As I took in the artwork, the sounds of a bustling kitchen, of dishes shuffling, ingredients sizzling, created a familiar, comforting atmosphere – like home. I sampled the sounds to later include in the background of the song I’m working on. Iserhoff explained to me that the food they serve is inspired by the meals he ate as a child, made by his grandparents. I had a delicious bison stew, a meat I don’t often encounter in restaurants but savoured in that beautiful space. Many cafés and art galleries put food and art in conversation together, but this combination of culinary and visual artistry feel uniquely linked, both equally grounded in themes of personal memories.
Up close with wildlife at Métis Crossing
After a scenic drive northeast outside of the city centre, I arrived at Métis Crossing. The journey there was beautiful: everything was covered in a layer of frost, the light glistening off the icy crystals. A Métis cultural interpretive centre and hotel sits on 688 acres of sprawling land, a mix of fields and forest, along the flowing North Saskatchewan River. The gathering centre was designed by a friend of mine, architect and artist Tiffany Shaw, so it had a familiar feeling even though it was new to me. The structure is so striking, beautiful and open. Expansive floor-to-ceiling windows let the outside into the space, which uses traditional design elements, in the style of fur-trade era river homes, to create this building that’s both modern and timeless. Métis Crossing hosts all sorts of traditional art workshops, from porcupine quill work to fingerweaving, soapstone carving and more. Throughout my visit, I was guided by the in-house staff alongside Elder Lilyrose. It’s not every day I can go to a restaurant, a hotel or a workshop and see Indigenous people, so that was its own comfort, too – it's like family.
We started by wandering through the lodge. Situated right on the river, you can watch the water through the windows of the hotel rooms onsite, another reminder that this entire experience is designed to connect you to the land you’re on. Each room has a handmade quilt, made with the utmost care and love; I felt that same love when my hosts wrapped me in a capote – a coat made from a point blanket – and took me out to explore.
We made our way across the grounds by car, stopping at the paddocks to spend time with the Percheron horses – my awe and respect for them heightened by my recent visit to Whiskeyjack’s Mistatim exhibit – and the bison. I’d seen bison before but never up that close, where I could see the details of their thick fur and short protruding horns. Their snorting broke the silence of an otherwise still, clear winter day – I recorded their grunting to weave into the song – along with the crackle of the fire, and the Elder and I talking and laughing together. Looking further out, I spotted elk hiding in the trees, observing us from afar.
The food there was delicious, and I enjoyed a bison burger and a salad, served with a Saskatoon berry lemonade that reminded me of growing up eating those berries fresh from the bush. Even though my visit was on a frosty day, the drink was refreshing, the flavours bright and familiar.
Feeling connected with Enoch Cree Nation at River Cree Resort and Casino
I travelled just west of Edmonton to River Cree Resort and Casino in Enoch Cree Nation, where I joined community leaders and members for a Traditional Foods and Teachings experience with the Enoch Language and Culture (maskêkosihk nêhiyawêwin) Department. The hotel, restaurants and concert space are all housed in a modern complex, a place to come together and have fun, to relax and learn. A tipi was set up in the entertainment centre, on top of some turf that was laid out on the floor. There was a beautiful bison hide in the middle of the tipi. The space has ample room for seating for events, but that day the tipi was all that stood in the large open space of the concrete room. I had hot tea, fresh bannock and sweet berries with my hosts, Sandra Alexander, Shelley Morin and Terry Morin.
Alongside prayers and songs, I learned about the cultural and community work they do to preserve and enhance the Cree way of life in Enoch Cree Nation, teaching their language, fostering a sense of community among the locals to grow stronger together. Their work focuses on addressing the separation between people caused by colonialism – honouring our ancestors before us while preparing for our descendants yet to come, as they put it. There was so much power held in that space where they have round dances, ceremonies, relay races and cultural gatherings. I still feel like I’m processing the full experience.
The common thread that ran through each place I visited, each experience I shared, was community. There was community in the gathering of artists at Whiskeyjack; community over a meal at Pei Pei Chei Ow; community in the workshops at Métis Crossing, not just with each other but with the land and the animals; community in the outreach and teachings of Enoch Cree Nation.
The experiences I had, the emotions I felt, everything I saw and heard, have in turn been woven into a tapestry of new music. I create intuitively, by gut feeling, translating those feelings into sound in my head. My time of exploration took shape of a recording in three parts, where listeners can feel what I felt as I steeped myself in each of these beautiful places.
I really want to capture the essence of my guides and my experiences in my music. I’m grateful to have been hosted so graciously and I hope the music I make reflects my gratitude and the way I was moved by these unique experiences. My hope is when you listen to the song, you feel in community with the peoples and places that inspired it – so much so that you’re moved to see them for yourself.
About the illustrator
Bryce Many Fingers / Singer (Mano’taanikaapi) is an artist and member of the Blood Tribe (Kainai) in Southern Alberta. Bryce’s mixed media art aims to build an understanding of Niitsitapi culture and history, as well as a relationship to the land. His graphic style is influenced by Blood artist Gerald Tail Feathers (Iitsiki’tsaawaawahka – Walks Up High). He also takes inspiration from literary works such as The Ways of My Grandmothers by Beverly Hungry Wolf, and Invisible Reality by Rosalyn R. LaPier.