Collaboration Indigenous knowledge at heart of Muskrat House project

Alex Wilson says she’s already looking forward to seeing what Muskrat Hut version 2.0 looks like.Wilson is an Indigenous education professor at the University of Saskatchewan and part of the team that created a Muskrat Hut prototype — also known as wachusko weesti — that aims to address concerns about access to safe and clean water, toilets and food preparation areas in remote areas, including northern Saskatchewan.The hut is a sustainable, locally-sourced, four-season mobile unit complete with an incinerating toilet, shower, sauna, pop-up kitchen and solar and wind energy sources. It was made through a collaboration between Opaskwayak First Nation in Manitoba, the University of Saskatchewan and many other partners. The hut is now in use at Opaskwayak First Nation.Wilson said the project was spearheaded by Idle No More’s One House, Many Nations campaign, which has previously created tiny houses to help solve on-reserve housing crises. While building those tiny houses, the group noticed there was also a need for bathroom and kitchen facilities during gatherings and to support land-based programming.“We were excited to think about how traditional Indigenous knowledge could be integrated or interpreted into a modern context, for housing systems as well,” Wilson said. “We have the solutions in our own communities, we have the knowledge, we have the skill, we have the expertise.”Story continues belowThis advertisement has not loaded yet,but your article continues below.The process was collaborative, with five First Nations and members of the Métis community working on the open-source design and building plan that anyone is welcome to use. Financial support came from a federal grant and the Northern Manitoba Health Foods Cooperative.Wilson noted there are only about 18 Indigenous architects in the country, and most of them were involved in this project.Reanna Merasty, a member of Barren Lands First Nation and an architecture graduate student at the University of Manitoba who worked on the project, said she appreciated that the development process involved community, Indigenous knowledge, sustainability, and regional influences in the materials.“As Indigenous peoples, this way of building has always been inherent, and is a reflection of our stewardship to the land. As an Indigenous student, it is important for me to express who I am, and what my responsibility is as an Indigenous designer/architect, especially on a project that would be used by the community,” she said.Amina Lalor, a Metis graduate student in architecture at the University of Waterloo who was also involved in development of the Muskrat Hut, said participating in the project had a deep meaning for her because her great-great-grandmother was Swampy Cree and born in Norway House, not far from Opaskwayak.“I see great potential for the Muskrat Hut to foster dialogue among architects (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) around what it means to work closely with community and build in good relationship with the land, especially as we face a growing environmental crisis. Projects like the Muskrat Hut also have very real impacts on the ground, helping to facilitate important Indigenous land-based activities and learning,” she said.Wilson said the prototype was named after the muskrat because the animal plays a major role in Cree and Indigenous cosmology, is known for persistence and hard work and is a critical part of the ecosystem and water system. The muskrat was used for food, clothing, fur and had ties to important medicines as well.“(Muskrats are) doing a lot of work all the time that is really important to our ecosystems and often don’t get the credit,” Wilson said of the inspiration.Along with architects and architecture students, Elders and trappers contributed their knowledge.Doctoral candidate Mylan Tootoosis was a research assistant and participant.“It’s a system-based approach,” Tootoosis said, explaining that the group was conscious of housing, social, and economic issues in the design. “It’s doable, sustainable, and can be replicated time and again.”He added that it was also experiential: team members were learning as they went, adding to the conversation about housing and sustainability that One House, Many Nations has been promoting since 2015.“As Indigenous people, we know we want to protect the land. There’s a climate crisis. We have to take steps to help people engage in access to the land, and the Muskrat Hut is providing service to the land in a safe and secure way,” Tootoosis said, adding that services, safety, shelter and food are a basic stepping stone in providing further projects to come.“We want to create momentum and keep doing this forever.”

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