Seven Grandfathers

In her book Old Stories, New Ways, architect Vivian Manasc explores how the seven Cree Grandfather Teachings can inform an architectural process focused on inclusion and respect—creating better outcomes for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings were first shared with Manasc by the late Elder Peter O’Chiese. Manasc was introduced to Elder O’Chiese by Diana Steinhauer, one of the building committee members for the Saddle Lake Junior Senior High School. “As I was inspired by Vivian’s vivacious capacities, so too will you be upon realizing the capacity that architecture serves in reclaiming our place and spaces,” writes Steinhauer in a foreword to the book. “This book reminds people of the stories and the processes of coming to consensus and about persevering.”

A workshop held at Kipohtakaw (Alexander) First Nation School, at Kipohtakaw First Nation, Treaty 6 Territory. Photo courtesy Manasc Isa

Many years ago, one of the Elders at a planning meeting asked me, “So explain to me: What is the sequence of making a building? How do you get from an idea to a building?”

I responded by drawing a typical linear timeline: We work with you to develop a concept, then we complete the schematic design, then we work with our engineering team to integrate building systems, and then we prepare construction documents, and then we get a contractor to proceed into construction.

The Elder looked at me and said, “I understand what you mean—but you have it all wrong. This process of planning and designing a building shouldn’t be illustrated in straight lines. It should be told in a circle.” He took the chalk on the blackboard and drew a circle with four parts and then with seven parts—showing that the beginning and the end of the story are connected. He offered the gift of framing the story of how we make buildings by telling the stories in a circular way. There can be four parts, or there can be seven parts, depending on how you share the teachings. Over the years, I have found that the seven Cree Grandfather Teachings have helped me to frame the story of architectural practice and the process of planning, design and construction that is at the heart of our work. These seven teachings are described in turn, and each is connected to a specific phase. This is how the circle of architecture has emerged for me.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings

First, as architects, we need the Courage to explore our purpose and people’s vision. Once the vision is articulated, then we do planning, with Love for the community who will inhabit the space. Then we draw in the Wisdom of the knowledge that we have developed as designers to pull the best design strategies to the forefront. With Respect for the craft of making and building, we then develop the detailed instructions for building, and then the moment of Truth—we build and implement the vision.

Then we move in and celebrate with Humility what we have accomplished and give thanks to all those who have been part of the journey. And finally, with Honesty, we evaluate and review, and then we start all over again.

The sculpture Eaglechild by Stewart Steinhauer is at the heart of Saddle Lake School, in Saddle Lake First Nation, Treaty 6 Territory. Photo by Tiffany Shaw-Colling


Visioning together requires Courage on the part of the community. At Peguis, north of Winnipeg, at Saddle Lake and Driftpile, in Alberta, and in other communities, we set out to design new schools. Each time, we invited the community to share their vision. We asked them to imagine the future of learning environments. At Peguis, over two hundred people came together in a large room with magazines, markers, flip charts and scissors.

Making collages together allows community members to share their ideas, and their dreams, amongst themselves and with us, to co-create imagery that resonates for the whole community. These visions include light, warmth, bright and meaningful colours, natural materials and animal images. Years later when we go back to visit, these schools are still loved and cared for.

In the early 1990s at Saddle Lake, we learned about ways to interpret the vision. The school was eventually called Kihew Asiny, which means Eaglechild. The vision of this particular story emerged as we began to work with the community. The story of the Eaglechild is about a child who goes out for a quest to find out who he is. He ends up coming back home full circle to find out that he is who he is. We asked for the gift to interpret that story. We were taught that the story couldn’t be written or drawn literally. It had to be understood in the telling. To this day, Diana Steinhauer, who was the director of education at Saddle Lake at the time, is sharing the story of the Eaglechild and of how that story is to be understood and interpreted in the context of the community.

To understand yourself and your institutions, you have to understand your community and your relationships. By being given the gift of that story, we were able to interpret the story in the planning and design of the school, creating patterns on the floor and patterns in the building that integrated with Stewart Steinhauer’s powerful sculpture, enabling a continuous telling and retelling of that story.

Courage is needed to envision a future for the children in the school—and the creating of a school that embodies Cree teachings was the starting point at Saddle Lake.


Why do we create these buildings, and why do we plan them? In order to give form to the community’s vision, we interpret the connection between people, the connection between spaces, the connection between place and building, and the connection between community and building. The sense of Love is that sense of connection—of knowing how all the people in the community relate to one another and so to the building being designed.

The health authority in Edmonton decided to buy a vacant, old, red-brick schoolhouse to build a new integrated community health and primary health care centre. However, the neighbours rather liked their little brick schoolhouse and the adjacent green space, and they didn’t want any new buildings there. The health authority thought that tearing down the school could make way for a new and attractive community health centre. It seemed an impossible situation in which the health authority had made a decision, and the community seemed intractably opposed. Struggling to find a space of shared values, we drew on our tradition of inviting as many people as wanted to be there to a workshop about the future of the site.

Anxious that there would be voices and contradictory opinions that we couldn’t manage, we heaved a sigh of relief after the first design charrette. Starting with blank sheets of paper, we explored the needs and wants and fears of the neighbours. With about 125 people, we moved from anger through Love and created a shared vision that identified their fears and aspirations for this place.

A lot of people were afraid that we were going to tear down the red-brick school. So we managed to convince the health authority that it was worth considering how we could keep the brick schoolhouse. There were fears about needle exchanges and about after-hours disruption, fears of the loss of green space, and of too much surface parking, and fear by the non-Indigenous community of attracting too many Indigenous people from surrounding neighbourhoods to the new community health facility. For each of these challenges, there was an opportunity to design an integrated solution.

In the next day’s Edmonton Journal, an article reported that we were able to build the trust needed to move the project forward. And then once we had that trust, we got to work. We designed a strategy for economically integrating the red-brick schoolhouse into the health centre. Underground parking was proposed to protect trees and preserve green space. And we designed a link between the old building and the new building, complete with a circular room to serve as a gathering and prayer space for the Indigenous community. The health centre met the neighbourhood’s needs for green and heritage spaces, as well as being a very effective health clinic. Clinical spaces were placed in the new building and the office spaces and community spaces in the old building. To this day, the East Edmonton Health Centre is a well-loved and well-used member of the community.

The design for the Rossdale Burial Ground Memorial in Edmonton honours the stories of different groups whose histories cross on the site. Photo courtesy Manasc Isaac


The Wisdom of architects and artists is often seen through their ability to draw. And with that Wisdom comes the temptation to draw before listening. It’s sometimes easier to draw, so we can see what the options might be. When that Wisdom of drawing is balanced with the Wisdom of listening to stories, we create shared images that build trust and understanding. We draw because it is a powerful way to reconcile all the contradicting requirements of a given reality. We draw together, because it is in the Wisdom of shared images that we can build an alignment around shared vision.

Drawing together can bring deep understanding. In the heart of Edmonton’s river valley is a site that many agreed concealed a historic burial ground. Located beside one of the Fort Edmonton locations, it was an area without clear boundaries, criss-crossed by roads and traffic islands. To the east, the Rossdale Power Plant loomed large, with switchyards, fences, and a gatehouse. To the south is the riverbank of the North Saskatchewan River, far below the hill. To the north, steep river roads lead to the downtown core of Edmonton, and to the west, views of the setting sun are framed by the meandering river valley.

Métis people, Europeans, Blackfoot people, Cree people and Dene people came together and appealed to the Wisdom of the City Council to honour the burial ground that was known to be at that location, just outside the walls of the historic Fort Edmonton, and build a memorial on this site.

The challenge was to create a form for this memorial. We brought together a divided group of people who each had a clear idea about the design of that burial ground. Blackfoot and Cree people felt strongly that there should be no Christian symbolism because they were reminded of the repression experienced at the hands of the churches. Descendants of fur traders and settlers argued that their Christian ancestors are buried here as well, outside of the edges of Fort Edmonton, and that a cross of some sort would be essential.

How do you have a cross and not a cross at the same time? Drawing images of crosses, broken circles and other forms, architects Shafraaz Kaba and Myron Nebozuk at Manasc Isaac arrived at a memorial that is both legible and abstract. In the landscape, we set benches in the form of the Métis symbol of infinity. The elements on the site would sit on the surface of the Earth, without foundations, as we weren’t sure where the bodies were buried. The City also rerouted the roads, creating a space where contemplation and reflection could take place.

The memorial, if you see it from certain angles, could be a cross, but if you look from another angle, it is a three-dimensional, very light-on-the-landscape sculpture. From the air, it looks like a broken circle. The Wisdom of drawing is a gift shared by many people over the years. Its Wisdom is to allow us to synthesize in a thoughtful way, the ideas, visions and plans of the community and create a single, dynamic, ever-changeable image. Now designated as a burial ground, with its memorial and interpretative site, this decades-old place is still being modified, to reconcile the needs of the many stories that are told there.


The fourth of the seven teachings of the Elders is about Respect. We are probably most familiar with this step as detailed design, or construction documents, or detailing. As architects, this is the phase at which we’re thinking about how things really go together, how materials go together, how sometimes abstract ideas manifest in built form and how we can illustrate those ideas and assemblies.

A reference point is the traditional teepee form. And I don’t know how many photographs I have of teepees, but from all my travels, I seem to have hundreds. I am really fascinated by how beautiful that form is against the sky, and how just so simple, functional and lovely it is. It reminds us that we do have to pay attention to the details and how it all goes together to have a coherent and refined design. Respect for the people who make things, and Respect for the knowledge that they have accumulated in that making, and Respect for the stories that are embedded in the object are also embodied in both teepees and in buildings.

Detail exists at every level, whether we’re interpreting a feather falling to the ground, or whether we’re interpreting beadwork. In the case of the O’Chiese community, the only Saulteaux community in Alberta, the Elders felt very strongly that the craft and art of beadwork should be reflected in the design of the building. In that case, our team, led by Richard Isaac, incorporated colours and patterns drawn from beadwork into the design of the graphic elements inside the building.

Often the detailing is in a larger context. For example, the Centre for World Indigenous Knowledge and Research at Athabasca University was planned for the Academic and Research Centre (known as the ARC). The space had to be circular, but as we learned from Indigenous faculty, there could be nothing above that space, only the sky. So there is no second floor above that part of the building, even though the rest of the building has three storeys. Every time we work with Indigenous leaders, whether it’s as part of the design of a larger building or as a stand-alone facility, we learn new stories, and each new story has layers and more layers of meaning.


So what about building, the fifth dimension called Truth in the Elder tradition? There are endless stories about buildings. We all have them. The building is the moment of Truth for the design process. You have come to grips with the planning, the design and detailing. Does it come together? Does it make sense? Is it Truthful? It’s also the moment of Truth in that the building’s ownership grows, as there are many contractors, tradespeople and suppliers engaged in the process of making.

I want to share a story about a construction experience from a long time ago. This one is from northern Saskatchewan, in Stony Rapids, on the Athabasca River. The Athabasca Health Facility was a replacement hospital for the one that was closed in Uranium City. The new building was to serve five communities and was to be located at Stony Rapids. We flew into each of the five communities for one day. In each community, we held a large-scale design charrette, and we tried to understand how we would plan and design and build this centralized facility. This particular health facility has birthing rooms, emergency rooms, and Elder care; so it is a full-care facility, with both acute and long-term care under the same roof. At a time before email and cell phones, it was unlikely that people were in constant, instant contact with one another. Yet we heard the same thing in each community. The patient rooms should face the river. Not because you’ll be able to see the river, but rather because you would be able to hear the river. And so we designed it with all the patient rooms facing toward the river so you could hear the rapids. And in Stony Rapids, even when it’s sixty below outside, you can hear the water running—it never freezes.

So we went ahead and designed it and then began construction.
Because of distance, I didn’t go out very often, and when I did go, I was largely anonymous. One day I was out on site and while I was walking around, I overheard the tradesmen during their lunch remarking, “You know, it’s really cool. You can hear the river running around here from this room. That’s amazing.” The tradesmen just got it. It wasn’t anything we told them to listen for, wasn’t anything we made them aware of; it was just there. Those are the kind of magical construction stories that let you know the planning was right, the design was right, and the detail was right. Those people, because they cared about the building, and because they understood that the river sound was important and that it was healing, did a really good job of building this building.

Another construction story is from Peguis Central School, just a couple miles north of Winnipeg. They had a masonry trades training program, and we were asked to design the building to give these masonry students work experience. At the end of the project, eight journeymen masons were ready to graduate, using the experience they gained by working on Peguis School. The purpose of the building was a lot more than just making a building; it was about making a community, about making a future for those young people.


We are now at the sixth teaching—that of Humility—moving in and celebrating. When you finally finish construction and open a building, it is quite humbling. Any of you who are practitioners know that to see a building completed, to see people moving in, is surrounded by a real sense of Humility. You have been part of co-creating something that is going to be there for a very long time. It is now given over to the custody of the community. It has to be something that people not only want to celebrate, but also something that people want to take ownership of.

Amiskwaciy Academy, the Aboriginal high school in Edmonton, was originally Edmonton’s municipal air terminal building. When the Edmonton Public School Board decided to develop an Aboriginal high school, it realized that it couldn’t afford to build it from scratch. There wasn’t a school building available, so we worked with them to try to find a building in the community that was vacant, available and 80,000 square feet. There weren’t that many 80,000-square-foot buildings just sitting around vacant! But we knew about the airport terminal. It just so happened that we had done a renovation of it before it closed. It was a circular story for us as architects—to come back and re-renovate a building that we had just renovated.

We started with the key question: Why are we creating this Aboriginal school? It’s a junior–senior high school, a school where all of Edmonton’s youth have access to Cree language and culture.

It was exciting to fit it into an air terminal building because all those baggage rooms really make great shop spaces. Really robust environments make perfect schools. But turning an airport terminal into a school was a complex transformation. Again we started with imagining, dreaming and envisioning.

These Grandfather Teachings are circular. What I’ve learned is that all these stories connect, whether they are about grand openings, whether these stories are about dreaming, or about design or construction. They keep looping around, reinforcing each other. So the main entry of Amiskwaciy reflects the many different Indigenous communities that this school serves. The images are not Cree, not Dene, not Saulteaux; they are a composite set of images that reflect the visions of many of the different nations that come to this particular school.


The seventh element of the story, Honesty, which completes the circle, is the evaluation. We often speak in the world of architecture about evaluating buildings, and post-occupancy evaluations, basically reviewing how we’ve done. And it’s harder to do that than to talk about it. But we do make it our practice to come around and visit. After the Humility of opening a building, there is the Honesty of evaluating how we did. Did we really achieve what we set out to achieve? Did we miss the mark? How can we do better the next time?

An example is the Greenstone Building in Yellowknife. The Greenstone Building was the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold building north of sixty. We had the opportunity to integrate a lot of firsts into it. It’s a building that performs extremely well. It’s basically net-zero for water, creating enough water for its needs from rainwater. It has a green roof and a high-performance building envelope. It’s also a delightful, comfortable environment for Government of Canada employees from thirteen different departments. At the grand opening, they invited a Haida drummer. This is really unusual in a Dene community, but it spoke to the fact that Indigenous Peoples are connected across Canada and share values. This was a story the Government of Canada and the Indigenous people wanted to share.

So ultimately, what’s worth emphasizing in our shared work with Indigenous people is that it teaches us as architects about embodying the stories of our time, of our community, of the particular and of the general. The particular needs of the community are important, but so are the aspirations of the larger community. Our buildings stay around a long time, and it’s so important that the stories reflect and resonate for an equally long time.

This text is excerpted from Old Stories, New Ways: Conversations about an Architecture Inspired by Indigenous Ways of Knowing (Brush Education and Red Crow College, 2020, edited by Frits Pannekoek).