For Métis people in Alberta, cultural reconnection isn’t all bannock and beadwork—but it’s a good place to start.
Just ask Natalie Pepin, a mother, homesteader, and Métis cultural educator based in the Tawatinaw Valley.
When Natalie Pepin moved to southern Alberta from Quebec during high school, she was quick to learn that being Métis wasn’t exactly popular.
“It was this untold rule that you should not be proud of that,” says Natalie. “Indigenous people were just openly mocked in school, and like many of my ancestors before me, I just hid and focused on the fact that I had French family.”
But that all changed with the birth of Natalie’s first child, and the realization that she wanted her children to know their Métis heritage.
“How I reconnected at that point, when I was going to be a mother, was by reconnecting with our arts, because those are the parts of our culture that people always loved,” says Natalie.
“They always loved our beadwork, they always wanted moccasins, and so those parts were safe for us to express our culture.”
For the past five or six years, Natalie has been teaching traditional Métis crafts and harvesting through a series of workshops in Edmonton and the Tawatinaw Valley to an audience of Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants alike.
The workshops focus on traditional skills related to arts, food histories, and understanding our relationship with the land. She’s taught classes on beadwork, moccasin-making, caribou tufting, meat butchery, food preservation, and more. Recently, Natalie took participants on herb walks through the Edmonton River Valley and taught a class on seed saving.
“In our culture, we don’t believe that we own the land or that it belongs to us,” says Natalie. “We belong to the land. It’s our mother. And so our connection with the land is everything.”
“For us to practice any part of our culture, including our food traditions, it all requires that we be exposed to and develop a relationship with the land.”
Reconnecting to Your Roots
Natalie Pepin discussing misconceptions, Métis gardening, and land relationships.
For Métis people, these workshops can be a way of reconnecting with their culture and receiving teachings that had not been passed down through the generations, and healing those severed family lines.
“Often at the end of a workshop, we’ll have somebody talking about how their family just began to acknowledge their heritage, maybe ten, fifteen years ago, and they’ve been reconnecting and finding cousins and learning about all these things that they had lost,” says Natalie. “And then seeing all those tears of relief, at coming home, and of learning their traditions, it’s so powerful.”
Natalie says that learning traditional cultural skills is not only good for future generations but also for previous generations.
“When we do these things, we’re healing previous generations too, and that’s powerful,” she says. “It’s powerful to reclaim those things that our ancestors were not allowed to reclaim.”
Developing Land Relationships as a non-Indigenous Person
Natalie’s workshops are open to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. Often, non-Indigenous participants are seeking to understand Métis culture to be better allies, and to Natalie, it’s important to share those teachings with the broader community.
“I believe it’s a part of how we develop a deeper relationship and appreciation for each other, and I think that’s one of the firm foundations of reconciliation,” says Natalie.
When it comes to developing a caring relationship with the land, mindset matters. Natalie’s workshops expose participants to an Indigenous perspective of the land, and one that challenges a colonial mindset.
“In the colonial perspective, humans are at the top, and in an Indigenous perspective, humans are at the bottom,” says Natalie.
To Natalie, changing that perspective is the first step towards developing that healthy relationship and working to protect the land going forward.
She hopes that by developing a deeper relationship with the land, one based on appreciation and humility, participants will consider the impact of their behaviours.
“I would hope that being out and seeing how this complex web of life exists, that they would have a greater understanding of the impacts that our lives have on the land, and then perhaps change some of our behaviours so that we can protect it more effectively.”
Land Connections in Edmonton: Finding Your Roots in the River Valley
Métis Edmontonians can reconnect in the River Valley, says Natalie Pepin.
Edmonton is home to the second largest urban Indigenous population in Canada. For Métis Edmontonians, reconnecting with their roots can be as simple as taking a walk through the River Valley.
“I do herb walks in Edmonton with people to look at our edible and medicinal plants from within our Indigenous traditions. It’s always so amazing to people when they come to realize that all these plants I’ve been walking beside all these years, these are culturally significant and they could feed my family,” says Natalie. “And they could heal my family. They have so many gifts, and we just take them for granted.”
Culturally important plants in the River Valley include the trembling aspen, a tree that was traditionally used as a source of salt, as well as varieties of wild berries like high bush cranberries, low bush cranberries, and kinnikinnick.
“When we go out in the River Valley in Edmonton, we can take comfort in the fact that our ancestors walked in those lands for hundreds of years, and for some of us, thousands of years,” says Natalie. “And the plants that nourished them, a lot of them are still in the River Valley, and we can still go develop a relationship with them.”
“So for those who are in the city, I would say that everything that you need to start developing and deepening that relationship with the land, it’s in the city too,” says Natalie. “And you can definitely begin that process while you are living amongst the concrete jungle that is downtown.”