For the past two months, a group of First Nation’s people have built and sustained an awareness site called, “Camp Mohkínstsis” – a Blackfoot term for “Elbow meets the Bow” – across the street from Calgary’s downtown courthouse.
It started as just a tent put up in protest against the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine verdicts. Today, the same tent still stands and is accompanied by two Blackfoot-style tipis.
Since its inception, the camp’s objectives have changed and it is no longer a protest. “I’m done protesting, I’m done talking, it’s time to act – and this is my action,” says camp leader Garret C. Smith. “Calgary is largely unaware of who we are as Indigenous people. The only time that we really get any form of acknowledgment for Indigenous people here in Calgary is during the Calgary Stampede when they have the Indian Village up. That’s why I want to occupy this space in the downtown core, to show everyone that yes, we are still here.”
Smith, known traditionally as Buffalo Curly Head, is a Blackfoot man from Southern Alberta. He is registered in the Piikani Nation, raised on the Kainai Nation and now lives in Calgary.
Smith sleeps at the campsite most nights, except when he’s working. He works with a touring children’s theatre company and he also teaches at schools in the Calgary area. Last year, Smith toured 33 schools. He said, with the exception of a couple schools, students always ask if Native people are still around.
“That was a big reason why I wanted to set this camp up, because there’s a whole generation of kids not knowing we’re here,” expressed Smith.
Camp Mohkínstsis has been hosting round-dances, tipi-raisings, story-time sessions with Blackfoot elders and other traditional events. They’ve also been a resource for anyone interested in learning more about Blackfoot culture.
Be it a contact given out to someone looking to partake in a sweat lodge ceremony, or a recipe for fry-bread, everyone at the camp is eager to help people navigate and access Blackfoot knowledge. Those who tend the camp are always open to talk and invite everyone and anyone to come inside.
“This is a camp made for the people, by the people,” affirms Smith. “No government funding, nothing from the band. It’s just fully our own people that did this ourselves.”
Camp Mohkínstsis is a warm, peaceful atmosphere. There’s a wood-burning stove in the tent that you can usually find boiling water for tea, frying up fry-bread or making meals for anyone that’s hungry. There’s a circle of chairs in the tent for visitors to sit and talk while music plays.
The tipis stand tall, and once you step inside one of them the streets of Calgary seem to vanish. There’s no more towers of exhaust, and all the commotion subsides just for a bit. Inside the tipi it’s just you, anyone else who is there with you, and a crackling fire. It’s a very soothing place to be, organized well and is operated respectfully.
Smith says he wants Camp Mohkínstsis to be up at least until the Calgary Stampede and has a strong vision about the camp’s future. “The vision that has popped up – I imagine this 400-foot tipi. This huge, huge tipi, built properly with modern structure. Built to look like a traditional Blackfoot tipi, solar panels on the outside, and as self-sustaining as we could possibly make it,” said Smith.
Within the building Smith wants to have tipis for ceremony, a recording studio, a performance space, and an all-Indigenous library with film, music, book, history and art archives. This would allow people from all over the world to access this cultural information and give Indigenous people a space to reconnect with their roots.
First Nations Drum will keep you updated on where this goes, but you can get your daily update through their Facebook page: “Camp Mohkínstsis.”