Braiding an ETS bus with Indigenous artwork

A large buffalo and a magpie, nestled in a braid of sweetgrass, stand on the side of an Edmonton Transit Service bus.

The artwork, painted by Corvus Roan, an Indigenous artist, is part of a new collaboration between iHuman Youth Society and the City of Edmonton. The mobile canvas also represents the City’s commitment to reconciliation, to strengthening and building relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s not just art on a bus, this is our youth’s voices in this project,” says Shannon Hebden, executive director of iHuman, a non-profit that provides arts programming and social services to marginalized youth.

“This [collaboration] is incredibly important. We’re giving our youth voices and we’re helping them reclaim their faith in the fact that people will listen.”

A buffalo, designed by Indigenous artist Corvus, adorns the side of an ETS bus.

“This is a good day” 

Several iHuman artists and advocates contributed to the project. Roan, who hails from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, painted a buffalo and magpie greeting each other after hundreds of years of separation. “Abawashte,” says the bird in the Stoney language. “Abwawashta tho snauwhuqi chi na shiwan,” replies the beast. 

Roan wanted to pay tribute to the friendship between the two animals, the resurgence of the buffalo on the Prairies, and his grandfather, who helped him with the words. 

“If the buffalo can come back, so can our spirits and hopes for a future,” says Roan, 23. 

“To me, it’s really significant to have my grandfather be a part of my process because he’s sick. I show him my paintings and he tells me how he feels about them. So the magpie is saying ‘Hello, this is a good day, I am welcoming you into my space.’ Then the buffalo says: ‘Hello, my old friend. It’s good to see you again.’” 

Artist Kirsten Threefingers, 24, was inspired to draw some of the culturally significant symbols in her life: a medicine wheel with a feather, tipi, thunderbird and paw print. “I think [the bus] is so incredible. I was so proud and amazed,” she says. “It gives me hope to continue just being proud of myself and iHuman.” 

The strength of sweetgrass

Several iHuman artists and advocates contributed to the project. Their artwork is weaved together into a braid of sweetgrass, which wraps around three sides of the ETS bus.

“The braid represents Indigenous medicine and healing,” says Delilah Turner, iHuman’s Family Resources Coordinator.

Sweetgrass is a sacred medicine for many Indigenous people. It is used in ceremony and has healing and purifying properties.

Sweetgrass is often called the “hair of Mother Earth,” according to local Métis author and entrepreneur Carrie Armstrong. “When we braid her hair, the three strands represent body, mind and spirit,” she writes in her book, Mother Earth: Plants For Health & Beauty.

“The braid makes the strands stronger, and weaving the three together signifies the importance of all three aspects of our being.”

iHuman staff members look at a braid of sweetgrass for inspiration during a meeting with City of Edmonton staff.

Braiding together

The iHuman-City of Edmonton collaboration represents the braiding together of ideas and designs, says Ray Au, Creative Manager of Brand Integration with the City of Edmonton.

He and Drury Stratiy, a graphic designer with the City, met with iHuman artists and staff over the course of several weeks to develop the sweetgrass concept, review artist submissions and finalize the design.

“Through the evolution of working with the artists, we came up with the idea of this very kinetic sweetgrass braid going down the entire length of the bus,” says Au. “To use it as a basis for the design seemed natural.”

Al McKee, a non-Indigenous artist and iHuman staff member, drew the braid—with guidance from her colleague, Turner, who is Indigenous. Stratiy then incorporated the artwork by iHuman artists into the braid and created a final design for Pattison Outdoor to print and wrap on the bus.

An Elder’s teachings

To mark the collaboration, iHuman invited an Elder to do a smudging with sweetgrass and talk about its relevance with artists and City staff.

“It was important that if we’re going to, as a collaboration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, come together and create a sweetgrass braid and advertise it as a collaboration in spirit of reconciliation to the City, that we knew what that sweetgrass braid meant and what it meant to braid it together,” says Hebden.

“As soon as we had that Elder and that smudge lit and have those teachings come, it was incredible how the energy of the group even shifted and changed and this project became much more than ‘Just let’s put art on a bus.’ So it was really beautiful.”

Delilah Turner, left, and Al McKee of iHuman, and Drury Stratiy, with the City of Edmonton, look over an early design of the sweetgrass braid.

Moving toward reconciliation

iHuman’s artists and advocates hope Edmontonians will also see more than just a bus decorated with animals, curls of smoke, and a braid.

“I’m just hoping that they’ll stop and look at it and take a minute to acknowledge what has happened and take the opportunity to learn and teach themselves and just be open to hearing people’s stories,” says Turner.

Au is proud of the City’s role in the collaboration with iHuman. ”I think [the bus is] amazing to look at,” he says. “For one, I can’t wait to see this thing rolling down the streets because it’s such an impactful piece. I hope it shows how the City can move forward positively in truth and reconciliation.”

ETS drivers tie orange ribbons to their mirrors to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30.

Indigenous Framework

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recommended 94 calls to action, including a national day of awareness. September 30, 2022 marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. For the inaugural event, the City of Edmonton unveiled its first collaboration with iHuman artists—a crosswalk featuring orange handprints.

As part of the City’s response to the TRC, an Indigenous Framework was created as a guide to build strong relationships between First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples. “We need to be in good, healthy relationships and if we don’t have that truth and that ability to share our truths and to share the future forward, then that relationship isn’t going to work,” says Andy Levey, Team Lead at the City’s Indigenous Relations Office.

“Examples like [this bus], of true collaboration, and really having the voice and perspectives and experiences of our Indigenous youth and Indigenous Peoples in Edmonton proudly displayed like this is such a monumental thing for that relationship. We’ve been here for time immemorial, we’re still here and this is such an evident example of that. This is our space to take and to reclaim, and so this is such a powerful example of that relationship.”

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post, taken September 29 2022, shows staff from iHuman and the City of Edmonton, along with Mayor Amarjeet Sohi. They are standing next to an ETS bus wrapped in Indigenous artwork parked in front of City Hall in Edmonton.

From left to right: iHuman’s Al McKee, Delilah Turner, City of Edmonton’s Drury Stratiy, Ray Au, iHuman’s Shannon Hebden, and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi.