Creating a Place for Dene Nahjo’s Indigenous Innovation

Tara Campbell |  April 22, 2021 |  6 min read


Dene Nahjo has for many years now been considering the possibilities of a physical place to house programming, activities, and events. From several visioning and planning sessions over the years grew the concept of a Dene Social and Cultural Innovation Centre. The envisioned centre would be a space for and by Dene people, reflecting and growing Dene culture, language, and traditions. The centre would serve as an innovative urban gathering place and support Indigenous Northerners to connect and reconnect to land and culture.

This inspiring vision for the centre was what initially drew me to work with Dene Nahjo. As a settler and a southerner, I may seem like an out-of-place addition to the Dene Nahjo team. It was during a trip to Somba K'e (Yellowknife) to work with another organization on their own vision for an innovation centre that I first encountered Dene Nahjo and their work. Through that project I got in touch with Dene Nahjo as I was eager to find out if what I had learned about northern innovation centres could be of any use. This interest turned into a job as a strategic engagement catalyst, a position that I shared with my colleague and Dene Nahjo founding member, Denezë Nakehk’o. Together, we were exploring how to move forward with the idea of the centre which had remained in this visioning stage of development for several years.

Indigenous innovation

With Denezë and I joining the team, we took on some of the strategic and reflective questions required for diving back into the Centre project. We got started by taking a deeper look at the terms “social and cultural innovation”. The unnamed Centre project was subtitled as the “Dene Nahjo Social and Cultural Innovation Centre” but what do those terms mean to the Dene Nahjo crew? What is social innovation? What is cultural innovation? Are these the terms that we want to use?

Over Skype, Google docs, text messages, and one very nice month together spent in the Dene Nahjo office and over tables at Birchwood, we tackled these questions together.

These questions prompted a survey of the terms from both academic and popular contexts. We dove into social innovation in particular as it has become widely used. We looked at definitions, examples, and how the term was being used with Indigenous perspectives in mind. Some popular definitions that came across our desks:

  • Social innovations are “new ideas for a better world”
  • Social innovations are “addressing social and environmental challenges in new ways”
  • Social innovation “refers to the creation, development, adoption, and integration of new and renewed concepts, systems, and practices that put people and planet first”
  • Social innovations are “innovations that are both social in their ends and in their means”
  • Social innovation is “a new program, policy, procedure, product, process and/or design that seeks to address a social problem and to ultimately shift resource and authority flows, social routines and cultural values of the social system that created the problem in the first place”

Inspiration from other centres

Centre Database

In November last year, we presented what we found to the founding members, staff, and one member of the Elders Advisory Circle. During a facilitated discussion with shared stories of how we came to those terms in the first place, people pointed out what they were aligned with in those definitions and what didn’t feel right. We talked about the alienating language and the centrality of novelty in these ideas. These themes didn’t sit well with our crew and ultimately we decided that we want to be using the term Indigenous innovation to describe Dene Nahjo’s activities and the mission of the centre. Indigenous innovation is Indigenous-led, and emerges from Indigenous worldviews, knowledges, and ways of life. As opposed to the novelty stressed by the social innovation field, Indigenous innovation, for Dene Nahjo, emphasizes connections, care, healing, and resurgence. Indigenous innovation is inherently social, there is no need for us to explicitly call it out. It is an Indigenous way of innovating, and doesn’t carry the same context and connotations at the other terms we had been exploring.

Another part of our ongoing research has involved looking to other hubs and centres for inspiration. We built a database of 131 hubs that shared at least one of the following qualities with the vision for the Dene Nahjo centre: Indigenous-led or Indigenous-focused, northern, social innovation-focused, arts-focused, tourism-focused, culture-focused, youth-focused, outdoors-focused, or architecturally unique. Many of the centres and hubs we looked at were based in Canada, but we included especially interesting international examples as well. These hubs employed different models and services to promote innovation, and provided many ideas for different ways of generating revenue and financially sustaining a physical centre.

To better understand the process of establishing and sustaining a physical centre we interviewed eight inspirational examples, all of whom were at different stages in their centre journeys. We talked about governance models, fundraising and revenue generation, community engagement, as well as barriers, challenges, and successes. This was an exciting undertaking as everyone was happy to connect and share knowledge and resources and we hope to continue building relationships with other centres.

You can read more about Indigenous innovation and our centre research here.

Next steps

The position that I’ve had the privilege to hold over the past year was originally intended to be all about engaging a variety of folks and organizations to generate momentum for the centre. After the gathering last November and reflections with the crew, we decided we weren’t ready to move forward with the engagement side of the strategy. Discussions about the centre turned into discussions about the future of Dene Nahjo, and ultimately we felt that Dene Nahjo’s future needed to be explored, clarified, and focused before we jumped too into boldly advancing a physical centre. 

Resources on cultural capital projects, like those from Artscape’s Creative Placemaking Toolbox, and ArtsBuild Ontario’s PLAN IT | BUILD IT stress the importance of having a strong shared vision in order to generate the appropriate momentum for a project. To get that in place, we are first focusing our visioning energies on Dene Nahjo’s future broadly. What do we want our evolving programming to look like? How might we continue to fund it? Who will be involved? As many of our connections at other centres reminded us, it’s better to first prioritize programming and activities instead of getting a building built and afterwards having to develop programming to fill it. 

For now, with all that in mind, the Dene Nahjo Centre, or House, as it was warmly deemed during our gathering together last year, will reside in our hide camps, Women’s gatherings, workshops, artist markets, and in all the other spaces Dene Nahjo inhabits. It is not an idea we are leaving behind, but something we intend to grow into when the time is right.