National Aboriginal Day is a celebration of Indigenous peoples from across the country and their important contributions to our history and culture. This year, Learning Bird would like to recognize and celebrate educators from two of the communities we work with. These educators believe that the best way to help their youth is to reconnect them with their cultures and languages by integrating Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding into students’ learning experiences.
Joe Lachance is the Treaty, Land and Culture Catalyst at Chief Napew Memorial School in Big Island Lake Cree Nation. He explains that the concept of land-based education aims to decolonize education and has been a part of the school’s curriculum since it opened in the 1970s. This education concept was integral to the school’s culture because “living off the land was a way of life for the majority of community members.” At this time, Elders from the community were involved in developing programs aimed at keeping male students in school. These programs included activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, rodeo, and 4H and helped students develop social skills and improve their grades.Currently, the Treaty, Language and Culture (TLC) program forms the basis of their land-based education program. The TLC, as Lachance explains, “reconnects the First Nation people to the land, to the knowledge, to the relationships, and [to] the teachings that the land has historically offered its people,” and gives students the “opportunity to explore their talents and gifts through in-school learning, and [hands-on] activities.” The TLC program, developed in collaboration with Elders and community members, focuses on six main areas of learning: hunting, gathering, fishing, exploring, trapping, and arts. At Chief Napew Memorial School, students are taught specific objectives about these topics in a holistic way while in the classroom, and this learning is followed up with outdoor, hands-on learning.
Some of the most important activities the school runs are the Seasonal Camps that take place at nearby lakes. During these camps, grade 6 to 12 students engage in “learning the community history, practicing traditional ways, exploring the territory, ice fishing, hunting and winter survival skills by building shelters, making fire, and cooking outdoors.” Parents and Elders from the community are invited to these Camps and take part in activities as the students are learning around them.
Terry Denny, an Elder in Potlotek First Nation, works with students at Mi’kmawey School. He takes his students on nature walks, shows them how to cook, and makes traditional tools and items with them. While doing these activities, he teaches his students the Mi’kmaq vocabulary they need in order to understand what they are doing.
Terry’s method of teaching brings traditional ways of learning into the classroom. He believes in showing his students an item, like a bow, and then giving them the space to make mistakes while figuring out how to make it themselves. He believes that “if I tell you all the mistakes you will make beforehand, you will not learn anything. You will not understand how it works.” This process allows students to find the best way to create something.
Terry also believes there is a difference between knowing a language and understanding it. According to him, the Mi’kmaq “culture and language is based on hunting and fishing. There’s no other way to fully understand it. We try to read and write our language…that’s the Western way, and it doesn’t really work.” For this reason, Terry encourages students to explore nature and make things while speaking their language.
Terry has noticed that the students he teaches have become more respectful, and are more motivated to complete their work in their other classes since he began working with them. He believes students see value in his teachings in part because they recognize that these skills may help them later in life. Terry has seen many youth begin to feel lost as they grow up, and he thinks that reconnecting with their culture will help students understand who they are and where they want to go in life.
Joe Lachance, Terry Denny, and many other educators across Canada, are spearheading programs and delivering classes that will ensure Indigenous youth are able to see themselves and their culture reflected at school. This will in turn help students see that their culture and language is something to be celebrated not only on National Aboriginal Day, but every day of the year.