First Nations culture needs encouragement in classrooms

“Sometimes by creating those real world scenarios, it’s not artificial, there’s nothing to rebel against” Christa Henderson

In the last several years, Alberta has stepped further into the light to acknowledge the tragedies in the past of the country’s First Nations people as well as understand and accept their needs moving forward in a country where their identities are often conflicted by dominant modern culture and previous ties to tradition; these issues are especially difficult to navigate for First Nations youth.

Through workshops and sessions, like the one presented the Wolf Creek Public School’s recent Support Staff Conference, these ideals and practices are expanding further into the classroom than ever before.

Christa Henderson, a Maskwacis Wahkotowin teacher, and Donna Twins-Hardy, a Maskwacis Wahkotowin liaison, moderated the session which was attended by two WCPS board members: trustee Lorrie Jess and chairperson Trudy Bratland.

In the spring of 2013, Dr. Shauna Bruno of the Maskwacis Education Council put forth a Wahkotowin Report after an extensive look into what parents concerned with the sustainability and presence of First Nations culture wanted in the school system.

The report brought clarity to the want for — including but not limited to — a high quality, responsive First Nations education programming, active involvement of families through communication and collaboration, students having access to opportunities such as sports and travel, staff knowledge of cultural practices, learning practices focusing on supporting the capacity of First Nations students, and a presence of cultural teachings in the school to reinforce the importance of identity to the students.

Henderson says after the Wahkotowin Report was released, 10 Maskwacis Wahkotowin liaisons were hired as well as one Maskwacis Wahkotowin teacher, who is Henderson, herself.

The Wahkotowin strategy works with every student, not only the First Nations ones, as well as staff members in the Wetaskiwin school division. Henderson and Twins-Hardy share their time between Pigeon Lake Regional School, Falun School and Lakedell.

“We teach our language, our cultural traditions,” said Twins-Hardy. “We act as resources from our own school and bring them to the community.”

Wahkotowin acts as more than a school and academic program for the First Nations students. They, in traditional First Nations importance placed on unity, family and connection, immerse themselves in a student’s life; monitoring school attendance, bringing teaching staff to the reserves for home visits.

Between Henderson and Twins-Hardy’s experiences, the home visits help address concerns with the students in their school life as well as build respect between the school and the parents and the community.

“We’re seeing it more and more, teachers are going out into the Maskwacis community. That presence in the community causes huge shifts in how those students are going to interact with you,” said Henderson.

Henderson and Twins-Hardy’s presentation circled the idea of how the Cree values stand on their own when welcomed into the classroom and have benefits for the school as a whole, not just the First Nations students.

“Wahkotowin is a word that means kinship and how we all relate to each other . . . Everything is connected,” said Henderson.

Colonization’s affects

She says cultural gaps stem from many areas and are just as present in the classroom as they are elsewhere if teachers and staff don’t make themselves more aware of how they interact with First Nations students. “When you’re trying to interact with your students, you’ll already find a barrier.”

“How do we not even know we’re setting ourselves up to create a barrier,” she added.

Cultural gaps can be widened and barriers built through teaching style and factors a little and seemingly insignificant as voice projection.

Henderson says teachers often use clear, direct voices. However, First Nations students usually aren’t to that in their culture, where softer more inviting tones are used. She believes this difference dates back to colonialism where Europeans forced themselves and their culture upon the First Nations people.

She says when working with First Nations students a softer tone should be adopted. “I’m not going to force my voice into your ears.”

Although education in off-reserve schools has been changing through initiatives such as Action on Inclusion and Inclusive Learning, education strategies have historically been teachers holding the position of power while students memorize information without being given the opportunity or tools to employ it. “I believe it because my teacher told me so,” Henderson explained.

In First Nations culture knowledge and education is more self-directed. “I believe it because I experienced it myself,” said Henderson.

She used a Grade 7 boy in one of the schools she teaches in as an example. The boy’s teacher was unable to assess his reading level because when tested he would rebel, become belligerent and shut down.

In an attempt to open him up, Henderson took him on as an aide on a half-day trip to read to younger classes. “He read beautifully,” said Henderson.

“Sometimes by creating those real world scenarios, it’s not artificial, there’s nothing to rebel against,” said Henderson.

Including cultural practices

Following up on the idea of enhanced communication and involving family in their child’s education, Henderson says more culture in the form of ceremony should be encouraged as well as understood.

Last year, three high school students missed close to half their school year because they were involved in the Powwow circuit. Their principal was able to look past traditional learning boundaries to see their involvement as work experience credits, certain CTS modules, as well as financing and bookkeeping lessons because of what the circuit involved.

The practice of smudging was also a heavily discussed topic during the session. Henderson says while the practice needs to be mindful of everybody’s space, schools can create a space for students wishing to smudge.

She feels the presence of smudging will also put other students who smudge at ease as well as help to open barriers when elders or parents visit the school.

While the cultures can learn off of each other and exist in balance in the same schools, Henderson says many minds need a shift in paradigm surrounding the First Nations culture in Canada, and the ideas of nations and treaties.

In European history, nation meant countries and treaties were given heavy importance. An example Henderson used was the Treaty of Versailles which, when broken, began the Second World War.

However, historically, treaties made with First Nations people were given a number rather than name, and Henderson said that, throughout history, being given a number was an example of degradation and stripping of importance and identity.

There are schools on each of the Louis Bull, Samson, Montana and Ermineskin reserves, but many parents choose to have their children bussed into surrounding communities such as Ponoka or Wetaskiwin.

“My children are off reserve because it’s a better education,” said Twins-Hardy. She added when students who attended a reserve school graduate, they struggle next to other graduates because they were taught at a lower standard.