"This is an exciting time for sharing knowledge among communities as long as it is protected and respected. Not only in this province is sharing important, but also internationally, it is important to share our stories. This sharing is a way of building bridges between people, helping our young people be proud of who they are and of trying to repair our relationship with the environment."
Cree-Metis from Muskoday First Nation
Instructor at Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program - Prince Albert
I am a Cree-Metis from Muskoday First Nation; my mother is from Muskoday and my father is from Denmark. I have been working at the Saskatchewan Urban Native Teacher Education Program (SUNTEP) in Prince Albert since 1992. In 1975 I received a Diploma in Renewable Resources Technology from SIAST in Saskatoon; I was one of the first women and one of the first Aboriginal people to go through the program. I worked in forestry for awhile, and then had children. Eventually I went back to school to become a teacher in the SUNTEP program. After I graduated from SUNTEP I taught at Hall Lake School for awhile. I decided to do my Masters and enrolled in curriculum studies with an emphasis on science. I did a project on Traditional Environmental Knowledge of the Cree people of North central Saskatchewan. I worked with Elders and created a slide presentation on plants, accompanied by oral stories of Elder Vicki Wilson. The kit also included a teacher's guide.
Now I work in the Teacher Education Project at SUNTEP, I supervise the Field Experience placements for third year students and teach the Science Methods class. I really enjoy it.
There is a new mandate from Saskatchewan Learning to incorporate Aboriginal culture and teachings into every classroom and every course that is being taught in our schools today. I have been hearing from some people that they think there is nothing available in terms of resources to incorporate this learning, or that they don't know the protocol for approaching Elders or people to be resources for the classes.
I don't want teachers to use the excuse that there is nothing available to teach these components, and I don't want ignorance to be the excuse for not doing it. One thing I would like to tell people is that there are resource people in every community who know so much and want to share their knowledge. You just have to approach people with respect, and be willing to learn. Most of the time, Elders will be patient with you and forgive you if you don't know the protocol. But, it is all about respect.
Some Elders are worried that the knowledge is going to be lost and the oral traditions are going to be lost and so many people are wanting to see them passed on to younger generations. Many Elders have realized the importance of the written word and that it will be used now, temporarily, as a way of holding on to the knowledge so it is not lost; and eventually we will return to an oral-based culture. So many people do share their knowledge for nothing - all they ask for is respect, or a small gift. As well, it is important to remember that the groups are very diverse; so, you have to be careful not to expect the protocol for one to be the same as for another.
It is an exciting time for sharing knowledge among communities as long as it is protected and respected. Not only in this province is sharing important, but also internationally, it is important to share our stories. This sharing is a way of building bridges between people; helping our young people be proud of who they are; and of trying to repair our relationship with the environment.
I think it is the role of all teachers to help look at how we can respectfully share stories and learn from each other. It only helps to eliminate racism: when the understanding is there.
The oral tradition and stories is one key difference. I think that most people were always oral people, before there was the written tradition. Everybody has stories. For example, look at Science - it is one big story made up of lots of different stories. When we look at traditional stories and legends, people sometimes think of them as just hogwash or folklore. But there are layers and layers and layers of meaning in those stories. Sometimes you don't even get to those layers without listening very carefully. In mainstream communities there are fairy tales; there is also bible stories and theories. Many people believe in the bible. We learn and believe the Greek names for the constellations. Aboriginal peoples have names for the constellations as well. They are very ancient stories about the constellations. Why don't we learn the Aboriginal names? We each have our own ways of learning and teaching; it is a different way of understanding and viewing the world, but it is not wrong.
Traditional Knowledge is not linear; it is a holistic way of looking at the world. That is the big difference. It is because of the close connection to the earth. If you are dependent on the plants and animals for survival, you will respect that connection. If you don't have that respect and you break down those connections to little pieces then you become so fragmented, you don't see your connection; and, you are going to hurt what you need to survive: the earth. And everybody needs those teachings right now, if we are going to save our species. The earth will destroy us before we destroy it.
The other thing I do is tell lots of stories in my science class. I don't just teach a western science concept and then talk about how aboriginal knowledge fits with that concept. Instead I have had the challenge of how to fit Western Knowledge into Traditional Knowledge. I start every class with a story. Then we look at the story and find out what it teaches us about science.
For example, I tell the legend about how the birch tree got its markings, (link to birch tree.doc). When I tell this story to my science students I always ask them "so what did you learn from this story?" As you know stories have many, many layers and it all depends on how ready you are to listen to hear those different layers. I get lots of interesting feedback because this story tells us so many things. We can incorporate many science concepts from the curriculum. The story talks about the habitats of different plants, where plants grow. We know that willow grow where birch trees grow because they both like moist soil. It also teaches children how to identify birch tees, how different animals are carnivores, which animals will eat birds, and it teaches of course about patience and sharing.
Whenever I use the stories I tell them orally. I really want the students to learn how to use their oral skills again.
One more thing I would like to mention - culture camps. At SUNTEP PA the students have to attend two culture camps per year: one at the beginning of the year and one at the end. We go to a modernized comfortable camp for the Fall camp. In the spring we camp at AMISK adventures. We tent or sleep in tipis; I think it is just great (as long is its not raining).
We have Elder teachings, crafts, sweats, plant walks and experiences. The students come and can decide what they want to participate in. We make all the meals together, and we have entertainment that the students provide - they make up skits and make presentations. It is a fun, and a great, way to start the year.
In June there are classes connected to the camp: Year 1's take cross-cultural methods, Year 2's take science methods, Year 3's take Phys-ed method classes - and we incorporate traditional games. In all of the classes we incorporate nature and the environment for those two days. I am responsible for the Science methods, year two classes.
In my class the students have stations they have to do for the three days; so, they are totally immersed in the environment. This is really important because when you are disconnected from the environment you don't realize how you are destroying and abusing it. You don't see how you are connected to the earth. We end both camps with a sharing circle. We hear over and over again, in the circle, how much the students have become aware of their connection. It is amazing what they have learned and how much they have appreciated the opportunity. We take some of them out there kicking, screaming and dragging their feet and when we are ready to take them back, they don't want to leave.