Waswanipi culture school program takes hands-on approach to traditional values

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Waswanapi teacher Flora Otter begins her day quite differently than most of her colleagues.

In the mornings, she might work with the girls in the school to gather ingredients they will cook that afternoon: beaver, geese, partridges or rabbits – moose meat if they’re lucky.

Otter is one of two Cree culture teachers in Waswanapi, which just opened The Cree Culture Teaching Sites at Willie J. Happyjack Memorial School – for high school students – and at the Rainbow School for elementary students. About 200 people attended the opening ceremony October 12.

The new facilities include a cabin, a cookhouse with a large open firepit and a wood stove, a prospector tent, and a teepee with a metal container for storage.

A more traditional teaching environment had long been one of Otter’s dreams. “I’ve been teaching there seven years, we were always in the classroom teaching Cree culture. I told [vice-principal] Robert Laperle that cooking isn’t about using an oven, it’s about cooking on an open fire,” she told the Nation.

Laperle has lived in the community since December 2015. Originally from Sherbrooke, he became the province’s youngest principal at 27 in Quebec City. Now 48, he said he always wanted to work with Aboriginal students, and jumped when the opportunity presented itself.

When Otter approached him with her project, he noted that the school already had some cabins by the river in the community.

According to the community’s other Cree culture teacher, Louis Saganash, the problem was that they were a 15-minute walk from school, enough of a distance for kids to get distracted, complain about the heat or cold, or even skip out entirely.

By coincidence, the Cree School Board had just budgeted $40,000 for the community’s three schools to either improve the camps they had, make renovations, or even build a new camp.

This was exactly what was needed.

The schools agreed on five priorities for the new project:

  • Provide students with traditional Cree facilities;
  • Enable Elders to rebuild positive relationships with school environments;
  • Ensure the transmission of Cree values, traditions, knowledge and skills;
  • Create a Cree environment for teaching Cree culture;
  • Create a relationship with the local vocational training centre.

Laperle explained that many Elders still had negative memories of school environments because of their time in residential schools, so the second point was particularly important.

The vice-principal obtained band council agreement to extend the school’s land where the new facilities would go. Laperle also decided they would need a fence and path. He talked to Community Education Administrator Jackie Barney and the band office about covering some of these costs. Barney was able to secure an additional $15,000 for the fence, and the band helped make arrangements for materials for the path.

Laperle then approached the community’s adult vocational school, which has programs in heavy machine operation and land surveying. The vocational school agreed to make it a joint venture, and have its Cree students build the path for free, as part the students’ practical requirements.

Things came together quickly, and by July, the students began surveying the land, bulldozing and putting things together. By August, they had built the path, the fencing and installed a security system. They then hired two local carpenters, who charged them a minimal price to build the cookhouse and cabin.

All told, the project came in $32 over budget. The schools received an additional $1,000 for two community contests – one to name the school, and another to develop a logo.

Grade 4 student Brooklyn Dixon received $500 for her entry, iinuu iiyihtuuwin chiskutamaachewinikamikw. “The Cree Culture Teaching Site” is the official name in English. The logo design contest is open until November 20 for any community member of Waswanapi.

Saganash worked with the boys to make 150 miniature paddles, while Otter worked with the girls to inscribe, “I was here, iinuu iiyihtuuwin chiskutamaachewinikamikw.” An artistic canvas was cut in half to signal the opening of the new facilities during the October 12 ceremony.

“The first role of a school in a community is to get people together,” explained Laperle. “To be there for everybody, not just students or staff. All the community builds around a school. It’s a safe environment, so the school has a big role in the community, with that site I think we play that role better now.”

The band office has asked the high school students to cater Waswanipi’s next general assembly. The students will use the cookhouse, with the community paying them while they learn how to cook and serve traditional foods.

The Rainbow School serves 280 children in Grades 1 to 6. The Willie J. Happyjack Memorial School serves 180 youth, from Secondary I-V.

Instead of taking Cree culture courses daily, students take two weeks total of just Cree culture over the school year, sometimes split between the fall and winter or spring. “If we start cooking bannock, 15 minutes isn’t enough,” Laperle observed.

Otter says a typical day starts with a classroom discussion of traditional values. She tells students how to respect the animals and trees. Later, they may do beading and sewing.

If they are able to get traditional meats, they might spend the morning helping to prepare some of the ingredients, and then spend the afternoon cooking. Otherwise they can still make bannock.

“Even if they can’t go into the bush, I just want to bring it into the classroom,” said Otter. “I lived in the bush with my parents and still return to learn with them – I bring what they teach me into the class. Sometimes just talking to them about how to respect the animals and earth, say thank you to the animals you kill, not waste food, when you sew, you don’t get mad when you do things for others – put love into it when you make something.”

For Louis Saganash, a typical day looks a little different. They may start out carving cooking sticks for the meat. If the winds aren’t too bad, they may head out in a canoe, especially with the older students, learning to fish, how to clean the fish, checking the trees, learning how to track animals and the best ways to go hunting. In the winter, they’ll go snowshoeing, snaring, and even take excursions out of town with sleds, snowshoes and tents to visit an Elder who lives out of town.

Now working at the schools for four years, Saganash is also pursuing a program in Cree culture skills at McGill University after having lived 19 years in the bush. “This is how I want kids to learn,” he insisted.

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