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Land-based learning: These schools spotlight culturally immersive education

Hands-on learning is front and centre at these Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nation schools.

Pen? Check. Paper? Check. Fishing rod, canoe paddle, and weaving wool? Check, check, check. For the students of land-based learning schools, education facilities that bring culture to the classroom, school supplies extend beyond the classic pencil case, binders and backpack.

Run by educators who believe schools should nurture the innate needs and wants of young people, rather than put them into a cookie cutter student mould, you would be hard pressed to find a youth hunched over their desk, scribbling notes monotonously from a whiteboard.

“Kids need to move. If they move, they are learning,” says Tanya O’Neill, principal of siʔáḿθɘt, a K-12 Tsleil-Waututh Nation school in North Vancouver.

As O’Neill talks over the phone, she is watching students from her window, skinning rabbits in the great outdoors. Soon they will be dying the hides, she says, the latest lesson in a string of ancestral teachings.

“The kids worked with salmon just a couple of weeks ago, tanning the skins and turning them into a deeper colour. They play the drums, they use rattles, they weave.” At 9 a.m. every morning, the whole school starts the day by joining together in the courtyard for communal drumming and singing.

Indigenous healing

It is a stark contrast to the state of education just over a century ago, when Indigenous cultural practice being accepted, not least actively encouraged, would have seemed like Utopian fiction to many First Nations communities.

The new way of schooling is certainly the light at the end of the tunnel for that dark chapter of Canadian history, but O’Neill says it doesn’t mean the book should be closed. Education on the residential schooling system and the long-lasting effects of it is equally as important to the students as the re-immersion of the culture itself.

“I tell this to the kids every day,” she says. “We are here for you, but as much as we built this school for you, we built it for your parents and grandparents too.”

O’Neill says her community are thankful for the “handful of people” who still carry the Tsleil-Waututh traditions and cultures: with the cultural practices of many First Nations pushed to the brink of extinction, there being enough knowledge prevailing to curate entire school syllabi is a feat against all odds.

The knowledge keepers, referred to her as “warriors,” shape the curriculum around the four seasons and what is typically practised for Indigenous people in their own communities during that time.

At Capilano Littlest Ones (Xwemélch’stn Etsimxwawtxw), a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) elementary school in North Vancouver, September sees kids connecting with local fisheries to watch the life cycle of salmon. They catch, clean and cook the fish, learning its ties to Indigenous culture along the way. During p’i7tway (deer mating season) in October, the youngsters are given their first teachings on the hunting season, in an age-appropriate way.

“We follow what historically our people would have learned at that time,” says Jody Miki, the school’s principal.

“We will be out on the land, harvesting with the little ones during fall, or, for example, when it’s time for the eagles to go up to Brackendale we will be there  learning about the history of the land, and the place names.”

The curriculum 

Upon utterance of "land-based learning" it is easy to envision kids running riot through the wilderness, bearing no grasp of ABC’s or times tables. Such is not the case, stress both Miki and O’Neill: whether for teenagers or toddlers all lessons operate under the guidelines of the British Columbia Ministry of Education, but with cultural practices woven in.

Knowledge Keeper Rebecca Duncan, whose ancestral name is Tsitsayxemaat, works alongside Miki to craft the syllabus each year for the kids of Capilano Littlest Ones.

Core subjects are still being taught, she vouches, but not in a way that is recognizable to most. Science and biology is embedded within the teachings of salmon rearing and being outdoors, for example, while math is implemented with all the counting, adding and subtracting that comes with weaving.

“When building the curriculum we meet all of those core standards, but we’re just making it so relevant and so meaningful and so contextual,” she says. “Our version is just much more strongly steeped in language and culture.”

Without the monoculture so heavily pushed in regular schools, students from land-based learning establishments leave education with mental elasticity and a finer understanding of their own interests and career desires. Or, as O’Neill refers to it as, “as a whole person, rather than just an academic.”

“We’re setting up our kids to be successful in the future in whatever way, shape or form that they decide they want to go,” she adds, adding how the school continues to witness more and more high school students graduating, and moving on to post secondary education and employment shortly afterwards.

“It’s working, it’s really working,” she says. And really, the engagement shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: when school work comprises skinning rabbits and being outdoors, what allure is there in faux sick days or "dog ate my homework" excuses?

Cara Jefferson, whose eight-year-old son Lucas attends Capilano Littlest Ones, says her son “loves school and loves learning.”

Her family have always been cultural and traditional, she says, forever attending ceremonies where different cultures are represented and different dialects spoken, so Lucas is no stranger to going back to his roots. What Capilano Littlest Ones does is show him who he is and where he comes from within his own specific community.

“It’s great that when he goes to school it’s specifically the Squamish song, the Squamish language and the Squamish traditions. He gets to learn a bit about all of who he is.”

Not all students are immersed like Lucas from a young age – some come knocking on the door of siʔáḿθɘt as teenagers, seeking cultural support and guidance, often after being thrust into the public schooling system and experiencing exclusion or bullying – but for all those enrolled, the end result is consistent.

Students have a better understanding and appreciation for learning, they feel heard and seen. As O’Neill herself puts it: “Our hurt came from education, and our healing will come from the same place.”

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.