I come from a background that's both urban and prairie, in pretty equal measures.
These different settings gave me a land-based perspective, and one that's more in-line with the more conventional 'Western' education system. They don't need to be mutually exclusive.
"My time in the North was transformative."
When I was a first year teacher recently convocated from the Indian Teacher Education Program in Saskatchewan, I had the opportunity to teach sixth grade students in Buffalo River Dene nation. It's located six hours North of Saskatoon, in Treaty Ten territory.
My time in the North was transformative. It showed me that land-based education plays an important part in determining how to improve the academic success of our young people. Given what a key role education plays in our health, land-based education can make a big contribution to the social determinants of health in our society, and to outcomes for both individuals and communities.
I attended a mandatory conference in Meadow Lake in just my second week of school. The conference included a series of workshops intended to benefit teachers in the Tribal Council. Land Based Education was a workshop that really resonated with me. It was facilitated by an Elder and former teacher from the Buffalo River Dene Nation. The workshop included land-based concepts that weren't alien to me. They discussed ideas around alternative education, and helped me connect the community to the classroom, and indigenize my instruction. The result was better classroom management, and more engaged learning for my students.
I chose land-based education because as an on-reserve First Nations school, we were underfunded both in terms of current resources and new staff. The more conventional, colonial education system was not working for these kids, and it became challenging for classroom management. Imagine a group of fourteen students, half of whom are related, who've been in school together six hours per day since pre-scrool, now with a teacher who's brand new to the community. I struggled with implementing the monotonous routines in the conventional, Westernized curriculum. I noticed how these youth were much more attentive and well behaved after a smudge, a nature walk or a sharing circle.
"The more we can value and strengthen that connection with the land, the brighter the future of our young people, and the healthier our communities will be."
One initiative that formed from our regular nature walks, was to do something about the litter in the school community. There were no outdoor trash bins in the park, and this resulted in large amounts of garbage scattered around, and a normalized mentality around littering. My students told me that previous trash bins had been vandalized, or torn apart by dogs. I took this opportunity to teach my students the importance of respecting the land, and taking care of it. We fundraised as a class to buy the school an outdoor trash bin, by recycling and holding frequent bake sales. We went to each classroom in turn, and presented our initiative. We wrote a letter to the administration, and were able to raise $250.00 in funds. The experience brought pride to my students, because they were involved in making positive change in the community.
Spending nine months in a beautiful, semi-isolated community was an opportunity for me to explore a more land-based approach to education. I had found that this approach played an integral role in teaching the social determinants of education — the same determinants of a young person's healthy development, and the development of their community. These youth are the future care takers of the land, and they need to know the important intergenerational teachings that come with the territory.
I left Buffalo River knowing my students would have a strong sense of the land they live on. They themselves taught me how to navigate that land, and showed me how self-sufficient they could be outside of the classroom. The more we can value and strengthen that connection with the land, the brighter the future of our young people, and the healthier our communities will be.
Leah Arcand an educator and an activist, working to create space for Indigenous artists, rallying for accessible edication, and working to protect Indigenous youth from colonial institutions that perpetuate state sponsored violence and colonization. Leah believes that transforming our education system to empower Indigenous students is crucial to nation building, and she is honoured to do that work as an educator. Leah is Nêhiyaw, from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. Based in Saskatoon, you can follow her on twitter @LeahArcand.