Indigenous culture, teachings, traditions on curriculum at North End Winnipeg school

·4 min read

Just one block south of Selkirk Avenue in the heart of Winnipeg’s North End sits a small and unique elementary school where Indigenous culture, teachings and traditions aren’t just taught and shared, but are integrated and immersed into every part of student’s day to day lives.

The staff and students of Niji Mahkwa School headed back last week for another school year, and just like they have always done, the first day started with a traditional smudge, and by listening to not only the country’s national anthem, but also a traditional Honour Song.

Debbie Gould, the principal at Niji Mahkwa School, said that with more than 95% of the school’s approximately 350 students identifying as Indigenous, they work to make sure those teachings and that culture are part of every school day.

“Niji Mahkwa School has always fully integrated the Ojibwe and Cree languages, cultural teaching, and ceremonies,” Gould said.

She said smudging, sharing circles, medicine picking, feasts, and naming ceremonies are just some of the ceremonies that students take part in at the school on a regular, or often daily basis.

Because past Canadian institutions like the residential school system worked for decades to try and eradicate many of those ceremonies and traditions, Niji Mahkwa School numeracy educator Kathryn Countryman said it is important the school finds ways to keep them highly visible and part of everyday lessons and curriculum.

“The parents want the students to be here because of that revitalization and the reclaiming of language and culture,” Countryman said.

The school also makes sure that Indigenous culture and imagery is something that is highly visible throughout the hallways and in the classrooms.

“We have Ojibwe and Cree words painted on the steps, so kids look at it when they go up and down and they just love it, and there are so many ways that language and culture is incorporated,” Countryman said.

“It’s everything from the murals and the artwork, to having the classrooms and even the bathrooms labeled in English, Ojibwe and Cree, so they walk by these signs and these labels and it becomes normalized.

“It is just part of that day to day.”

One of the students starting up a new year at Niji Mahkwa School is 11-year old Buffalo Girl Stranger, who will be in grade six this school year, and since she first started going to the school in kindergarten, traditional ceremony has been part of each of her school days.

“The thing I really like about the school is that every morning we smudge and we hear Oh Canada and the honour song on the announcements, and after lunch we smudge again, and then we do the sharing circle,” Stranger said.

She said it is those ceremonies and traditions that bring her closer to her own Oji-Cree culture and background.

“We do take pride in our culture and in our language, and for me it’s just what we do and it’s just normal,” Stranger said.

Gould said that as the principal of the school, she knows that many students carry those traditions and teachings with them well after they have moved on, and gone on to high school and beyond.

“When students move on to high schools, I have teachers reach out to me and tell me that they know right away when students are coming from Niji Mahkwa School,” Gould said.

“It’s just their understanding and knowledge, but it’s also just the way they present themselves, so we are definitely honoured when other teachers come and share that with us.”

For years Gould said past students have often returned to the school just to speak to and spend time with their former teachers in their former school.

“It’s really like a second home for them, so many of them come back and they want to talk and spend time here,” Gould said.

“It’s more than a school, it’s really a community we build here.”

What Gould wants students to gain from there time at Niji Mahkwa School is a sense of confidence and empowerment, something she said is present in many of their current and former students.

“They leave here with confidence and with a sense of pride in who they are, Gould said.

“When they leave here they are empowered.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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