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Îyârhe Nakoda knowledge keepers teaching at CRPS schools

Over the last year-and-a-half, Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS) students have learned about the art of making teepee poles, words from the Stoney language, traditional landmarks and tanning bbison hides.

And they have the best teachers for the job – Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda knowledge keepers.

“We come here because we know the importance of education for our young people,” said Îyârhe Nakoda elder Virgil Stephens. “We also come here because we need to build a relationship to have a good future. We’re here to build, we're here to share our Indigenous ways of life – working together, sharing and helping one another.”

Stephens and three other knowledge keepers – Philomene Stevens, Tracey Stevens and Ollie Benjamin – have been involved in the CRPS knowledge keepers program since 2018. Less formal applications of Indigenous knowledge sharing date back much further within the school district.

While the group visits, younger students hear Indigenous stories and learn about traditional survival skills, encompassing aspects like transportation, food, medicine gathering, shelter crafting and making clothing.

The morning of Wednesday (Feb. 7), the group taught a Grade 4 class at Lawrence Grassi Middle School about smudging – what ingredients are used in the practice and its importance.

“Learning how to tan a buffalo hide and things like that, that’s part of our education. Nature was our school, so we always try to teach some of these things to the students,” said Benjamin.

The knowledge keeper program was born out of a goal to increase attendance at Exshaw School in 2018, explained CRPS Indigenous services coordinator Nadine Dack-Doi, who was principal of the school at the time.

“With the attendance there were struggles. What we wanted to do was we wanted to be increasing our attendance year after year,” she said.

Dack-Doi didn’t share what the average attendance was at the time, however, she noted there was a modest five per cent increase school-wide in the program’s inaugural year.

It started with enhancing engagement with students’ parents and families and then reaching out to the wider community. About 98.5 per cent of the Kindergarten to Grade 8 school is Indigenous and from Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation.

“I had a vision for an elders group to support us with attendance and also to discuss any possible obstacles to our students coming to school on a daily basis; to open up the doors and just to have a more consistent understanding of all the possible obstacles our students were facing coming to school each day,” said Dack-Doi.

“We would have monthly meetings looking at the attendance and with the knowledge keepers we would discuss what we could be doing to make the school an even more inviting place for families.”

The knowledge keepers agreed to come into the school and share traditional knowledge, incorporating Îyârhe Nakoda lessons into curriculum.

“That has been very intentional in the fact that both the knowledge keepers and the educators really want a very rich experience for our students from the teachings that are being given to students,” said Dack-Doi of incorporating learnings.

In the second year of the program, attendance grew another 10 per cent.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

“There was definitely a disruption with attendance during the pandemic, of course, and coming back from it. What we’re seeing, though, is that is starting to improve,” said Dack-Doi.

Exshaw School, she noted, has surpassed its pre-pandemic attendance average.

Given the success of the knowledge keepers program in Exshaw, in 2021, CRPS expanded visits to all seven schools in the district, to also include those in Canmore and Banff.

“In the spirit of truth and reconciliation, we really wanted to build a path forward for the entire district,” said Dack-Doi. “Now all of our schools are being visited at request by the knowledge keepers sharing their wisdom, language and culture.”

Interest in the program has steadily grown with 118 requests made by CRPS schools so far in 2023-24, and it’s always evolving noted superintendent Chris MacPhee.

“This is always about us asking them right from the start of anything, ‘how can we improve this’ or ‘what should we do’, as opposed to something half-baked and bringing it to them saying ‘this is what we think,' because that's the colonization way, and that’s not how we function.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook