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July 22, 2020

Ways of Knowing: Creating connections

Indigenous curriculum interrogates the past and builds alliances for the future

As Indigenous Education Consultant for Prairie Valley School Division (PVSD) in Treaty 4 Territory in Saskatchewan, Reona Brass and her colleagues help foster connections between students, schools and communities and 14 Cree, Nakota, Dakota, and Anishinaabe First Nations of the area, integrating Indigenous culture and ways of knowing into the K-12 curriculum across the school division. 

Reona spoke with The Learning Partnership about her work and why it’s so important. (Edited for length and clarity).

Tell us a little bit about your role.

My colleague, Indigenous Liaison Worker Kelsey Starblanket, and I assist school and division staff to engage Knowledge Carriers in appropriate ways to broaden learning opportunities beyond single events. We also support them around how to create and maintain meaningful relationships with First Nations communities. We are called on for a lot of different things so there is always an opportunity for us to educate others.
 
We are both from the same community of four Cree First Nations that PVSD serves primarily with one school. It is the same school that I attended as a child growing up on Peepeekisis Cree Nation over 45 years ago. Kelsey and I have a very personal connection with the experience that many students have travelling to attend PVSD schools.
 

Prairie Valley schools benefit from Elders in Residence. Can you share some details about that program?

Yes! That started as a program for schools that wished to engage Elders or Knowledge Carriers for different services. Some schools with higher numbers of First Nations students living on-reserve accessed Elders in Residence to support those students. Others accessed the program to begin responding to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some schools request Elders to conduct prayers for occasional events but, with time and encouragement, they’re developing more meaningful engagements tied to the curriculum.
 
With COVID-19 we had to reassess how we could engage our Elders and Knowledge Carriers without jeopardizing their health and safety. For example, some have been developing online resources and this has become a cooperative creative effort between the schools and the Knowledge Carriers in adjacent First Nations communities.
 

How many Elders in Residence are there?

It’s different for each community. Most PVSD schools are currently engaging Elders and Knowledge Carriers to carry out activities associated with Indigenous education.
 
We have two schools that have a Cree culture course and they engage Cree Knowledge Carriers and Elders to support that course. A number of schools have Indigenous student populations of around 25 to 30 percent and they tend to engage Elders more frequently for a wide range of activities.
 
Many schools also have school-community coordinators and family liaison workers who play a critical role in developing and maintaining relations with First Nations, Elders and Knowledge Carriers.
Strong relationships between Prairie Valley schools and First Nations Elders and Knowledge Carriers is a vital bridge to understanding and reconciliation.
Strong relationships between Prairie Valley schools and First Nations Elders and Knowledge Carriers is a vital bridge to understanding and reconciliation.

So, it’s up to the individual school and the nearby First Nation to create those connections, is that the idea?

Yes, it’s about meeting the needs of the individual First Nation, the students and the schools. There is a lot of diversity and there is no “pan-Indian” approach – for example, there are four different linguistic groups, Cree, Nakota, Dakota and Anishinaabe. And each of the towns are different in their local history and each has their own unique historical relationship with the local First Nation or First Nations.
 
We assist people to reach out and build the relationships that are needed to implement the Calls to Action [of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report]. The only way this can happen is through developing relationships and by creating connections.
 

What does this mean in terms of your day-to-day work?

In addition to the relationship connections we are supporting, we’re focused on writing culture courses as fast as possible. We completed the Grade 10 Dakota culture course working with Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation, approved by the Ministry in June 2020, and now we're heading into developing the Grade 11 and 12 level courses this summer. We’re also hoping to get the Cree culture course updated and expanded beyond Grade 10 this summer.
L to R: Reona Brass, her brother and Knowledge Carrier Philip Brass, and Elders and Knowledge Carriers from Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation at work developing culture curriculum.

Who teaches these courses?

There is a teacher assigned to the Dakota culture course in one of our schools. She is non-Indigenous – a very committed younger teacher who has educated herself about First Nations issues, developed relationships with Elders and Knowledge Carriers, and done the hard work to earn the place she now has to deliver these courses working with the Standing Buffalo Elders and Knowledge Carriers.
 

What does it mean to the Indigenous students across PVSD to have these courses available to them?

These culture courses provide a home for Indigenous students in school. They provide a sense of pride that their culture is just as legitimate and equal to Western cultures. This sense that being an Indigenous person is somehow ‘not good enough’ will quickly begin to dissipate when kids take these courses – not only Indigenous students but even the non-Indigenous students who choose to take these courses.
 
The Dakota culture course is intentionally designed to be challenging for any student that takes it. They will learn about history in a way that they’ve never learned about history, they’ll learn about Indigenous sovereignty, they’ll learn about allyship.
 
In fact, the Dakota course is designed around the concept of allyship. The Dakota are experts in alliance-building. Historically, they have been very good for a very long time at developing and securing alliances.
Knowledge Carrier Phillip Brass teaches PVSD Bert Fox Community High School students how to fillet a fish. Culture courses and land-based education create a home for Indigenous students in school and connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

What would your vision be of where this work can and should go –not just the work you are doing in your role but the broader work and the relationships between the settler community and the First Nations communities.

Well this reminds me of a conversation I had with a group of school administrators recently. The question was, “what do the First Nations want for their children?” (with the assumption that this refers to children not in First Nations schools but in Prairie Valley schools).
 
I said, we want what our ancestors who signed the treaties wanted. They did not sign those treaties and cede over our worldview and our education system; we had systems for educating our young people. The agreement was that there would be an addition to the Indigenous approach to educating our young not an eradication of it.

There's been so much that was taken away and we really have to go on an individual journey to gain some of that back. It’s a struggle for all of us. I was raised on reserve but even though I've taken my language at university and done immersion courses, I still don't have my language. You can see the different degrees in confidence of identity and worldview even between those who grew up on reserve, like me, and those who didn’t.
 
We really do have an obligation to take seriously the original treaties. The land where we are is the only place where these cultures emerged and there is no other place to go. Our languages are dying; our Elders and Knowledge Carriers are dwindling; and we really need to see these ways and worldviews as, first, ancient. They are not just a couple of hundred years old; they are much older. Second, we need to all work together now to reclaim and sustain them, because if we don’t, they're not going to last another hundred years.
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