Not just words but culture

Posted on April 21st, 2010 in: 1

Sanford Strongarm, traditional knowledge keeper for Saskatoon Public Schools

In the Grade 2-3 split classroom at Confederation Park Elementary School in Saskatoon, Sanford Strongarm is giving a lesson on protocol.

The traditional knowledge keeper sits on a metal chair at the front of the class, one hand resting on his leg, the other gesturing in the air as he speaks.

“So when you get your food, don’t eat right away,” he says. “If you do have extra food, don’t waste it. Don’t throw it away.”

A boy raises his hand.


“Some people burn it,” the boy says.

“Yes, some people burn it.”

The feast is tomorrow. For Strongarm, activities like this are very important. They give context, meaning, and validity to the words learned in this Cree bilingual bi-cultural program.

“Some of our young people they don’t fully understand what our people are all about. They’ve lived in the city pretty much all their lives, not creating a great understanding of their traditions and knowledge. So that’s what I do. I bring in a whole bunch of information on different traditions.”

Strongarm visits seven public schools in the city part-time. He attends an after-school program at Caroline Robins Elementary School and teaches a drumming group every Monday at Vincent Massey Elementary School.

When I got to this classroom here I asked the kids right away, ‘What’s your name? What’s your last name? Where are you from? And what kind of Indian are you? Are you Cree, Saulteaux?’ A lot of these kids didn’t even know. ‘Where you from?’ Saskatoon. ‘What’s your reserve?’ They didn’t know.”

Strongarm knows that most of the children don’t get Cree teaching at home, so school is the only time they will learn about Cree language and traditions. It’s different in northern communities, he says, where children can listen to storytelling in Cree, even if they don’t understand much of the language.

“These kids don’t understand, but they’re sitting there listening and being patient with how that person is speaking the language, then eventually over the years, they start speaking the language.”

Statistics indicate that one of every four aboriginal children living in Saskatchewan can speak and understand an aboriginal language – this is higher than the national average which is 16 per cent, according to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Aboriginal Children’s Survey. But in the city’s Cree bilingual programs, few children speak Cree fluently.

Cort Dogniez, who oversees the bilingual program at Confederation Park, says they are also making sure the children have language opportunities beyond the classroom.

Their challenge, he says, is to create a language-rich environment, that will encourage the children to speak Cree and let them hear it all around them. This is difficult in Saskatoon where English is the dominant language. Statistics suggest only 12 per cent of aboriginal people living in the city speak an indigenous language.

Last year, the public division hired Strongarm to visit classrooms two days a week to talk about protocol and ceremonies. Dogniez says Strongarm is modelling the culture and tying Cree words to cultural teachings.

“You can’t do language in isolation. It has to be part of culture.”

Designing city curriculum

When the Cree bilingual kindergarten began five years ago at Confederation Park, the teachers borrowed curriculum materials from Onion Lake. But they found the materials were too hard for the urban students who spoke little to no Cree.

Dogniez says they found a simple solution: they shifted the curriculum upwards – using the preschool materials and applying them to the kindergarten.

He says teachers spent a huge amount of time modifying curriculum to reflect life in the city. Much of the material was based on reserve life, which was unfamiliar to most of the urban students.

“There might be something about riding the school bus – well our kids weren’t riding the school bus,” Dogniez says. “Or they would be going to the pow-wow – well our kids weren’t going to the pow-wow.”

Karen Rabbitskin taught the program at Confederation Park the year it began in 2005. She now works in curriculum development at Onion Lake. She says it was harder to convince the children why they were learning Cree words for things they already knew in English.

The Cree bilingual program starts with 80 per cent Cree and decreases with each year up to Grade 3, so the students can make the transition back into a mainstream classroom. Dogniez says the goal of the program is not necessarily to create fluent speakers, but instead to lay the base for future learning.

“If they didn’t have Cree in their life, they would have that foundation to come back to later on,” he says.

They are also given an invitation to their family’s culture through the language, he says, for example, the dos and don’ts of ceremony and the Cree way of thinking.

Immersed in curriculum

But school can’t be a replacement for learning the language at home and in the community, say people like Brian MacDonald, former director of education at Onion Lake.

MacDonald consults other reserves that are starting language education programs – whether in Cree, Dene, Sauteaux, Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota.

The 50-year-old Onion Lake native has been creating Cree resources since the 1970s. He began by composing Cree songs for his students on the guitar. One song that teaches counting and greetings was recorded and is used across the province.

“I was seeing my students getting bored because I was just repeating what I was doing with the language and, at a certain time, the kids get turned off by that.”

He used his guitar to compose Cree songs for his classroom and later recorded CDs.

MacDonald is one of the more outspoken proponents of the Cree program. He did a survey of young people at the high school questioning why it’s important for them to keep their language.

“I asked the question, ‘Are you guys Cree people?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ And then my second question was, ‘How many of you speak the language?’ None of them. ‘But how can you say you are a Cree person if you don’t speak the language?’”

At Onion Lake the language is still spoken among residents at the gas station or the band office. But MacDonald says the language has to be more visible. The curriculum has to be all around them.

“It has to show in the buildings that we have. It has to show in the road signs. It has to be on the radio because there’s only an hour a day (of Cree),” he says. “The kids have to see it. People have to speak it, kids have to hear it in the public places, and if they hear it, then they’ll say ‘Hey this is important,’ and that’s not happening.”


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