Saturday, October 2, 2010

Walking with Wisdom

Guest Blogger Toresa Crawford: I taught in a number of BC and Yukon schools before moving to the Comox Valley in 2000 to set up the Nala’atsi program. My program incorporates Aboriginal cultural projects into the curriculum, providing a positive and welcoming alternative for students who have previously been unsuccessful in school. To date, over 300 grade 10-12 students have enrolled in our program which is housed in the Aboriginal Learning Centre in downtown Courtenay. In my spare time, I enjoy running, painting, cooking, reading, photography and being with my friends and family.

Nala'atsi is an alternate program for grades 10-12 Aboriginal students in the Comox Valley. For the last 11 years we have been closely affiliated with the Wachiay Friendship Centre and the Ni’nogad (Knowledgeable Ones) Elders' Group. Many of our students do not have close connections with their families and/or have lost touch with their Aboriginal culture and customs. One day during lunch, I spoke to the cultural aide about bringing some of our Aboriginal Elders in as guest speakers in our class. We decided that we would start small and chose 5 Elders to be part of the Elder of the Week group. The students took the initiative, and invited the Elders, researched the proper protocol, prepared and edited the interview, took pictures and put together the resulting displays. By the end of the first month, the project had mushroomed and we soon had 25 Elders who wanted to be part of the Elder of the Week program. Having Elders come in provided positive and cultural role models for our students and they often brought interesting artifacts with them giving the students the opportunity to see traditional clothing, hunting and cooking materials as well as a range of articles and photographs. One student got to know about her grandfather through talking with one of the Elders who had been close friends with her grandfather when they were growing up. Many happy hours were spent with this group as they shared stories with each other! Elders found that they could teach students how to weave cedar, make bannock and cook fish and a whole week was spent when the students and Elders made and decorated their own drums. The photographs showing the group singing and drumming was a powerful reminder of how much fun it can be to do activities that involve more than one generation! Over the school year, we have had over 50 Elders interact positively with students in the Nala'atsi program.

One of the Elders, who had watched a student doing a Power Point display, decided that he wanted to learn how to do his own Power Point. Before we knew it we had 14 Elders who all wanted the students to teach them how to use their photographs and make their own Power Point projects. Each Nala'atsi student sat with an Elder and before long we could see beautiful projects developing as they students and Elders worked together. Then ...the Elders discovered that there were sounds that they could add to their pictures and before long the sound of screeching cars, breaking glass, howling dogs and ringing bells could be heard throughout the building!

Another memory; one of the Elders spoke about how he had got his fishing boat got caught in the riptide and was sinking near the Campbell River rapids. As the students listened to his quiet voice, he spoke about radioing in to the Coast Guard while trying to fit a survival suit on to his 8 year old son. The students were on the edge of their seats when he suddenly paused and mentioned casually that a passing fisherman had stopped, pulled he and his son to safety on board his Seiner, and had then taken a video of the sinking boat. Our Elder was quite surprised that our students were interested in seeing the video and to his delight, it has become a favorite with the students ...they’ve enjoyed seeing a real life reality show!

Probably one of the most moving interactions between the Elders and the students happened last year when two elderly sisters came into the school dressed in their traditional clothing, selected music by the Alert Bay singers and then started to dance. As they moved around the room, their frail bodies proudly performed the intricate steps while tears streamed down their cheeks as they realized this was the first time that they had danced together since they had been sent to residential schools. Moving though that was, there wasn't a dry eye in the place as slowly one by one each of the students got up and joined them in this traditional welcome dance.

Lorna Williams in her 2010 Network of Performance Based Schools conference mentions the word Stucum Wi or Walking with Wisdom. Inviting Elderly Cultural Ambassadors who are positive role models into our classrooms will go a long way towards ensuring that we all can walk with wisdom.

Read more about Lorna Williams: Closing the Gap or the Final Nail?


  1. Such powerful learning and healing you do Toresa.
    The students are very lucky to have you leading them in their learning.

  2. I sit here with tears in my eyes visualizing all that you have described...thank you.