October 15, 2008, marked the 10-year anniversary of Bigstone Cree Nation’s band-operated school, Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik. We were proud to host an event that honoured our Elders’ vision for the school and the children of our community.
Students in Grades 4–6 treated our guests with a First Nation-themed puppet show; we had demonstrations of traditional hand games and tea dances, showed a slide show on the school’s history, provided guests with tours of our new chiefs’ commemorative garden and children’s crafts rooms, and made special presentations to the families and Elders of the Bigstone education committee. We ended the evening with a giveaway ceremony and traditional tea dance. The day was truly a milestone event.
Our school’s mission statement reads: At Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik we are a family and education is from the heart—OPK means Opportunity, Pride and Knowledge.
A new school opens
In 1998, Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik opened its doors to welcome preschool–Grade 6 students of Wabasca, Alberta. The new school served as a catalyst for the Bigstone Cree Nation to promote language and culture through an educational setting. Education administration personnel were instrumental in the initiation and development of our new school. With the support of chief, council and Elders, the Bigstone Education Committee was formed. The committee saw a need for a caring and nurturing environment that would establish and maintain a positive self-identity for students and promote self-pride in being Bigstone Cree members. A fundamental idea was that the school would allow future generations to compete within mainstream society.
The school houses a preschool program for children (aged four to five). The program includes a classroom kokum (grandmother) who speaks Cree to the children. Our kindergarten program boasts two certificated teachers, both band members. Students are educated in a nurturing environment that is conducive to learning. Our preschool–Grade 6 programs include a community liaison person and a parent facilitator. These staff members enhance our programming by involving parents in our school and working with them in their own homes so that eventually they will be partners in educating Bigstone children. By working as a team, we are paving the road to success for our students. Most decisions are based on consensus with the understanding that decisions are, first and foremost, for the good of students. At present, we lack pedagogical supervisors and support for curriculum and administration; however, some members of our administration team take on the duties of those positions without the benefit of the title. We are most fortunate to have talented staff members who are committed to the school.
Meeting the challenges
Language and cultural programming and organizational changes are challenges that must be met if we are to be successful. On September 21, 1999, Bigstone chief and band council passed a resolution stating that Cree is our official language. As a result, the Bigstone Education Authority proposed a program to help us become literate in our own language.
The Bigstone Educational Authority and Bigstone Education Elders Committee spearhead the Bigstone Cree Nation Cultural/Interpretive Centre. The centre’s objectives are to develop traditional/contemporary skills of the First Nation people, encourage language revitalization through practising language, teach syllabics as the written form of our language, develop curriculum, and promote cross-cultural awareness within our community. The program is holistic in nature and considers the mental, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being of our people. The program incorporates land-based resources that reconnect us to the land.
Kapaskwatinak Cultural and Education Centre is located 10 minutes from Bigstone School. The site contains a large log building, where the indoor portion of the school’s program takes place. An outdoor cooking area features drying racks, and a nearby creek is ideal for fishing and canoeing. A large hill and nature trails offer students opportunities to study plant life and mapping. The community resource people are local hunters, trappers and craftspeople with skills in drum-making, beading and painting. The program is based on the traditional seasonal round (calendar). For example, this past fall, students harvested roots, plants and berries, dressed game, and developed hunting skills, such as moose calling. Only Cree is spoken at the outside site. Outdoor teachings are transferred indoors using oral language and syllabics.
An instructor, a community resource facilitator, a teacher assistant, an administrative assistant, a custodian and an Elder and maintenance person make up the centre’s teaching staff. The Grades 4–6 students from Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik are bussed out two half-days per week. Once a week, staff at Kapaskwatinak meet with Elders to plan classes and prepare materials. On Fridays, preschool–Grade 3 classes visit the Elders to experience the land-based learning.
Disempowerment leads to despair
We must look at systemic issues that require changing, namely policies that hinder our progress. We need to direct our leadership to examine government policies that exclude First Nations education. Our people have undergone severe cultural and language loss brought on by social and cultural forces. Disempowerment has led to despair for many First Nations people. We continue to perpetuate our own oppression by abiding by Western philosophy and ideals. We ignore indigenous values and knowledge that could provide that cohesiveness within our communities to support families, children, parents and Elders—we need to heal as a nation in order to progress.
We are a federally funded school and receive all our operating capital from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Funding falls short of what is needed to operate the school. INAC uses outdated formulas to calculate funding and continues to perpetuate the educational gap between Aboriginal people and the rest of Canada—a gap that, in 2004, the federal Auditor General estimated would take 28 years to close. Although we have to adhere to provincial curriculum guidelines, we are marginalized. Who is really in control of our education? As long as the federal government holds the purse strings, we will be restricted in our ability to control our education.
First Nations people must determine what local control means and what it looks like. Furthermore, the system is the problem, not our students. We need to help governments and educational institutions understand that realities are relative to each group of people—we are connected to our life experiences and our education must reflect this. We need to work toward student empowerment by providing the much-needed change to the band-operated, federally controlled education system.
Office of the Auditor General of Canada. 2004. November 2004 Report of the Auditor General. Chapter 5. “Indian and Northern Affairs Canada—Education Program and Postsecondary Student Support.” Also available at http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_200411_05_e_14909.html (accessed April 8, 2009).
Gladys Cardinal is principal of Oski Pasikoniwew Kamik–Bigstone Cree Nation School, in Wabasca, Alberta.