When Two Cultures Meet

Students from Calgary and New Mexico Are Linked in Unique Cultural Exchange Project

Jody Shpur

“Did you have anything to do with this?”

Unsure of what my colleague meant, my first reaction (harking back to the days of my youth) was to deny everything, but then she showed me the cover of the summer 2002 issue of The ATA Magazine, which focused on Native education in Alberta, and everything fell into place. The cover featured numerous Native symbols painted by Métis artist Henry Letendre. I found the cover intriguing and timely because my teacher colleagues and I had just completed a unique project involving Native symbols. The project was part of a larger project on the Grade 5 Social Studies Topic B: Canada’s Early Exploration and Settlement. Coincidence? I think not. Call it destiny or kismet if you must.

The Native symbolism project was developed by three Grade 5 teachers: the school’s teacher-librarian, a curriculum support specialist and me (a technology specialist at the time) at Calgary’s Simons Valley Elementary School. We dissected the topic to determine what we wanted our students to learn. After much discussion and distillation we came up with the following question: What happens when two cultures meet?

What happens when two cultures meet?

This misleadingly simple question addresses the reasons why one group of people (culture) leaves its homeland. The answer provides insight into the peoples’ mind set when they arrive in a new land and the consequences of two cultures meeting (the newly arrived culture and the resident or indigenous culture). This question is key to the program of studies’ basic concepts.

At first, students from all three Grade 5 classes worked together on a research project about Canadian immigration history. We divided our national history into six periods and asked groups studying each period to choose cultures that had significant numbers of people immigrating to Canada. The students had to find information on the following: Why did people leave their countries of origin? What were their hopes? What was Canada like at that time? What did they face? How were they changed and how was Canada changed?

One facet of the project was the synthesizing questions that students answered at the end of the project: What happens when two cultures meet? How would you choose to meet a new culture in the future? The first question could be answered from the students’ research experience, but the second question . . . Hmm . . . meeting a new culture? I knew that Alberta Learning didn’t allow our decentralized budget that luxury. How were we going to help our students meet a new culture? Technology—e-mail and the Internet—provided the solution.

The nature and power of symbols

Earlier in the year, our Grade 5 students had investigated the nature and power of symbols. Unlike pictures, which have meanings attached to them, symbols have deeper stories. These stories are about values and reveal what is important to the people who created them. Our students, using the model of the Hindu mandala, created symbols representing what was important to them. The cover of the ATA Magazine caught my eye because it is similar to the students’ mandalas.

If we could connect with an Aboriginal people in the world (one unfamiliar to our students) and ask them to provide examples of their traditional symbols for us to interpret, it would be tantamount to our students meeting a new culture. What are the consequences of two cultures meeting? History shows that misinterpretations, assumptions and outright dismissals are just a few of the consequences. By having our students attempt to interpret another culture’s symbols, we hoped to find evidence of where these pitfalls might exist and how they can be avoided in the future.

Joining cultures together

After scouring the Internet using e-Pals, I came across a junior/senior high school in Fort Wingate, New Mexico. This school is the largest Native boarding school in the state and has students from various First Nations—the Navajo being the largest group. I established contact with the school’s technology instructor, and the New Mexico students sent us their representations of traditional Navajo symbols. Our students, working in small groups, interpreted these symbols. After the interpretations and symbols were posted on our school’s website (http://projects.cbe.ab.ca/ict/2learn/jkshpur/2cultures/default.html ), I posted the explanations of the symbols that the New Mexico students had provided. Familiarity with Aboriginal cultures of Canada meant that our students did quite well in their interpretations.

One amusing anecdote relates to the challenges of interpretation. Prior to seeing the symbols from New Mexico, we reminded our students that all the elements in a symbol exist for a reason, and a common error is underestimating the importance of a symbol’s cultural value and significance. With that in mind, one New Mexico student had sent a photograph of a natural land bridge. The interpretation our students generated was creative. They explained that the bridge was a link between the here and now and the afterlife, and the rock’s colour represented the peoples’ connection to the desert. However, the explanation provided by the student from New Mexico was that the formation is called Tseghahoodzani—meaning “rock with a hole.”

The project was exciting for our students and motivating for the students in New Mexico. The Fort Wingate school’s instructor passed on an interesting bit of information. Normally, he got 10 percent participation/completion from his students. However, on this particular project, a completion rate of more than 90 percent was achieved. One of his students e-mailed me after a school wide fair in which the website was showcased to the Bureau of Indian Affairs stating how thrilled she was that her work had been published. “The day was so intense!”she exclaimed.

There is much more to this project, and I could go on forever, but I would rather leave it for you to experience on your own. To see what we accomplished, please visit our website.


Jody Shpur is a technology specialist with the Calgary Board of Education.