An experience that gave students the opportunity to unlearn and relearn the living history of Indigenous peoples is now sharing that learning with the wider community.
Reclaiming Heritage; A Good Life miyo-pimatisiwin, Wičoni kiŋ de waste is a pre-contact literacy and art project that offered Grade 7-8 students from the Nêhiyawêwin Cree Language and Culture Program at wâhkôhtowin School and Grade 8 students from Chief Whitecap School a unique approach to learning and hands-on experiences.
An exhibit at Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a representation of the learning, reflection, and calls to action developed by students during the process. The exhibit, which runs until June 24, was celebrated with ceremony, dance, and student presentations during an event held June 2.
"It talks about their experiences, so it's a piece that will last forever because there are so many different stories there," said Trevor Iron, a teacher at wâhkôhtowin. ""I know that some students will cherish this for the rest of their lives. The experiences, the artwork, everything."
The exhibit illustrates the students learning through stories, art, and creative opportunities. Its aim is to dispel stereotypes and reclaim the Northern Plains Indigenous heritage by discovering what life on the Plains was like before European contact. Beginning last fall with the bison jump, students were introduced to the knowledge systems of natural law, hunting methods, and kinship with bison. During the winter season, students discovered the importance of community, storytelling, and adapting on the landscape.
As part of the project, Indigenous artist and poet Kevin Wesaquate and Indigenous archaeologist Honey Constant supported students' imagination and artwork. Elder Mary Lee had provided opening blessings and students were supported by Elder Lois Bear and Traditional Knowledge Keeper Wally Awasis during content creation.
"I see the willingness of students wanting to learn and get back to their culture, and to wake up our language again," Iron said. "Our language lives inside of us so even though many people are non-speakers we speak to speak to them in whatever their language they'll understand without even knowing they understand."
Students were able to make a deep and personal connection to history as well as the opportunities for natural and cultural learning offered at Wanuskewin.
A memorable moment was a late October day when students watched the park's bison herd rumble toward them across the prairie, butting heads and pawing the ground after Iron called out to the animals. The students were amazed, Iron told those who attended the celebration. "Why did the buffalo come and do that?" students asked. Because, he replied, you told them in your heart.
The Reclaiming Heritage project is a partnership between Saskatoon Public Schools and Wanuskewin Heritage Park with financial support from The Brownlee Family Foundation, SK Arts, and the Saskatchewan Music Educators Association.
History, Wayne Brownlee told the gathering, is as much about who writes it as the events that took place. There are no better people to be getting rid of preconceptions, sharing a story of perseverance, and writing that history than students
"We need to rejoice in it, we need to tell the stories," he said. "It's all so good to see and hear and have the experience."