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Discover Squamish: Reclaiming Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh through education

The cultural curriculum is very much tied to traditional Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh seasonal activities.

An innovative Indigenous education program in Squamish is in its seventh year — and the school that houses it is about to get a more appropriate name.

Aya7ayulh Chet (in English: Cultural Journeys) is a Kindergarten to Grade 6 program of choice that is grounded in Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh Úxumixw (Squamish Nation) culture, language and land. Learning Expeditions is a Grade 7 to 12 project-based learning program that continues Indigenous learning through to graduation. Both programs take place in what has been known as the Stawamus School.

The highly unique program was created when the former Stawamus Elementary School was going to be closed due to low enrolment numbers.

"The school is so close to our Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh reserve that the community really didn't want to see the school close," said Charlene Williams, Aboriginal culture and language worker at the school. The school district consulted with the community to determine if there were specific programs of choice — educational themes that would make it a magnet school. There was talk of creating an outdoor education school, but they heard from local families that they sought an Indigenous curriculum.

"Our families really, really wanted there to be a place for their children to reclaim their culture and language," said Williams. "A lot of our families don't have those teachings to give, because of residential schools and colonialism. It was literally stolen from them, and they wanted to give that back."

Now, in a belated acknowledgement, the school is about to get a revised name. Stawamus is an Anglicization of the pronunciation in the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh language.

"I know it's been a source of contention for a lot of Elders, when we say Stawamus," said Williams. "It always feels a little bit insulting."

The name is being formally changed to the more accurate pronunciation: St'a7mes.

There are a tiny number of similar schools in the province – but St'a7mes may be an inspiration for more. Observers have visited from other parts of the province and even from Australia to see the school in action.

"This is the first time we have had a culture and language immersion school," she said. "There are other culturally focused schools, but they are usually within Indigenous communities and really only open to that First Nation's community. Our school is different in that it is through the public school system, off-reserve, and it's in partnership with the school district and the Nation. My understanding is that there are less than six in B.C. that are like that."

The cultural curriculum is very much tied to traditional Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh seasonal activities.

"Our culture, what was happening in our communities, depended on the season," Williams said. "For instance, coming up right now, we have the salmon run, so we're going to begin by learning about salmon. In kindergarten, they just start to learn about a salmon, why are they are coming here, they learn about salmon spawning, they learn about some Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh salmon stories."

Each grade will go out to the river and get a chance to do traditional gill net fishing, followed by learning how to smoke and process the fish.

"The science level of it varies depending on the grade," Williams said. "Our older grades – three, four, five – they'll start learning about the anatomy of the fish. In higher grades, you start looking at the different types of restoration that have taken place. Why have salmon populations been dwindling? What is happening within our community to help restore salmon populations? You get to the higher grades and they start doing projects and interviews with Elders and knowledge keepers. It's all of the same subject, the season of the salmon, but the depths of learning grow as they get older."

In the wintertime, teachers focus more around learning in the classroom.

"They start learning wool weaving, storytelling, drumming and singing, history, learning about our First Nations neighbours," she said. "Then you get into the spring and we do a lot of focusing around plants, traditional medicinal plants, the different areas and the different types of plants that grow there, the plants that are in the estuary, the plants that are in the forests and meadows."

Students will usually do projects like making salves or lip balms.

The program leans a lot on elders and knowledge keepers in the community, said Matthew Van Oostdam, land-based co-ordinator for the school. His job includes connecting with the right people in the community — fishers, Elders, knowledge keepers — to access their wisdom and connect it with the students in ways that dovetail with the curriculum being taught by Williams and other teachers.

One particular partnership led to an innovative program at Alice Lake Provincial Park.

"One of our knowledge holders is doing her PhD in ethnobotany so she's learning the modern science at university but also connecting that with traditional teachings of our elders," Williams explained. "She came in and was teaching the students about the types of plants that grow in Alice Lake because we spend a lot of time there."

The students spoke to Elders about the kinds of plants that were used medicinally in the past, like cherry bark and barberry trees.

"We got a bunch of starts from this nursery on Vancouver Island and we planted in the trails throughout the park and we created signage," she said. "You can walk through a trail and you'll see different signs that talk about traditional uses of the plants. There is a QR code on there and when you scan it, the student's voice comes up and they introduce themselves in the language, they say the name of the plant in Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh and then they talk about one of the teachings that they've learned about how to interact with that plant through respectful Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh teachings, like the teachings of not picking too much, never taking more than you need, giving thanks and having gratitude for the plants. Each time, there is a teaching that one of the student's shares."

There is emotion when Williams talks about how children learn a language and celebrate a culture that was aggressively and violently stolen from their parents and grandparents.

"They're so proud and I think a big part of it too is when they are coming home and they speak the language to their parents or their grandparents or aunties and uncles, there's just so much pride, a sense of excitement and pride," she said. "My uncle talked about his granddaughter coming home and teaching him how to count to 10 and just how proud he was of her. Kids see that and they recognize that and it's very special to them."

About one-third of this year's 100 enrolled students are not Indigenous and Williams said they are equally enthusiastic about the curriculum.

"They are excited too. A big part of that is because they know that they are a part of something big, a part of bringing back something that was on the verge of extinction. That's exciting," she said. "Having it being open to non-Indigenous students, we're creating allies like Canada's never seen before. These young non-Indigenous students are going to have an understanding about our culture like no other non-Indigenous person before them."

Cedar Pidgeon is one of the non-Indigenous students who has attended the school.

"You get to experience a lot of different opportunities that you wouldn't otherwise experience and just get a different, more unique perspective on where you live and the people there and you feel a real connection with those people," she said. "If you went to just another school, it would just be another school. When you go to Cultural Journeys or Learning Expeditions, you become part of this really close-knit community, and you have a lot of different teachings that you wouldn't otherwise learn. It's a very unique experience that not the everyday person would be a part of. Especially during elementary school, having those influences and having those really good teachers who you're really close with, it's good because they shape the child into who you would want to put out in the world," Pidgeon said.

Fellow student Hazel Paull, a Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh First Nation member, said the education has made her more connected with her ancestry and the land.

Both students co-graduated from the program last spring and moved to Howe Sound Secondary.

"One of the teachings is, when you go out into the world, you are representing not only yourself, but you are representing your mom, your dad, your auntie's and your grandparents," Paull said.

The curriculum does not pull punches when dealing with the atrocities of the past.

"We confront it head-on … in an age-appropriate way," Williams said. "A lot of times, we open the door with literature. … We talk about the unjust laws that were here in Canada and we do a lot of leaning on our elders to come and share their stories with the students. It's really important for us to share with our students that the reason a lot of our families don't have our culture is not a choice. It's not that it wasn't valuable to them, and it was important enough to them that they wanted to carry it on. It's because it was taken from them. That's why our school is so important because they have the opportunity to claim what was taken from their parents and grandparents. This learning we're doing is so important and it's not happening everywhere. It's a special place."

This story originally ran in The Squamish Chief’s Discover Squamish magazine in the winter of 2022. 

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