Summer camp offers Aboriginal girls unique blend of traditional, contemporary skills

    A program organized by the Department of Elementary Education has become a valuable resource for young Aboriginal women, helping them to achieve their dreams through immersion in community, language, and culture.

    By Mike Kendrick on September 16, 2014

    A program organized by the Department of Elementary Education has become a valuable resource for young Aboriginal women, helping them to achieve their dreams through immersion in community, language, and culture.

    Now in its sixth year, the Alliance Pipeline Young Women’s Circle of Leadership is an eight-day camp for Indigenous girls aged 8–16, aimed at developing both traditional and contemporary skills. Funded by Alliance Pipeline, the camp provides participants the opportunity to learn new ideas and made new friends while being immersed in traditional Cree language and culture. Organized in part by Elementary Education’s Trudy Cardinal and Heather Blair, the camp has seen its numbers grow over the years, giving Indigenous girls a unique experience that they may not have access to elsewhere.

    “Six years ago we came up with the idea that young women really need some support in general,” says Blair. “Young Aboriginal women are at a place in their preteens where life is confusing in this world as it is, and we wanted to find ways to support and make them stronger as individuals and collectively.”

    Over the course of the program, which ran this year from July 7–16, twenty young women participated in various activities to build relationships, from Cree language immersion, to cultural arts, to technology studies. While previous years had a much stronger focus on the language component, this year’s resources allowed for arts to play a greater role — an initiative led by Cardinal and camp coordinator Rochelle Starr. Through this, traditional Indigenous teachings were made more accessible to camp participants by introducing them to traditional songs, crafts, and dance.

    In one activity, participants were taught traditional hoop dancing by professional contemporary and hoop dancer Sandra Lamouche. As the girls worked together, they learned how the values of leadership are passed on through dance. Cardinal explains how this activity showed them firsthand that leadership is found within the collective as a collaborative effort.

    “[Lamouche] taught them that leadership traditionally is everyone moving forward together. You would have the little ones having a harder time with the hoops, but the older ones would just maintain their position and keep the beat until the little ones got it. It’s really beautiful to see the way the relationships ebbed and flowed.”

    These relationships, Cardinal notes, form the foundation of the camp’s model. While Indigenous youth may have access to similar resources in schools and other programs, oftentimes these programs lack the hands-on components found in song, craft, and dance. Cardinal also finds that many school programs can be too proscriptive as a result of the instructor/student relationship. By comparison, the APYWCL gave organizers the chance to step in and out leadership roles, allowing the girls to interact with Elders and other Indigenous knowledge holders face to face and gain firsthand knowledge of traditional teachings.

    “What was beautiful about this kind of program is that we all engaged in it together, and from that process is where the learning was, and that was where they started to think about who they are and where they would be, in that relationship, in those discussions,” Cardinal says.

    As a result, the coordinators saw these relationships extending beyond the camp itself as parents introduced themselves and discovered new bonds over the course of the week. By building community not just between these young women, but throughout Edmonton, Cardinal sees even more value in the way the program is organized. She and Blair would like to see the APYWCL serve as a model for other programs that could run across Canada throughout the year, filling a much-needed void in the resources currently available to young Indigenous women.

    “I think the camp gives these girls a kind of strength and confidence and new expertise. Seeing themselves as leaders and having a voice. From the first day of camp when they introduced themselves, they were so shy, but the last day of camp, they were singing their introductions in Cree on the stage,” says Blair as she recounts the Indigenous Languages Festival that wrapped up the camp, where participants presented to an audience of over 100 family members, students, and faculty.

    “I think it makes a huge difference in terms of having value in traditional cultural knowledge and ways, and also being comfortable in the contemporary world.”

    Going into the school year, the camp’s organizers plan to conduct ongoing sessions with participants in hopes of maintaining long-term relationships. With two callback sessions in the fall and two in winter, they hope to encourage these young women to become more involved in the program, using the skills they learned this year to become junior leaders and assist with organization in future years, thus passing on their cultural knowledge to the next generation. Through this, they hope that they can raise even more awareness of the camp throughout Edmonton and area as a valuable resource for Indigenous girls, as Blair believes such resources are severely lacking.

    “We have, not just this University, but Canadian society, a huge moral obligation to do a way better job for young Aboriginal women than we’ve been doing.”

    For more information on the camp, visit the APYWCL website. Questions may be directed to APYWCL Coordinator Rochelle Starr or APYWCL Director Trudy Cardinal.