Full Circle

An educational summer program connects First Nations girls with their culture

Michael Hingston - 20 February 2017

"You need to know who you are. Do you know who you are?"

As her question lingers, the teacher searches the faces of the 22 girls in the room. They are silent, then one shakes her head.

"Go visit your kohkom and mosom," the teacher says. "Your grandparents will tell you things about the past you didn't know."

The "teacher" in this scene is actually drama instructor Maureen Belanger and the dialogue about cultural identity is part of a role-playing exercise taking place at a summer program - the Young Indigenous Women's Circle of Leadership at the University of Alberta. Belanger demonstrates to the girls how they might act out the dialogue and then hands over both roles to the girls to continue.

The Indigenous education program is designed to reconnect First Nations girls with traditional Cree skills and culture. Empowerment is reinforced often, such as in this exercise that encourages the girls to look for their own answers.

One of the young participants, J'Vin Bull, has volunteered to direct the skit. With her messy bun, baggy plaid shirt, oversized glasses perched on her nose and pen in hand, 13-year-old J'Vin looks the part as she helps Belanger assign roles and block out scenes. At J'Vin's cue, the girls form a semicircle around another character, who is grieving the unexplained disappearance of her aunt, and sing the Strong Woman song, which speaks of strength and resistance.

This is J'Vin's second year in the program. At first she was hesitant to attend, worried that it would be dull and strict; she envisioned a week sitting quietly and listening to elders like her grandfather. But the girls do not simply receive information about Indigenous culture and identity - they actively discover and explore it. For the past week, J'Vin and two dozen other girls aged 10 to 16 have learned beading techniques, performed traditional Cree songs, dances and prayers, talked with elders, attended a sweat ceremony, picked wild sweetgrass and sage and been immersed in a culture they may not otherwise have had access to, given the destructive legacy of residential schools.

"The act of [the government] taking away children from their families and communities disconnected the ability to transfer knowledge - love knowledge, identity knowledge - all the things that you learn from your parents," says Rochelle Starr, program co-ordinator of the Circle of Leadership. "A lot of the work we're doing is simply trying to give these girls access to that information that has been disconnected for well over 100 years." Some girls, Starr says, have barely heard Cree spoken before.

The Circle of Leadership was founded by UAlberta elementary education professor Heather Blair in 2008, and its popularity has snowballed with each passing year. Much of that interest has to do with the program's content, which is delivered mainly in Cree. "Unlike French or Spanish, which are noun-based languages, Cree is a verb-based language," explains Starr. "It's all about the doing." The girls learn what sweetgrass smells like by walking into a field, plucking strands and smelling for themselves.

Since first coming to the summer program, J'Vin has incorporated cultural practices such as smudging and praying into her daily life. She also regularly speaks some Cree at home. But the experience changed her life in other ways, too. "I opened up way more. I was self-conscious; now I'm not that shy. Now I love myself more." She wants to be a film director one day but says it makes sense to be an actor first - it makes you a better director. She also wants to be a surgeon.

The Circle of Leadership is uniquely aligned with many of the calls to action from Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including efforts to include Aboriginal languages and history in education curriculum. The sheer fact of hosting the program on university grounds can help bridge critical gaps in education. "[The girls] feel that they belong," Starr says. "So when they're ready to come to university, they know they have a place there."

Starr has dreams of expanding the Circle of Leadership - running multiple sessions to accommodate the increased demand and starting a parallel program for First Nations boys.

Wrapping up the theatre exercise for the day, the girls J'Vin has cast in the roles of teacher and student take the makeshift stage to act out the skit about cultural identity. As the girls turn to refer to their notes, Belanger, the instructor, shakes her head, encouraging them to reply naturally. Like walking out into a field of sweetgrass, identity knowledge is a process of exploration. "This is not a Hollywood production," she tells them. "It's us here, right now, telling a story."

-With files from Amie Filkow

Thanks to the support of donors including Alliance Pipeline Ltd., the Young Indigenous Women's Circle of Leadership, through the Faculty of Education, offers summer Cree immersion experiences for girls aged 10 to 16, such as language and cultural activities, drama, dance and leadership building.

To learn more, contact Sean Mowat at 780-492-8863 or sean.mowat@ualberta.ca.