Consider This: Wâhkôhtowin at work - Connecting with Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission

Augustana students participate in workshops with the community to learn more and grow Indigenous curriculum.

Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission brought five Indigenous-led workshops to Augustana.

Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission brought five Indigenous-led workshops to Augustana.

I write first with the recognition that the project and event I write of owes its work and relationships to the generosity and time of Elders, educators and curriculum developers with Maskwacîs Education and that the land upon which I write this is on Treaty 6, the territory of the Maskwacîs Nehiyaw, and the homeland of the Métis Nation, a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous Nations whose histories, languages and cultures continue to influence our vibrant community.

There is a term in the language of Nehiyawewin called “Wâhkôhtowin”, a Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) concept loosely related to the English notion of "kinship." The better translation however—one rooted in Cree worldviews—may be something along the lines of “interconnected relationships,” a phrase that recognizes that we are all part of a larger multitude of social connections (home, family, social groups, etc.) as well as other affective connections to nature and the environment around us. I understand now that it is this principle of Wâhkôhtowin that motivated Carla Badger, the current director of Maskwacis Curriculum at Maskwacîs Education Schools Commission (MESC), to not give up on a year-long attempt to establish a pedagogical partnership between Augustana students and Maskwacîs secondary schools.

Our efforts resulted in one of the most engaging pedagogical relationships ever formed between Augustana and Maskwacîs. Part of this relationship includes a two-semester long project of over forty of my students to develop curriculum resources on Indigenous short films and literature for MESC. In turn, MESC brought five Indigenous-led workshops to Augustana, directly contributing to Augustana’s ongoing Strategic Academic Plan “to offer workshops that address the process of reconciliation, developing our relationship with Maskwacîs.”

The objective to design curriculum resources for MESC targets an important need in Alberta Education to foster the growth of Indigenous content. For Alberta Education teachers there is both a lack of Indigenous resources available along with an overabundance of work for those ambitious enough to implement them. Many teachers that desire to integrate Indigenous content in their classrooms are left with a mountain of additional work to read, assess and create since there is little to no programming and instructional materials for contemporary Indigenous literature and film.

So, if Wâhkôhtowin is recognized as the fulcrum of our partnership, then both sides of the balancing beam are found in the work of resourcing (contributed by Augustana students) and instruction (provided by MESC staff). In this respect, the objective was for my students to develop Indigenous resources while Maskwacîs Curriculum Team provided preliminary instruction on Indigenous culture and the history of MESC itself. To accomplish this, Maskwacîs Curriculum staff led my students through a five-day series of Indigenous workshops dedicated to providing important education on Nehiyaw culture, history, and pedagogical practices. Included in these workshops were a series of panel discussions hosting seven Nehiyaw Elders including Wilton Littlechild, PhD, Bruce Cutknife, Don Johnson, Ida Bull, Mary Moonias, Rick Lightning and Rose Makinaw.

One panel, in particular, brought us the prestigious guest of Wilton Littlechild, PhD, the previous chief of Maskwacîs, residential school survivor, lawyer and U of A honorary doctor of laws degree recipient. He was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999 and named as one of the 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century, in 2004. “Willie,” as his colleagues and friends call him, was a pioneer for the global Indigenous rights movement and was known, among his many accolades, for his work at the United Nations to advance Indigenous Rights and Treaties. This work culminated in the establishment of the forty-six articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and contributed to the 94 calls to action found in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Another unforgettable keynote was by our own award-winning U of A “alumni of excellence” Brian Wildcat, PhD and honorary doctor of laws degree recipient, a former superintendent of MESC and visionary for the Maskwacîs community. Brian traced how the interconnected philosophy of Wâhkôhtowin guided him and his team in the lengthy and ambitious project to unite four Cree First Nations—Ermineskin, Louis Bull, Montana and Samson Cree bands— under a single educational authority (now called MESC). In doing so, Wildcat left my students with a valuable lesson on how Wâhkôhtowin, inasmuch as it promotes relationships, also advocates for the Indigenous autonomy and agency to be relational in the first place. This is exemplified in the unprecedented union of four different bands signing an agreement with the Government of Canada to assume control of their own education— an act that, at the same time, counters the settler-colonial narrative of residential schools.

As I write this, I am wearing an orange shirt for the day of Truth and Reconciliation and am reminded that our country is being inundated with these vital and beautiful symbols of the present that target tragic and ugly histories of our past. The one resounding theme that all the Elders and MESC staff constantly referred back to was the importance of family and community as a medium to pass on values of honour and respect— values that were severely damaged in the tragedy of the residential school system. What residential schools did was to systematically attempt to dismantle the values of Wâhkôhtowin by separating the interconnected access of Indigenous individuals with their community, family, language and environment. Yet Wâhkôhtowin lives on as one of the most persevering and resilient ideologies in North American history. It remains advocated for through the voices of Elders, it is integrated into the collective structure of MESC and it is exemplified by the humble and hard-working character of Indigenous educators like Carla and the Maskwacis Curriculum Team who came to Augustana, shared with us and taught us, and have given us the opportunity and honour to contribute to their revolutionary and ongoing curriculum work.

To that I say kinanâskomitinâwâw.

About Stephen

Stephen A. Cruikshank is an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts and Humanities at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus.