A program aimed at strengthening cultural awareness and pride among Indigenous students has played a role in encouraging youth who are enthusiastic about participating in their culture and sharing it with their schools and families.
The Indigenous Art, Song, and Dance Instructional Program provides instruction in many aspects of Indigenous culture and arts for both elementary and high school students who attend Saskatoon Public Schools.
“Over the last seven or eight years we have developed this program and this year (2015-16) was probably the most attended,” said Don Speidel, cultural resource liaison with the school division’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis Education Unit. “We had 85 young people who we were able to take through an eight-week program -- from young people all the way up to high school students -- and in fact we ended up working with a number of adults in the program.”
One of those high school students was Blaysen Laliberte of Mount Royal Collegiate. Despite being initially reluctant to take part in the program that ran during the fall of 2015 at W.P. Bate Community School, Laliberte flourished.
“He was one of our diamonds in the rough,” Speidel explained. “He came reluctantly with his family; his little sister was dancing and he came from football practice and didn’t want to do this. He ended up being one of our star performers this year for the (Indigenous) Ensemble. We are all proud of him.”
The Indigenous Art, Song, and Dance Instructional Program is part of the division’s commitment to culturally responsive learning and the vital role that culture and the arts play in the development of strong learners, schools and communities. It offers instruction in pow wow dance, pow wow song and drum and Métis jigging along with hands-on demonstrations in skills such as dance regalia design, beadwork and headdress making.
The program is located at a different school each year in order to encourage participation and provide access to a wide range of students and families.
“We are building momentum with it and I think it is hopefully something we can continue to carry forward,” Speidel said. “We have an amazing team of people that continue to commit themselves to developing young people and giving them a chance to bear witness; having access to culture, language and mentorship.”
For Raina Buffalo, a 14-year-old student from Whitecap Dakota First Nation who attends Grade 8 at John Lake School, being part of the instructional program and following that up by dancing as part of the school division’s Indigenous Ensemble has had a big impact on her life.
“Being part of the Ensemble is a great experience and I encourage young people like me to join the group. Being part of the ensemble has taught me to become a confident, independent dancer. I learned to be professional, pay attention, follow directions and be supportive to other dancers,” she said.
“I have mentors to talk to and learn from. They have been all over the world to dance. It helped me get out to show my dancing and made me want to dance more. I feel good about my dancing and being able to show people my dancing.”
Bluejay Linklater, who attends Confederation Park Community School, was interested in the Indigenous Art, Song, and Dance Instructional Program as a way to help him follow in the footsteps of older family members.
“I wanted to get into dancing because I had seen other people dance, seen videos about it and lots of my family members danced in the past,” he said. “My grandparents have given speeches about what they have done in the past when they were younger and now it is my turn to give away the knowledge and keep it going to the younger people.”
He says his mother and father have been supportive of the experience, teaching him steps and creating dance regalia. On a personal level, he recognizes how involvement in the dance program and Indigenous Ensemble has given him a new perspective.
“The ensemble has helped me with school, with my work, with my classmates. The ensemble helped me to be more free -- getting out there and introducing myself to people -- and now here I am. “
Stories such as those of Raina Buffalo and Bluejay Linklater are testimony to how cultural instruction and other programs are benefitting students, schools and the wider community, Speidel said.
“These are things that bring families together. These are things that generationally we have been trying to focus on in the school system: bringing people together to share a sense of pride, a sense of belonging to our communities. Sometimes we don’t always have extra-curricular programs that kids and families can attach themselves to and I think this has been a key success in bringing people together.”
(Photo courtesy Josh Schaefer Photography/Saskatchewan Rush)