A belief in the importance of culturally responsive education in schools and a commitment to lift up students and educators alike are among the reason why Don Speidel has been honoured as a recipient of an Indspire Guiding the Journey: Indigenous Educator Award.
Speidel, a cultural resource liaison with Saskatoon Public Schools' First Nations, Inuit and Metis Education Unit, is one of 10 Canadian educators who received the award Dec. 1 during the National Gathering of Indigenous Education being held in Montreal.
His nomination in the Indspire category of culture, language and traditions cites Speidel's leadership within the school division and wider community and his openness in making himself available to all learners through his work with youth, the sharing of cultural teachings and as a guide for educators.
"Don is invested and genuinely committed to lifting youth and educators alike," the nomination says. "He is a humanitarian that supports the wellbeing of all who seek clarity, balance and want to teach and learn through a more culturally responsive perspective."
Speidel, who has been a part of the school division's work to provide culturally responsive education for almost two decades, said he appreciates the personal honour offered by the Indspire award but believes the recognition is something that must be shared.
"My family and everybody is really excited for me, but I'm not going there for myself," he said. "I think it shows the investment our school division has made, and this community has made, into trying to create an Indigenous awareness and visibility and raise the profile around Indigenous programming. I certainly don't think this is just for me — it's our school division, the many people who collaborated for many years.
"I feel that mutual respect from the administration and the staff here to continue to grow things. I am encouraged that time is here and it's a meaningful approach and process that many can hopefully continue to see as a viable way of creating the success we hope to achieve."
Speidel has an unwavering belief that language, tradition and culture need to be shared between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in order to move reconciliation forward and his work with Saskatoon Public Schools illustrates that commitment. He works closely with students and teachers, provides leadership on cultural best practices, conducts traditional First Nations ceremonies and all the while shares his commitment to inspire pride in Indigenous youth and connect them to the richness of their language and culture.
He sees hands-on learning such as drum programs and the raising of tipis at schools, as well as opportunities for students to work with elders and knowledge keepers, as important access points to cultural learning for students and teachers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
"We have to have a reference point. You have to get these teachings from the people themselves who have been given opportunities to maintain the traditional concepts and perspectives," he said. "There's not going to be a book for that. There are different ideas you can get from Google and everywhere else, but if you don't have living examples (elders) to sit with arts ed teachers or math teachers or science teachers you are not going to have a clear path of how that could look."
In addition to his close work with students and staff, Speidel also played a key role in creating a ceremonial site located at the division's Brightwater Science, Environmental and Indigenous Learning Centre located just south of Saskatoon. The Brightwater site, Speidel believes, provides a unique opportunity for integrated learning and the inclusion of an Indigenous perspective: "Students can learn so many different things from that land and, in a way, going to that land is a ceremony in itself."
Two extracurricular opportunities for students that Speidel leads — the Indigenous Art, Song and Dance Instructional Program and the Indigenous Ensemble — are among the programs that are helping build cultural knowledge and pride among Indigenous youth and serving as a bridge to the wider community. Since beginning with a small group of students several years ago, the art, song and dance program has grown to more than 175 students in 2017, including a large number of non-Indigenous participants.
"The awesome part of that 178 students is that probably 75 per cent are non-Indigenous students," he said. "When you look at that, that is a complementary piece to things that are going on in our country, our province and our city. People really want to work with Indigenous people face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder and create responsive programming that is good for all."
Now in its fifth year of operation, the Indigenous Ensemble brings together high school students to learn and perform traditional dance and music. The members of the ensemble perform and share their learning and culture with schools and students as well as in the wider community.
"Don annually assembles a group of young people that include singers and dancers that perform throughout the school division and the greater community," his nomination reads. "This group gathers after school to engage in ceremony and on a cultural learning journey honouring traditional pedagogy and experiential learning. Don looks to the Elders, Traditional Knowledge Keepers and artisans to holistically work alongside this group."