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Connecting to Indigenous culture

Every morning before the 9 a.m. bell, a group of ten to 14 Kelvin High School students and staff gather in a circle outdoors on the school's south side.

Smoldering sage, held in shell, is passed around as each person in the circle smudges in his or her own way. The smudge—a traditional means of purifying and dismissing negative energy—was quashed for years through a residential school system that sought to dismantle Indigenous culture and families. Today, students and staff are rediscovering those lost pieces of culture.

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"There was a time when this culture was frowned upon or even illegal," said one student. "So it's good we're doing things to help bring that culture back."

Teacher Pat Strachan said the smudges were a way to find a balance with the usual morning rush.

"It's a way to practise mindfulness and think about your intentions for the day," she said. "You're deliberately calming yourself and starting off on a positive note."

Teacher Deb McAlpine said it was beneficial to bring students and staff in touch with traditional means to build resilience: "The whole idea of resilience and wellness has been an issue for people across all cultures. The Indigenous community has cultural teachings that build that resilience…and that was taken away in residential schools. Bringing those teachings back and sharing them with the non-Indigenous community as well is an amazing opportunity."

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The smudge circles have become a welcome part of the morning routine at Kelvin.

"I love the sense of family here…we're like aunts and uncles with our nephews and nieces," said teacher Michelle Gougeon. "I like starting my morning with everyone and finding my centre."

Kelvin Social Worker Rob Marriot concurred:

"It's a good way for staff and students to get connected at this school. There's a teaching that we're all related, and here at Kelvin we all work really hard to support one another."

The Journey

The smudges are part of Kelvin's Aboriginal Journey Group; the program is based on WSD Elder and Traditional Knowledge Keeper Myra Laramee's Journies training for staff. Through the program, staff members are learning more about Aboriginal traditions and perspectives, which in turn are being passed onto students. Some Indigenous staff members are even learning about their culture in depth for the first time.

"We're educating staff to feel more comfortable about teaching Aboriginal perspectives," said Vice-Principal Cree Crowchild. "We're not saying that we're experts on it—sometimes Aboriginal people have lost that culture and are still learning themselves."

The Aboriginal Journey Group arose out of personal meetings Mr. Crowchild had with every student who identified as Indigenous at the school. Several students mentioned a desire to have the option of smudging before classes start each day.

"This came directly from the students, we're just the conduit," Mr. Crowchild said.

Sweat lodge

Fifteen Kelvin staff and two students also recently participated in a sweat lodge conducted by lodge keeper Cecil Sveinson.

"It was pretty powerful, most of them had never been in a sweat lodge before," Mr. Crowchild said.

Prior to the lodge, a scaabe (fire keeper/helper) visited the school to give some pre-teaching about what to expect at a sweat lodge.

The fire keeper waits until the grandfathers (that's what the rocks are called) in the fire are "ready" to be removed and brought into the sweat lodge. It can take time—which has an entirely different meaning in Indigenous culture.

"Being in a Eurocentric timeframe, you're always wondering when things are going to start," Mr. Crowchild said. "Traditionally, it isn't always that way…it's a different perspective of time. Things are ready when they're ready. You don't rush, especially when it comes to cultural and spiritual aspects."

While this particular lodge meant to serve as a teaching lodge, lodges can be conducted for a variety of purposes, such as healing, etc.

"The lodge-keepers posed questions to people that involved a lot of self-reflection," Mr. Crowchild said.

Participants followed the three-hour lodge ceremony with a traditional feast.

"Afterwards, there was that atmosphere of joy and emotion. That event brought everyone who started the Aboriginal Journey Group together and solidified that partnership."

What's most important to the group is that it isn't a "one and done" project.

"Even after we're gone, this journey will continue," Mr. Crowchild said.

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