Integrate Nuu-chah-nulth culture into a school curriculum


Tofino, BC – During art class at Wickaninnish Community School in Tofino, Dominic Hansen volunteered to introduce himself to his class.

Although they had already been to school together for almost three months, Hansen’s classmates listened to him intently, as if they were hearing him for the first time. In Nuu-chah-nulth, he shared his name, the names of his parents and where he is from.

Nuu-chah-nulth people usually present themselves by sharing more than their name, said Dani Stone, deputy principal and fine arts teacher at the school. They describe where they have their roots, the names of their parents and grandparents, and the territory they currently occupy.

The formality is one that Stone encourages children to practice regularly.

“It’s one way to make connections,” she said. “Identity is so important. At the end of the day, we are trying to help children stand up for themselves – who they are.

The teaching of the Nuu-chah-nulth language and culture is integrated into the daily curriculum of the school.

You will often hear Stone remind his students to show themselves “iisaak,” which means respect, towards one another. And instead of saying “thank you” at the end of the lesson, Stone will say his nuu-chah-nulth translation, “kleco-kleco”.

“It’s so important for children to see each other [and to] understand that we are in Tla-o-qui-aht territory, ”she said.

Even the students’ art projects are entirely inspired by the nuu-chah-nulth culture.

Led by Grace George, First Nations Support Worker for School District 70, Darlene Frank, Nuu-chah-nulth Education Worker for the school, and Corinne Ortiz-Castro, Homeschool Coordinator for the school. Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, art classes incorporate First Nations symbols and traditional sewing practices.

Prior to COVID-19, Stone said the fine arts curriculum consisted of more performance-based classes, such as music and drama. But when closures and social distancing measures made it difficult for some children to attend classes regularly, Stone said they had to change gears.

“We were trying to build a school community without being allowed to be together last year,” Stone said.

With a focus on the visual arts, Stone said it gives students a “place to come in wherever we are with our learning.”

For students like Payton Black, the change seemed natural. The 10-year-old has been sewing for years after being taught by her grandmother.

“When I’m nervous I sew,” she said. “It’s funny.”

The focus on the visual arts has made it possible for students, like Black, to stand out and share their skills with their friends, Stone said.

Through a progression of increasingly complex art projects, Stone tries to develop student confidence. They build to create a design that will be sewn onto the school badges and left as a legacy piece.

Many years ago, George told Stone that she dreamed of seeing the whole school dressed in school uniforms while performing Nuu-chah-nulth dances for the whole community.

This year, Stone said, the school is working towards that goal.

Community members and school staff sewed vests and shawls so that there was one for each student.

As the rally hinges on the situation surrounding COVID-19, Stone said she was hopeful.

“Someday when we return to more normal times and can safely come together, we hope our community comes together to celebrate with us,” she said.

In the 28 years that George worked as a First Nations support worker, she said she saw a big change in the way the community and the Nuu-chah-nulth adopted their culture.

Just 10 years ago, George said the students would not identify as Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.

“We just didn’t tell them,” she said.

Now even the quietest and most shy First Nations children say they are “proud and proud,” said George.

The 67-year-old has never been to residential school, but her older brother, Billy, did.

“He was beaten really, really badly,” she said. “But he never forgot the language.”

Billy became her mentor when she began studying Native Language Revitalization and Proficiency at the University of Victoria, where she recently graduated.

“When I started taking the language course, he couldn’t believe that he went from beating to being paid to teach me the language,” she said. “It’s really evolved and it’s so nice to see. Tofino and this school have really accepted our language.

The nuu-chah-nulth alphabet, which contains 46 letters, hangs on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom.

It’s not easy to learn, but George said some students learned the language “right away”.

Eddie Dyrchs moved from Germany to Tofino with his family three years ago. Because Nuu-chah-nulth and German share some of the same throaty sounds, George said the language came to him easily.

The nine-year-old said Nuu-chah-nulth reminded him of German and it was “really fun” to learn.

“Land-based learning is so important,” Stone said. “That’s what really resonates with kids.”

Stone said she regrets that she did not receive Nuu-chah-nulth teachings when she was in school.

“I feel like I’m catching up as an adult,” she said.

The deputy director said she was “blessed” to have received so many different teachings from Nuu-chah-nulth members and education workers. It’s a gift she wants to share with her students.

“I see the joy and pride on the faces of parents and children as they learn these [cultural] pieces, ”she said. “It helps to bond within the students. “

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