The Canmore Collegiate High School rotunda filled with the sound of aboriginal hand drums and singing as a group of Stoney Nakoda students shared their music as part of National Aboriginal Day, June 21.
And while it would be easy to think that powwow drumming and singing was a one-off for the national day of acknowledgement of the contribution of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, it has in fact become a regular part of CCHS life.
Jeff Horvath, CCHS aboriginal liaison, said Stoney students often perform during lunch hours.
Like the drumming, other aspects of Stoney culture have pervaded school life, opening it to the rest of the student body, including an open invitation to participate in round dances, and entire classes participate in workshops with Chris Pegram, a member of the Morley drum group Eya-Hay Nakoda.
“The school has really embraced the Stoney students culture and the Stoney students are very proud of their culture,” Horvath said. “Two years ago we had about half of the whole high school population dancing and we had (a round dance) this year and about 75 per cent of the kids were dancing.”
More recently, Horvath said hundreds of students took part in a round dance.
“I’d say easily 97 per cent of the kids were dancing. It was amazing. It was pretty cool to see all of the students get into it,” he said.
Not only are students beginning to actively participate in Stoney culture, Stoney students feel at home as an accepted part of the school.
“I think acceptance has been fantastic. The community had been very open and welcoming. The key is these students definitely feel they belong and belonging is such an important part of school culture.
“The fact they are out drumming, they are out in the main circle every day, they definitely feel they belong here,” Horvath said, adding non-native students have joined them, as well.
Part of the key that has helped Stoney students feel at home in an off-reserve public school setting are the programs Horvath has established at the school – designed to open doors for his students.
This includes the Stoney Adventure Group Experience (SAGE) program and e-spirit, the national aboriginal youth business plan competition, offered by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).
Run in partnership with Outward Bound Canada, SAGE provides Stoney students with outdoor experiences, hiking, climbing and sea kayaking, while e-spirit helps students learn the ins and outs of starting a business.
And these programs seem to be making the difference.
This year, six Stoney students graduated Grade 12, the largest number since the first Stoney students began attending CCHS.
“It is very exciting to see tangible evidence or proof that things are improving. Four of those grads were in the SAGE program and the other two were part of the e-spirit program.
“The evidence is showing that (the programs) are tied to graduation rates,” said Horvath.
“If the motivation for the SAGE program was for improving graduation rates, this is the evidence we need.”
Of the most recent group to participate, Dallas Bearspaw, Butch Holloway and Douglas Twoyoungmen, Bearspaw and Twoyoungmen are 2011 graduates and Holloway is on track to graduate next year.
Their e-spirit proposal and presentation – supplying bulls and broncos for rodeos, a business Holloway’s family is already in – at the recent competition in Moncton, NB brought them the ambassador award, presented to the team that best represents the e-spirit program.
Or, as Twoyoungmen put it, “the most supportive and happy team. I feel confident that I can achieve that, that I can start my own business.
“It was a good experience too. It taught us a lot. When I first started it got complicated for me and in the second year I got used to it,” Twoyoungmen said.
For Bearspaw, he said the competition gave him a chance to experience a different part of Canada, and face his fear of presenting in front of people.
CCHS has 10 new Stoney students coming into Grade 9 in fall with what he expects to be seven graduates in 2012, Horvath said.
And as part of his programs for aboriginal students, Horvath plans to expand the scope to include Inuit and Métis students attending CCHS and further broaden the influence and scope of aboriginal culture at the school.