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Science, cultural knowledge combined for Stoney Nakoda learning project

“I want young people to see that going to university isn’t the only path to success. Just because we’re associated with the university doesn’t mean it’s going to be that kind of white tower academic kind of thing. Science doesn’t have to be like that. Science is for everybody.”

STONEY NAKODA – The seeds of a new science and culture project have been planted for Stoney Nakoda First Nation youth with an aim to grow into something special in the coming years.

With financial backing in place, the project is headed by a University of Calgary team to support land-based learning and link together scientific and traditional knowledge for Indigenous students in an outdoor classroom in Alberta’s Rockies.

“Science isn’t this cold thing that happens in a lab,” said Savannah Poirier Hollander, the PromoScience education program lead at the University of Calgary’s Biogeoscience Institute (BGI).

“Especially ecology; for me, it’s a very spiritual thing almost to be outside and I know a lot of people can relate to that because you go outside and you see something beautiful or special and it’s a really special experience. I feel like science is a way to deepen that experience.”

Ecology is the study of relationships between living organisms such as the connection between plants and wildlife.

After receiving a PromoScience grant from the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the small, Indigenous-led BGI team took action to make ecology more accessible to Grade 4 to 12 students on the local first nation between Canmore and Calgary, which is comprised of three distinct bands – Wesley, Chiniki, and Bearspaw.

Poirier Hollander is determined to create lasting relationships and deliver a message that academic knowledge “isn’t the be all, end all of knowledge.”

“I want young people to see that going to university isn’t the only path to success,” she said. “Just because we’re associated with the university doesn’t mean it’s going to be that kind of white tower academic kind of thing. Science doesn’t have to be like that. Science is for everybody.”

Working with community groups on Stoney Nakoda and local school divisions, the team’s basic outlines for the project are to “increase literacy in science within a cultural context”; "provide Indigenous mentors and teachers to work with students and promote careers and skills in science”; explore STEM; and to “create a greater learning community.”

But one of its most important aspects is it is strongly driven by community input, such as from Indigenous knowledge speakers, leaders from the bands, and the Nakoda Youth Council, a group focused on the revitalization of its culture and to link youth and Elders.

Tricia Young, communications coordinator at Nakoda Youth Council, said council aiding the program is a way of bringing in more activities and opportunities for community members.

“We’re doing it out of compassion,” said Young. “It’s good in a way that they’re [BGI] persistent with how they’re trying to connect with the community.

“Because science and traditional knowledge are the theme, a lot of the time it’s like two different world views, but it’s basically talking about the same thing in a different way. Spiritual and practical world views.”

Should more universities or institutes want to reach out for other projects, Young gladly encourages it.

"We are open to teaching others outside of the community about what’s going on here and to not be afraid and to just come in. We are very open and kind and welcoming," she said.

When the University of Calgary reached out for advice on how to proceed with its project, the youth council recommended utilizing fireside chats, a way for the community to connect with Elders and local scientists in locations between Stoney Nakoda and Exshaw.

Other ideas included a birding workshop, and a Stoney language interpretive project.

“It has to be pretty organic; it has to be driven by participants,” said Sue Arlidge, BGI’s school programs coordinator, environmental and ecology education programs.

“The involvement of the university, really, is the idea to provide some support in areas where we have more experience or resources and ideally leave after a few years and have some programs that are running on their own with staff of their own.”

Two summer interns – Tessa Wolfleg from Siksika First Nation and Tessa Breaker from Stoney Nakoda and Siksika Nations – are getting a firsthand experience working on the project to bridge science and culture for Stoney youth.

Part of the idea of the project is to create more locals to lead similar projects in the future.

"This project can build community and is important for keeping traditions alive, and to help students find meaning in school," said Wolfleg in a press release.

The BGI team is working alongside Stoney Education Authority and Canadian Rockies Public Schools. This fall, the project will be part of selected schools curriculum like in Exshaw.

During the first year, currently underway, the focus will mainly be on growing relationships with the community and students on field trips, fireside chats and other outdoor activities.

For the learning style of the project, Poirier Hollander said it is a bit guided on what interests the young pupils.

“I’m showing the kids what they’re interested in is valuable and worth learning about and that we’re listening to what they’re saying to us,” she said. “I think they feel really powerless at school and it makes it a place that sucks to be at … because you’re wondering what’s the point of this?”

Poirier Hollander is of Cree/Métis heritage from Treaty 6 territory. Much of her initial interest and knowledge of ecology came from time spent on the land with family and television shows such as The Crocodile Hunter.

She said she sees overlap and connections between Indigenous knowledge and Western studies.

“It’s really reflective in our traditional knowledge and … I think the missing piece is the traditional knowledge from Indigenous people,” she said.

Despite being Indigenous, she views herself as an outsider coming into Stoney Nakoda, which is why it’s crucial for the innovative teacher to create long-standing relationships to promote science.

The academic side of the project will come much easier after establishing connections with students and the community, said Poirier Hollander. A proposal for three additional years of funding for the project will be submitted this August to NSERC.

“I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of these Indigenous programming that is run by groups from off-reserve,” said Poirier Hollander.

“A lot of times it happens for a year or maybe two and then it’s over. There’s no follow up, there’s no relationship building. [We’re] building relationships with students and getting to know them because that’s the foundation being able to teach someone.”

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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