STONEY NAKODA – Fostering connection through culture, the Îyârhe Nakoda Youth Program launched its second ever Honouring Life Day Camp for kids on the Stoney Nakoda First Nation at the beginning of August.
Members of the camp, their families, volunteers and community members gathered at the old Chiniki Health Centre on Friday (Aug. 20) for a feast to honour a youth in the program who harvested his first deer earlier in the week.
The Îyârhe Nakoda Youth Program works in concert with Stoney Health Services, the Family Resource Network and Alberta Health Services to provide mental wellness and wellbeing as a part of a suicide prevention initiative.
The camp has a strong emphasis on engaging in traditional cultural practices, hoping to connect the kids involved with their culture as a way to promote mental health and healthy lifestyles.
“Our program, it’s not solely for youth, it’s there to support families as well," Gabriel Young, the program coordinator, said. "Youth have been coming out with their parents, even parents and their children, they sign up. The age range is 12 to 24, so we’ve had young parents and their families join us as well.”
This year, the camp is focused on hunting, which is acting as a vehicle to teach its members broader lessons about life and health.
In the first weeks of the camp, the youth in the Honouring Life Day Camp have earned their firearms licenses, spent time at the range, went harvesting for blueberries and other edible vegetation, engaged in archery practice and fishing and learned more about their hunting rights.
The camp organizers also invited elders from the community to talk to the youth about various things related to hunting, like how to build traditional smokehouses and teachings around the hunting lifestyle.
One of the pillars of the camp is connection, Young said, and the program is designed to foster connection to their culture, other community members and families as well.
The program began in 2019, but was put on hold due to the pandemic. The Îyârhe Nakoda Youth Program was able to pivot and provide some online programming during the months where gatherings were impossible due to public health guidelines.
The program resumed earlier this summer, with Stoney Nakoda youth going out onto the landscape to collect wild spinach, blueberries, Saskatoon berries and wild teas.
“Everything's kind of been on idle. During the pandemic, we’ve had some online programs where the youth learned how to make moccasins and even bead work,” Young said. “Since the restrictions kind of eased off, that’s when we got the opportunity to get the youth out on the land and pick some wild vegetation.”
Young said the practice of hunting specifically provides a lot of opportunity for community members to collaborate and interact with each other.
“With hunting, it’s not just killing and eating. How that can relate to wellness is that the families can get together and have conversations, it provides an opportunity to interact,” he said. “This program provides an opportunity to get access to elders you wouldn’t normally interact with. It broadens the learning palette, if that makes sense, where you can learn as much as you can from various elders. Everybody has a gift to share and everybody has an opportunity to learn.”
One of the ways the program achieves the goal of connecting the community is by ensuring the facilitators of the program were all members of the Nation.
“All of our facilitators, they’re all from the community. The hunters that came out to take the youth out, they’re active hunters. They do all of these teachings with their families, but they took the opportunity to work with new youth as well. It’s all contributing to the oneness of our community. It’s all about connection and supporting the roots at the core, which is our identity, to be proud of who we are, to walk with our heads held high,” he said.
At the core of the program is the support of mental wellness in the community. The program is designed to connect youth with their culture, which in turn will give them a sense of pride about their Indigenous identity and foster a positive mental state.
“It’s to embrace identity and to be proud of who we are as Stoney Nakoda people. The importance of culture and traditions. Everything that’s been passed down has survived all the adversities of history. Everything leads to wellness, because everything that’s been passed down, there’s meaning behind everything, there’s purpose,” Young said. “There are life teachings, even in hunting. The importance of this is so the youth can embrace their identity through cultural education. Education is very important, especially traditional and cultural education. It’s makes them proud of who they are as Indigenous people.”
Physical wellness is another goal of the program, Young said, and key to improving mental wellbeing, and hunting is a way to promote a healthy, active lifestyle.
“Part of this is to also promote that traditional lifestyle, that healthy lifestyle, to get out and go hunting, or go picking, to do stuff that our ancestors have done for centuries,” he said. “That all makes us who we are as Indigenous people. And for Honouring Life – with it at its core being a suicide prevention initiative – identity and being proud of who we are is uplifting, and all of these programs support that.”
Young noted he hopes to see the youth in the community take the lessons to heart, and said with the cultural practices they learn in the Îyârhe Nakoda Youth Program, the onus is on them to pass the lessons along to the next generation.
“As they’re getting educated with the traditional education and teachings, they also inherit a responsibility. As a provider, as a hunter, if you have knowledge, there’s a responsibility to provide, or share or teach these teachings,” he said.