Sekwun Ahenakew strongly believes in the importance of connecting her students to the land that they live on as a way for them to understand its history and geography. Ahenakew, who is from the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, is a Treaty Catalyst, which means that she is certified as an expert in local oral history that predates treaties. Ahenakew has been a teacher for 14 years and uses an Indigenous land-based approach at Sakewew High School in North Battleford, Sask., where she teaches Grades 9 to 11. Outside the classroom, she also heads the local “We Day” club, encouraging her students to volunteer their time to help out their community.
How do you define Indigenous land-based education?
It’s a big part of my philosophy. It’s taking the students out of the classroom and teaching them on the land, so it provides them with a more holistic education. It’s like the binary to the Western approach to teaching. In terms of geography, I’ve been exposed to and listened to the oral history of the Indigenous Peoples in the area that I grew up in. That oral history connects to landmarks in the area.
Can you give an example?
An example from my home area would be the Buffalo Child Stone, which was originally located around Elbow, Saskatchewan. If I were to take a class to the area for a field trip, they would get the history of the area and the stone, and using the buffalo, you can teach nutrition and food sovereignty. You can teach about the importance of community, and something that I call dual community, because the story connected to the Buffalo Child Stone is about a boy who had a family within the Buffalo Nation and within the Cree Nation.
What do you do as a Treaty Catalyst?
I’m very well-versed in a lot of the oral history that predates treaty history in the Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan. I have a few ideas and a few seeds that I’ve planted in connecting geography with the different treaties across Canada, like creating an educational treaty tour.
As part of an exchange I took 40 students from my home reserve to Ottawa and there we learned that students in Ottawa have access to classes like Civics. So I brought the idea back here and toyed around with it in my head — why aren’t our students getting Civics? What does Indigenous governance look like? Everything, from landmarks to traditional hunting grounds, ties back to the land, and that all ties into governance. I looked back at the current lands of the treaties and bands, and they each have their unique features. With this treaty tour I’d like to develop, we’d have volunteer bands come forward and offer their knowledge, because you read about it in textbooks, but what does it really mean? When you take students out on the land, it stays with them more.
What's one project you've done that really resonated with your students?
I taught an Indigenous land-based grade a couple years ago and that’s when the idea of the treaty tour started. I went as far as Treaty 1 in Ontario with my class, and all along the way I felt like I was on the Magic School Bus. We made stops and we made sure to visit physical, manmade and treaty landmarks along the way to Ontario. My students, because of their knowledge of certain dances, like the jingle dress dance, they were beside themselves when they were actually at the location where the jingle dress originated. They were just so happy to experience these things firsthand.
What do you want your students to takeaway from your classes?
I have primarily taught in First Nation schools in Saskatchewan. The students there haven’t had equal access to education and there are high instances of socio-economic deficiencies. Ultimately, I want them to learn to have a positive attitude toward the earth, toward nature — more so than just learning basic math and spelling, because that will come anyway with my teaching style.
What role have the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action played in your classroom?
What I see now is that it’s giving my students more of an opportunity to showcase who they are and to be proud of who they are, to be more successful in the classroom. There’s a lot of pride coming out of that because they’re able to dance and submit artwork to contests and feel good about themselves in general.
What would you like to see more of in school curricula?
I would like a space provided in each subject area and grade level for Indigenous land-based education, with continual input and active participation of Indigenous knowledge keepers. The land can teach us so much about our past, present and future.