Arts and Culture

'We Challenge All of You to Be Dangerous, Be Educated'

UBC event celebrates Indigenous achievements in arts, education.

By Katie Hyslop 15 Apr 2013 |

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Git Hayetsk Dancers co-founder Mike Dangeli: 'We are not surviving, we are thriving.'

Before the Git Hayetsk Dancers launched into a rousing performance of a traditional Git Hayetsk war victory song, co-founder Mike Dangeli told the hundreds of people packed into the Chan Centre on Saturday night for the University of British Columbia's Celebration of Indigenous Education & Arts what his grandfather told him growing up: "There's nothing more dangerous than an Indian with an education."

He added: "We challenge you as a dance group, challenge all of you to be dangerous, be educated. Not just in education, but within our traditions, within who we are as human beings: be dangerous."

Dangeli's words set the tone for the evening, not as a threat, but as an inspirational display of culture, education and artistic talent marking the University of British Columbia's (UBC) signature event in the Faculty of Education's "Year of Indigenous Education."

The evening, one of over two dozen indigenous education events held by the faculty since September, attracted hundreds of people including 400 grade school and post-secondary students, with a showcase of indigenous education programs happening all over the province; indigenous artists as diverse as the nations they hailed from; and of intergenerational learning happening all over B.C. and across Canada.

"I notice that many of you were wearing the stars this evening," Jo-Ann Archibald (Q'um Q'um Xiiem), UBC's associate dean of indigenous education, told the audience, referencing the yellow star "Year of Indigenous Education" buttons handed out to the audience before the show began.

"And we had hoped (tonight) that we would recognize the star that's in each one of us, and that we would join these stars together."

As Dangeli said of indigenous people, again producing one of most poignant quotes of the evening: "We are not surviving, we are thriving."

Considering the balance in indigenous education

xwmuthkwey'um (Musqueam) elder Larry Grant, an adjunct professor at UBC's First Nations House of Learning, opened the event by welcoming the audience and telling them his ancestors, who have lived in the area for 10,000 years, had also welcomed the Spanish and English when they first arrived hundreds of years ago.

"They greeted them and welcomed them and began a relationship that helped to create what we call Canada today. It may not be as wonderful as it sounds, but that's when it began the relationships," he said.

"And we have this today: our relationship in education, where we are having our young people carry out our cultural traditions and learning and expanding the knowledge of the surrounding communities through the performing arts that we have in our cultures."

The evening showcased three indigenous education programs through short videos. The first was about the Chief Atahm indigenous language immersion school in Chase, B.C. Run by Secwepemc parents and educators, the school offers its own curriculum based on Secwepemc language, culture and histories.

In the film, school co-founder Kathy Michel highlighted the importance of teaching children their language and culture, as well as the questions the school faces in balancing a traditional education with more Eurocentric learning expectations.

"How do we build a Secwepemc education program that understands where our compromise exists, but also contains what we are as Secwepemc people?" she asked.

"The literacy and the numeracy and all of those other things that we tie into a modern existence ... they're going to come and they will happen. Is there a balance between the two ideas? And there's the question of is a balance a sellout? Is the balance a compromise, and what feels like balance to us?"

Video presenters Christine Seymour, herself an indigenous language educator with the Abbotsford School District, and her father Stephen Point (Xwĕ lī qwĕ lĕtl), B.C.'s first Aboriginal lieutenant governor, thanked Chief Atahm for the work they did to preserve and spread their language after decades of language suppression and eradication.

But Point added more work must to be done to keep indigenous languages alive in B.C.

"Indigenous languages need to become more prominent in education. Just look at the positive impact when that happens," he said.

"Just remember that action starts with one person, one family, and one community."

No one race has monopoly on brains

UBC's homegrown indigenous education example was the Native Indian Teacher Education Program or NITEP, which celebrates 38 years of training indigenous people to be educators this year.

Along with her son Joe Pierre, a teacher in the South East Kootenay School District, Sophie Pierre, chief commissioner of the BC Treaty Commission, related the program to the story of the Raven giving the sun to humans.

"The early educators who started NITEP were visionaries, there really isn't any other way to describe them other than visionaries. They knew that indigenous teachers would fulfil the Raven's story that guides NITEP, where Raven brought the sun to the people who were living in darkness," she said.

"Indigenous teachers are like the sun, making life varied through quality education. Indigenous teachers make significant contributions, not just as teachers, but also as role models in helping develop curriculum and in working with various groups that they're invited to."

It's a program that meant a lot to alumni Fiona LaPorte, the first teacher at the Aboriginal Focus School in the Vancouver School District, the final program to be highlighted.

"I'm very hopeful for the future of all children, especially indigenous children. I thank those that came before me for creating an educational pathway that would lead me to where I teach today in a school where identity, culture and values can flourish. How exciting is that?" she asked the audience.

The school opened in Sir William MacDonald Elementary in September 2012 with 16 Kindergarten to Grade 3 students. In the short video, LaPorte and Principal Vonnie Huntchinson highlighted the benefits of offering "culturally responsive education."

"It's really important that the students identities and selves are reflected in the material that they're learning. Because if you don't feel that you're connected to what you're learning, you're not going to be able to absorb it or take it in," said LaPorte.

Hutchinson adds, however, this isn't a problem at their school: "Here, one of the first things I've noticed is that all of the children know who they are," she said.

"We know that there isn't a race or a group of people on the face of the earth that has the monopoly on brains. Our children can do it, and they will do it."

Elders getting into hip hop

The spotlight was shone on indigenous arts through the evening's partnership with Full Circle First Nations Performance, with founder Margo Kane serving as MC and comic relief during the night.

Kane, an award-winning actress also known for bringing the annual Talking Stick Festival to Vancouver for the past 12 years, hosted in the character of an elder woman who was often trying to prove she was "hip with the kids" -- but the diversity of young artists Kane brought proved her real understanding of youth indigenous culture today.

Three traditional dance groups, a pop singer, a family-folk band, a grunge rocker, a classically trained cellist and several hip-hop MCs graced the stage, interpreting their culture and histories through traditional forms of art and a seamless blending of musical genres.

"The arts are so vital to the development of our peoples," Kane said towards the end of the evening.

"I always believe that artists also belong in the circle of the society, along with the healers and the doctors, along with the teachers and the educators, along with all those people who take care of the people, the community -- that's where our artists belong as well. They show us through their creativity and their artistry how beautiful life can be."

Hip hop had the biggest presence at the show, with half a dozen hip-hop MCs spitting rhymes about the struggles their people have faced, from missionaries and residential schools, to reserves, language eradication, and loss of identity.

After the show, rapper and radio host Ostwelve explained to The Tyee the strong similarities between hip hop's origins and the realities of today's indigenous youth.

"We're basically urban youth now, with a cultural disconnect, and that's how hip hop was formed was by African American and Puerto Rican youth in the ghetto, disconnected from culture and having to rebuild," he said.

"And so hip hop is kind of the same thing, and it just speaks to struggle, and it speaks to that energy of being able to express ourselves."

But while hip hop might not have found a space at an event like this 10 years ago, Ostwelve says the older generations are getting beyond gangster stereotypes and recognizing hip hop as a legitimate form of indigenous artistic expression.

"A lot of the elders are now speaking to us in the hip-hop generation, and sharing that connection," he said, "I think they're finally now understanding what it could be used for. I do a lot of hip-hop programming, youth programming out in the prairies... and we always have elders on hand as well to do the connection. So it's a work in progress."

Learning from and through the generations

In addition to the indigenous focus, inter-generational learning was the connecting theme of the evening, from elders recognizing and celebrating the work of the youth both in arts and education, to the youth thanking and praising their elders for teaching them their culture and histories.

Many artists were influenced by their ancestors, from MC Christie Lee Charlie's shout outs to her direct relative, Musqueam Chief Joe Capilano; to the Iskwew Singers bringing out one of their mothers to perform with them; to the Git Hayetsk Dancers' reimagining of a traditional Git Hayetsk song with original masks and choreography.

Russell Wallace and Tzo'kam, an extended family of Stl'atl'imx or Lil'wat folk singers, attributed their final number, "The Gathering Song," to Wallace's mother, a residential school survivor.

"It is actually a traditional song from our territory, which is really, really old. My mom learned it while she was in residential school. It's become one of those songs of resistance because they would go out to the playgrounds and teach each other songs way, far away from the nuns, far away from the school," Wallace told the audience.

Christine Seymour, who introduced the Chief Atahm video with her father, told The Tyee that inter-generational learning isn't just a matter of learning from your elders: the youth have something to teach us, as well.

"I realized that young people end up being just as much of our teachers. I think it's sort of a reflection of what our people have been through," she said.

"We're coming through this residential experience, and our people are learning our ways culturally, learning our ways even as far as raising our children again, and things like grieving, and I think that my kids have been just as much my teachers as well."

Watch an earlier performance of the Git Hayetsk Dancers:

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