Learning about the Treaties and Indigenous culture is an important part of the educational curriculum in Saskatchewan. Over the years, Wadena Elementary School has welcomed First Nations and Métis visitors from around the province to share traditional teachings. “They have opened up the inquisitiveness of students to First Nations perspectives, but visits provided an Indigenous worldview that is not local to the area. We need to provide that next phase for our students in understanding our neighbours. We want to foster a mutual understanding through the Saulteaux-Ojibway arts and traditional teachings,” says Miles Johnson, principal.

With the help of an Artists in Schools grant, they invited Elders and artists from nearby Fishing Lake First Nation, where a number of their students live, into the school. The goals were to improve the self-identity of First Nations students, to promote an appreciation and understanding of Saulteaux-Ojibway cultures and to improve learning of localized Indigenous curriculum content. Teachings included storytelling, drumming, dancing and visual art.

The Elders and artists visited for three days each month from January to May. January was about the circle of life, colours, songs, drumming and dancing. February was storytelling month. March focused on visual arts, including making dreamcatchers and paintings. April was child-rearing month, with teachings on moss bags, beading and blankets. May focused on the environment, creation and Mother Earth. 

The project culminated in a cultural showcase on National Aboriginal Day in June. Students helped the Elders erect a teepee outside the school and held a mini-powwow in the gym that was well-attended by the community. 

Johnson noticed a change in the students during the project. “We have several First Nations students that really came out of their shells in this project, because it was a chance for them to shine. They had a sense of pride,” he says. “Learning about it in the classroom is great, but that hands-on, boots-on-the-ground learning is so impactful.”

He also saw a transformation in the Elders and artists. “At first, some of them weren’t comfortable presenting to that size of a crowd of students. We saw some real growth in terms of their comfort level and willingness to share with kids,” he says.

Students have been asking Johnson about when they’re going to do the project again. “It definitely had a lasting impact on both our students and our staff,” he says. “It has been a tool about reconciliation and healing. It’s not about building a wall but building a bridge.”

Artists in Schools is a Saskatchewan Arts Board program supported by funding from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, SaskCulture Inc. through the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation, and the Government of Saskatchewan through the Ministry of Education.



Top: Wadena Elementary School students with Elders from Fishing Lake First Nation

Middle: Drum-making

Bottom: Mrs. Harvey's class and their dreamcatchers

Photos courtesy of Wadena Elementary School