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Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Cooking up culture

BY Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash Oct 11, 2019

Waswanipi community members gathered at Willie J. Happyjack High School September 24 for the inauguration of the new Sabtuan Culture Camp, a space where students will partake in traditional activities as a part of their curriculum.

The new, modernized sabtuan, an 18×6 metre wooden structure that cost $60,000, is built just outside the school. Educators, such as Cree language teacher Flora Otter who also taught culture for eight years, say the new space will help them teach in a more culturally appropriate way.

“When the new vice-principal came, I told him: ‘We cannot teach Cree culture in the school, as we need to show them how to cook beaver or goose on an open fire. We cannot just put that in the oven, because it is not Cree culture’,” said Otter.

Having this new sabtuan is also convenient for the students, said Cree culture teacher Louis Saganash. “I asked the school if we were going to have our own cabin because we had to go back and forth to the elementary school,” he said. “Now, here it is and I’m happy.”

There was a several-month process behind the project. After planning sessions, help from the Cree School Board and support from the federal New Paths for Education program, the sabtuan came to life, said school principal Judith Michel.

Michel also emphases the fact that some students do not have access to their culture at home for various reasons. “Being able to offer the students a space where they can connect with their culture and values to me is very important,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure this is all accessible to them.”

Vice-principal Robert Laperle mentioned the importance of such projects in a post-residential school era. Many remember that not too long ago, teaching Cree culture in a setting that resembles our traditions would not have been possible.

Asked what she thinks it takes to ensure that this initiative keeps going in the community, Otter responded: “All community members should contribute, not just Cree culture teachers. Everybody who goes hunting can donate food so we can teach students how to fix a beaver or how to cut up a moose.”

It really does take a village.

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Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash is Cree from Waswanipi, and is the Nation’s newest columnist. She is an activist and writer who also has a regular column in Montreal’s French Metro Newspaper.