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The first sound that greets you as you walk down the hall to the classroom is laughter. Giggles bounce off the doorframe, skittering down the corridor, until you find yourself smiling too. The sign outside reads “Alliance Pipeline’s Young Women’s Circle of Leadership” and, inside, over a dozen heads are bent intently over their work.
Fingers carefully thread tiny coloured beads into bits of felt and, almost by magic, the shape of a turtle emerges. There is a sense of purpose here, of shared intent, and it is a little like stumbling upon a family’s quiet time. One of the younger girls walks over to an older woman, her turtle a tangle of threads, and asks for help. Patiently, the older woman, Ivy Houle, takes the felt and begins to undo the threads. All the while, she murmurs to the younger ones in English and in Cree. The Cree words fall gentle, rolling a little like small stones and skipping over a sea of sounds, warm and unfamiliar.
She explains that the turtle is supposed to have thirteen beads in the middle, which represents the turtle’s shell and the thirteen moons in a given year. As the story goes, before the Earth existed, there was only water. One day, Sky Woman fell from the sky and, as she could not live in water, dirt and earth were placed upon the Turtle’s back to carry. From there Earth grew and became Turtle Island (or present-day North America). As Ivy tells the story, heads look up and smile, nodding as she goes. They have heard this story before, just this morning in fact, yet it takes a new shape every time it is told.
Perhaps the same could be said for this classroom and this program.
The Alliance Pipeline’s Young Women’s Circle of Leadership (APYWCL), now in its fourth year, is a day-camp program for young Aboriginal women ages 12-18. This year APYWCL takes place from July 9th to July 18th, Monday to Friday, with fifteen participants and a number of Elders and instructors. Each day, participants are immersed in Cree language and cultural activities involving leadership, drama, physical activities and computer technologies. The goal is to provide a space where young women can develop leadership skills, new friendships, and the values of respect and responsibility in a culturally affirming manner. One of the founders of APYWCL, Dr. Heather Blair, explains that the program “allows young Indigenous women to ground themselves in two worlds – the historical/cultural world and the modern/current world. They have a foot in both.”
In the mornings, participants learn the Cree language and traditional values from an Elder. As Ivy, an Elder and Cree language instructor with the program, frames it: “It is important that we know where we come from, that we understand our belief systems, traditions, language and spirituality. It keeps our roots grounded.” In the afternoons, the participants focus on leadership skills. For example, students have the opportunity to practice their 21st century literacy skills by creating websites and discussing the concepts behind digital citizenship. They also learn the value of story-telling through drama with Maureen Belanger, a talented Aboriginal performer.
The response from the participants has been very positive. As young Jasmine, age 11, exclaims, “I’ve been coming for three years now and made lots of friends. I love the fieldtrips and we sing and do prayers in Cree and we get to perform at the banquet in the end!”
The goal of the APYWCL extends not just to acquainting young Aboriginal women with their cultural and modern worlds but to seamlessly incorporating the two. The program’s coordinator, Shelby Laframboise-Helgeson, also hopes that the young women who take part will be able to imagine for themselves a world that grows bigger with possibilities. “Through knowing themselves and their language, there is freedom. I hope they will be able to see themselves on a university campus when they’re young so that the idea stays with them when they’re in grade 12 and about to graduate. To have them believe that their voice, if it is heard here in youth, will be heard here in their adulthood.”
Based on the students’ smiles and the gentle determination of their teachers, it is a hope that will stay alive long after their laughter has faded from the halls.
A Meeting of Minds
The APYWCL program was created by the CILLDI Institute, a tri-Faculty initiative at the University of Alberta, involving the Faculties of Arts, Education and Native Studies. CILLDI, which has been in operation since 2000, is committed to the revitalization of Canada's Indigenous languages through language documentation, teaching and literacy. CILLDI runs a Summer School program tailored to adult learners alongside its offshoot, APYWCL, from July 9-18th.