Elder teaches Secwepemc

Embracing diversity: First Nations culture becoming an integral part of school curriculum.

Language shared: Shuswap elder Lucy Williams teaches the Shuswap language to a group of kindergarten/Grade one students at Salmon Arm West Elementary.

One half is getting to know the other half – and learning a new language in the process.

Salmon Arm West students from kindergarten to Grade 5 are learning the Secwepemc (Shuswap) language, along with aspects of the rich First Nations culture.

Principal Jodi Garries says the student population at Salmon Arm West is 85 students, of whom about 45 per cent are native.

Garries met with teachers individually to make sure they and parents were onboard with the new program whose content varies depending on the age of the student.

“We sent a letter home to parents explaining about this amazing opportunity to learn a new language,” she says with enthusiasm, noting Shuswap elder Lucy Williams has taught for many years at the Adams Lake Band’s Chief Atahm School. “She goes in and gets the kids up and moving, as well as listening and speaking.”

Garries says Williams uses the TPR method (Total Physical Response) with the little ones, which involves them in words and ideas that are of interest to them. By grades 4-5, students are learning more.

“It becomes a bit more challenging; they’re doing more conversational things – ‘stand up, turn left,’” she says, of the program that helps integrate the students. “What it accomplishes is a broader understanding of culture. It’s not just about the bannock anymore,  it’s not just one special day now.”

Garries remembers earlier in her career when First Nations Day amounted to eating native  food and playing a few games.

Not only is the program interesting and challenging, it is a way of restoring pride to a people whose culture was denigrated for many years.

“If the First Nations kids know her (Williams), they are proud,” says Garries, pointing out the importance of integrating the cultures. “It’s become what we do, who we are. It’s going well and staff are very supportive.”

School District #83 principal of aboriginal Education Irene LaBoucane is also pleased with the new program.

“The why is because it is part of our aboriginal enhancement agreement to celebrate the language and culture of this Secwepemc territory,” she says, noting Williams will help reach one of the goals of the agreement, which is to teach the Shuswap language to the younger generation. “I feel we’re moving ahead. In this new agreement, we’re going to make great strides.”

One of the main goals of the recently signed agreement between First Nations, the province and School District #83 is to put a greater emphasis on academics so more native students leave school with their Dogwood Certificate. Another goal is to introduce dual- language signs in all Shuswap schools.

LaBoucane says First Nations rooms in District #83 schools attract many non-aboriginal students and each of the middle and senior schools have blocks of time devoted to enhancing the success of aboriginal students.

Some schools already have elders in residence, says LaBoucane, who notes Williams is not just teaching language at Salmon Arm West, she’s there as an elder, available to students and staff.

“It shows the progression, the evolution of the forward thinking of the First Nations education council, to drop the frilly stuff for hard science and math,” she says. “We’re hopeful of having an aboriginal teacher to teach aboriginal content in the curriculum. Rather than us doing it for them, we want to move forward to them building capacity so we can do it together.”


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