The first meeting with Principal Lesa Williams George at Broadacres Junior School was filled with laughter and good coffee. Gloria, Lesa, Marilyn and I talked about what our next dream project would be.
What would be an amazing project to bring Aboriginal and Non Aboriginal students together in a good way? How would we create something that would keep the cycle of understanding spinning long after the creation was made?
After much consultation and thinking, we came up with the idea of works of art inspired by Dream Catchers. These would be made by kids and auctioned for funding towards arts programs for MORE kids. But it goes further.
There would be a Teaching about Dream Catchers, along with a kind of primer for these grade four students about Aboriginal life.
These works of art would be infused with a WISH by the maker, as a gift for the receiver. So, once this work of art is passed from one hand to another, the wish goes with it.
Each “Gift” would be unique and beautiful. There would be a lesson on how to weave the materials together, and they will adorn our tables at the Leadership Gala celebrating our student Leaders and Cultural Leadership Award recipient Right Honourable Paul Martin.
Our dream is coming true.
Day One, Introduction
We started with a Circle. Gloria and I talked about what the Circle means to Aboriginal Peoples and its universal significance to people all over the world. We talked about how we are all connected, to each other and every creature on this planet. I introduced my drum, told the story of how I came to receive it and paint it and what it means to me. I sang a welcoming song about the Circle and they sang with me. Gloria shared her story of how her people (Chippewa) see the Dream Catcher and that it is sacred. That Dream Catchers made by Aboriginal People are special, and should not be appropriated for commercial use.
Then we got to work. Out came the frames. They were placed in the centre of our Circle, and one by one, a grapevine frame was chosen by a student who closed his or her eyes. The frame met its hand, and off we went. We had sinew, beads, feathers and suggested that the student find something they’d like to add of their own choosing. A pebble, a piece of driftwood, a bead – something from the heart.
They picked up on the weaving very quickly. The afternoon fled. Too soon the school busses were there to take them home. We left them with their work and asked them to think about what their wish would be. Something for the receiver, for kids like themselves who don’t have what they have. The idea of being grateful for what you have and having empathy for others being woven into a work of art isn’t new. But it’s a great way to start these kids down a good road and understanding of the First Peoples who were here on Turtle Island for millennia.
Day Two, Deeper Listening
Our Circle was enriched by the presence of Tanya Senk, Coordinator of the TDSB’s Aboriginal Program, and Ryerson’s Traditional Counsellor, Elder Ed Sackaney. Tanya talked with them more about traditional values and Elder Ed talked further about the students’ work. He commended them on their beautiful pieces, and talked about what each join in the web meant, how good thoughts go into these works. He said that he got a good feeling holding them in his hands. He talked a bit about his life in Fort Albany, and they saw where it was on the map. He answered the most astute questions from the students.
“Are there good people and bad people?” We got into a deep discussion of what makes “good” people – generous, caring, thoughtfulness…and we asked them what makes a “bad” person. Their answers shouldn’t surprise me, but they always do. I learn once again never to underestimate the innate understanding of young people. “They may have been hurt, and they’ve gone the wrong way.” “They may want power, and use that power to make them feel stronger or better than other people” “They may be angry, and don’t know how to think”
Ed explained something that resonates to all of us. “We are all born with anger. It’s not a bad thing. It can motivate us to do good things. It’s when we act out that anger in a destructive way that is wrong. So if you have anger, don’t be afraid of it. Just think about what makes you angry and use it in a good way.”
These young people are open, thoughtful human beings. It was an honour to be in a Circle with them. And the teachers in the room were all humbled by their heart-spoken words.
This is bigger than this room. This extends to others an understanding of what our students have about the world. Generosity of the heart is so important. It’s a reminder for all of us that we have so much, and that we have a responsibility to care for each other.
“What’s the significance of this?” Ed pointed at a big Teddy Bear that was slumped beside him.
“It’s our class mascot.” One of the students had donated it to the class.
“In my language, this is maskwa. Say it.”
They repeat the word. It sounds like mascot, but pronounced mash-qua “That means bear in Cree. Pretty cool, eh?”
The kids decided to call their bear Maskwa.
Tanya talked about words in the Michif, the Métis language. We say Hello in Mi’kmaq, Cree, Michif, and Ojibwe.
Elder Ed told us about the “Seven Grandmother Stories” as his Cree People call the “Seven Grandfather Teachings”. A good framework for living as good human beings: Love, Humility, Strength, Courage, Wisdom, Truth, Honesty, as they were represented in the students’ artwork. In our final Circle, he said, “I promise you, the weather will warm up. On a nice day, I would like to have a ceremony for these. Would you like that?”
The kids couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. We are going to have a special ceremony to bless these beautiful works. The kids will have their wishes written out and added to them. Another Circle. Another dream come true for DAREarts.
This is our dream, to bridge Aboriginal and non Aboriginal students in a peer teaching program. This is just the beginning. We hope to repeat this Circle in Urban Aboriginal communities, to help them extend their understanding to others, and to learn from others their understandings. To be Leaders in our communities. To see them working together on these works and send their wishes out to the world.
I had a tough time putting into words what this day meant to me, personally. I do know that these kids will look back at themselves today and think, “I like that person.”
Day Three, Finding the Words
The children had completed their works of art and now it was time to put all that thought into wishes. I had an opportunity to talk with the teachers about how it was going for the class. “There’s such a good feeling about this work.” Miss Sathmary was excited because this all fitted in with their Heritage Fair projects. The opportunity to think of other people and their world views lends itself to understanding all cultures. We worked in the computer room and the kids hunkered down and wrote what they wanted to go with their Dream Catcher inspired works of art.
“I wish for everyone in this world to find peace and to learn to trust one another.” – Aminah, age 10
“I wish that everyone has wisdom to take on their dream and I wish that they also have the gifts and courage to succeed in his/her dream.” – Stephen, age 9
“I wish that whoever gets this will always follow their dream. “- Rudaina, age 10
Thursday, May 2nd, these special gifts will adorn the tables of the 11th annual DAREarts Leadership Awards at The Arcadian Court in honour of the DAREarts Cultural Award Recipient, Rt. Hon. Paul Martin, and six amazing DAREarts teens who have overcome their own life challenges to become leaders. Each table’s patrons will bid towards a Gift and the proceeds will go towards DAREarts’ programming for more at-risk children. The gift of time: from the hands, from the heart.
Day Four, the Circle Doesn’t End
When Ed Sackaney offered to come and hold a special Ceremony for the DAREarts Dream Catcher Project, the kids couldn’t have known what an honour we were receiving. But on Friday, April 19th, the Circle in the gym at Broadacres was loaded with meaning. They had an inkling today. Their beautiful works were placed in front of them, tracing the basketball circle at centre court. Miss Sathmary’s class and volunteers Trish and Kristine wer sitting, waiting in solemn silence for the Ceremony to begin. The students’ and teachers’ respect and anticipation to learn more was palpable and commended by Elder Ed.
Among these important people (Ed and the kids), were Marilyn Field, founder of DAREarts, TDSB Broadacres Junior School Principal Lesa Williams-George, Senior Superindendent Chris Usih, TDSB Aboriginal Education Coordinator Tanya Senk and me, Cathy Elliott, Leader for Nee-tum-ochi-bek DAREarts First Roots Aboriginal Program. (Gloria Hope was conducting a mural painting workshop in Markham and couldn’t attend, but she was in our thoughts.) We joined the children in their Circle and Ed passed around two Eagle feathers.
The children respectfully looked at the feathers and passed them around the circle as we heard about the long life and cycles of an Eagle, what he represents, and why the eagle feather is so treasured in Aboriginal Traditions. “It’s like the Academy Award. It’s a big deal to have this given to you.” He brought out the sage and explained what the Smudge meant, how “it takes our prayers, or wishes up to who ever you call your Creator, God, Allah, whatever.” Tanya smudged every piece of art, and some of us smudged ourselves as well. I played my drum and thought about all of our kids. Native and non. North and south. East and west. These kids originate from all over the world. Today they were one nation. One Circle.
When we were finished the Smudge it was time for more gifting and thank you’s. Ed accepted his Wish Feather (a jeweled feather token) and told us he’ll put it in his Bundle and talk about this day whenever he has it in his hand. Principal Lesa gave a gift to the grade 4/5 teacher Miss Sathmary and we all thanked her for her time and coordination and enthusiasm. I explained what a tobacco tie was (it’s a small bundle of medicines wrapped in cloth) and presented it to our dignitaries. DAREarts presented a DVD containing a music video of a song written by the students of Webequie called Spirit of the North to Miss Sathmary’s class along with the lyrics so that they can sing along with fellow Canadians from a Northern Ontario First Nation.
We finished our Ceremony with a Round Dance. The kids placed their creations in the circle and we all danced around them, hands joined and smiles beaming. Six years ago, I danced in a circle like this for the first time in Webequie. Today, I drummed. Again, it’s hard to describe without tears of gratitude this opportunity for DAREarts and TDSB to help move us all forward to greater understanding and empathy, deep listening and thoughtful communication.
The wonderful Alan Dunlop was there on Friday to take these beautiful pictures. This is something we’ll all treasure forever. And the wishes will go into different hands, different hearts. They’ll be passed on to others, and the Circle will never end.