The Land Speaks through DAREarts Aboriginal Students
Welcome to the Ogoki Inn. DAREarts team Jeremy Proulx, Laura MacKinnon, Lee Pham and I (Cathy Elliott) have arrived. No internet. I’ll have to put this up on the blog when I get back to Toronto. The tv is controlled by a contractor who has his own satellite receiver and whatever he watches, we watch. You have to negotiate with other hotel residents for one of the two bathrooms and it’s wise to bring your own toilet paper. I ended up on a mattress next to the freezer in the basement one night a couple of years ago. It’s over crowded, there’s no privacy and noisy.
Which is normal for so many of our students in these tiny, remote communities.
There’s a new Principal and two new young teachers. Every time this happens, the kids slide in attendance a bit. The classes are small, but the kids who are in class still know what the DAREarts values are from our last visit in February. We get right down to business because there isn’t much time in the day allotted to our project. We have an after school session and the kids continue to work on their illustrations. Our project this week is a continuation of a story and poem the kids wrote last February, around Valentine’s Day. The kids will record the poem and vocal sound effects, which will be looped to make the sound track for their film. The message is an environmental one, with a cautionary note. Don’t mess with Mother Earth.
I had a chance to catch my breath while waiting for the truck that would take me back to the Ogoki airport. I got a call that our stuff that had been held in Webequie had arrived. I’d been living in the same clothes for two days. We had to leave most of our stuff in Webequie, allowed only to bring frozen food and medication and maybe a toothbrush. Everything has to be weighted and arranged in the plane for safety. Have you ever seen the tv show Arctic Air? One briefcase shifts and the plane goes down.
In Ogoki, you can hear your groceries arrive. The airplanes buzz overhead and you can pretty well tell what time it is by that, if the weather’s good.
If the weather’s bad, you might not get your groceries, because the plane won’t land.
If you get sick, really sick, your life could depend on that plane.
I found out I had an ear infection, complete with sore throat, stuffed sinuses and fever. I was afraid that I had the strep throat that had been going around in Webequie. (Laura was down with it for three days with a raging fever and nausea.) The nurse gave me antibiotics and Tylenol and assured me I wasn’t contagious. Then, day four I was in the school, and a different nurse pulled me into the staff room and rolled up my shirtsleeve. “Here, sign this.” I got my flu shot so fast I didn’t know it happened until I felt “just a mosquito bite.” Now, I’m recovering from two days of fever and a headache from the shot…or the infection… but hey. Instead of waiting in a line the shot came to me. And I still got to work!
There will be people from this house leaving on the plane, freeing up space. They’re busying themselves with packing, making plans for their time back home. Nurses, negotiators, prospectors, educators, contractors… Some of them fit in really well. They get involved with the community, make friends, go fishing, hunting…Some, not so much. They come up to northern communities like this, work hard all day, make money, go home for a few weeks and then come back. “The bad part of going home is knowing you’re coming back.”
The kids are making good progress with their pop-ups. They’re funny, ingenious, beautiful. They have moving parts that make the teachers laugh out loud. My favorite is the “diamond cutter” machine that has a little man which is replaced by a skeleton. The ground is made of a piece of packing material that looks just like mounds of dirt.
The students hear some of the tracks made from their recording and they continue to read the lines. I edit the soundscapes and the children’s hauntingly beautiful Ojibwe accents echo in my dreams. Jeremy guides them through the filming process, using flashlights for special effects. The result is a darkly whimsical portrayal of the Land as a living being under stress. Their movie, “The Land Speaks” will be presented to their community at the end of the week. We told them to take ownership of what they had done. This will always be theirs. When their movie is on YouTube, they should know that the world will see it. Their families will see it. Their friends will be inspired by what they’ve done.
One of the boys said, flatly, “No friends. Only cousins.”
On the way to the school show and feast, I saw a white dog that looks like mine, nestled in the long grass in front of his house. Next to him was a carcass. A fairly large mammal. I’m guessing another dog? Small caribou? Really big beaver? I took a picture and stepped closer, cautiously approaching the dog, explaining that I was just going to get…he rolled over and exposed his belly. I reached down and rubbed his nose. He looked me in the eye and I walked away, happy to have felt dog fur under my fingers.
“The Land Speaks” was presented and celebrated by the community at the school. Around thirty people came to see the film and meet us. We had pot-luck moose stew and bannock and rice that was made by community volunteers. They munched while we played the movie over and over because it was only around four minutes long. We also played older movies that had been done in previous years, featuring these kids’ older siblings and cousins.
Moose crashing through the woods
Branches breaking, Rivers snaking
Rain and rabbits marten snares and Owls eat snakes from branches
Wolves howling in the woods. Water and roots under the surface of
Trees, muskeg, heartbeat
Muskeg Heartbeat, muskeg heartbeat,
It’s rocky underneath
Can bedrock break? Can it be broken? Can they break it with the diamond pick-axes?
Splash in the water
Sturgeon, pickerel, trout, pike, Beavers and geese
That mouse is jumping
Rabbit fox jumping
Eagle watching, Thunder and lightning
That mouse is jumping in the grey wolf’s mouth
Strangers in our own land
Last night, the rez dogs started up barking and howling around eight o’clock. Then, suddenly they stopped. I walked out to the road to see if I could pick up a free wi-fi signal. I did, just enough to download some emails on my iPhone. I stood there, in the pitch dark, in the middle of the road. No worries of traffic. Then I heard a low, long growl to my left. I used my phone as a flashlight and calmly walked back to the hotel. There have been wolves wandering right into town here. More than likely it was that cute dog I chucked under the chin earlier.
Laura, Lee, Jeremy and I had ice tea and snacks with a teacher and the two nurses in the residence next door to this hotel.) They talked about their experiences here, their women’s circle, the fire pit at the back of the residence. They talked about the other northern communities they’d worked in, how fortunate they were to be practitioners with good pay. They really feel for the teachers up here. No union, about half the pay that teachers down south get, and no idea what they were getting themselves into.
The winter is closing in on the north. The conversation rolls around to loneliness. Isolation. Boredom. The expense of going south to visit families. The fear of failure. The lack of support and resources. The education system here gets about half of what kids in non-Aboriginal communities receive. Teachers last maybe a term, maybe a year. A councilor told us that one year, a kindergarten teacher looked at forty little kids who were jumping around and caught the plane out the next day. Some teachers go home for Christmas and just don’t come back. Don’t even give notice. They just…disappear.
Can we blame them for being unprepared for life on the rez? Some may say they should know better. They should know that these communities are isolated for most of the year, with maybe an ice road for part of the time in the winter. That everything is at least a day away. But they often don’t. They’re told things like, “Oh, there are five stores in Ogoki.” They picture a Sobey’s, a Walmart, a Shopper’s, and maybe a KFC or even a Dollar Store. They don’t come up with food. Or proper winter clothes. And they find out the “store” is maybe a shed with some chips and another one has milk. And the milk is seven bucks a quart. And that a loaf of bread is five dollars. The water isn’t safe to drink, so they have to drink and brush their teeth with bottled water. They can’t grasp the culture. They realize they’re foreigners. Any noble thought of making a difference goes out the window.
Which means that the kids have no continuity. No healthy relationship with anyone other than their families. No consistent proof that there are people from outside their community who believe in them. They leave their home to finish high school elsewhere, likely Thunder Bay or Geralton. Imagine a kid, age fifteen, little prepared for life in a place like Thunder Bay, living with a stranger. The other part of this dividing up of families is the lack of continuity for younger siblings at home. No big brother or sister to look up to. No slightly older family mentor. The fracturing of families continues, a generation after the residential schools have closed.
But there are the ones who stay. One teacher, Cindy, has been here for five years. She was going to come for a year as an Education Assistant and ended up filling in and teaching the grade eights. Even stepped in as Principal a couple of times. She thinks, well maybe this is my last year. She goes south for the summer. Then she packs her bags and returns. She gets involved in the community. She introduces herself to people. She organizes walks to the airport and back for the teachers and anyone who wants to walk with her. She talks with a twinkle in her eye about the students who give her things at the end of the year. They say to her, “You’re always giving us stuff.” So one of them gave her a rabbit snare. And she’s absolutely thrilled. How many teachers do you know get a gift like that?
One of the nurses said, “Hey. Why don’t you guys down south start up a “Love a Northern Teacher” campaign? Send them some cookies. Some cards of support. Maybe they’d stay longer.” Certainly something to consider. File this thought under great ideas, talk to the school board down here and start something.
I think, maybe Canada should give our Northern Teachers some support. Give these schools more money for books and training and technology so that our Aboriginal kids can have a chance when they leave their communities. Maybe Canada should think of Indigenous kids as their own, instead of someone who’s tuck away in never never land until that land reveals something of monetary value.
I’m on the plane. I’m reflecting on the kids in general in places like Ogoki Post. The little kids are so open. They ask questions. “Have you ever drove a four-wheeler?” They walk with you, and tell you their life stories. How their friend drowned in the river. How their dog got hit by a skidoo. (We had a dead puppy in a cardboard box on our front stoop a few years ago. Linda Carson, teacher extraordinaire, explained she didn’t want them to just throw it in the dump. She wanted to give it a proper farewell. Good thing it was winter. That box sat on the front stoop for four days until Linda got the chance to lay it out with some cedar and tobacco and a little good-bye in the woods.) The older kids, with a few exceptions, are shyer. They blurt things and when you ask them to repeat themselves, they reply with “Just kidding.” As if they don’t believe anyone like us would have an interest in what they are saying. They have so much to say. It’s when, at age fifteen (remember?), they’re expected to up and go to Thunder Bay to attend high school that they really have a challenge to be heard. They need more support to believe they have the right to share an opinion.
When DAREarts came here five years ago, the kids were really…angry. I mean, throw your chair in the corner angry. Swear in your face, hoodie up, ear-buds in, eyes to the floor angry. Grade seven and eight kids. Their teachers, fresh off the twin engine, were ashen. We had an opening circle and told them about ourselves, what our expectations were for the work, and how much fun could be had if they committed to the project. Writing a song. A story. Building puppets. Taking pictures. They looked at us like we had pickerel fins for ears. “This is stupid!” We waited patiently for the calm. It came. It always comes. That moment when a kid who doesn’t want to look uncool gets interested. Engaged. Then busy. The calm comes and goes. The pleas for respect can’t mean anything unless we show our respect for each other and them as human beings. Sometimes, in the middle of a great moment, an explosion happens. Then our team’s concerted effort to appeal to their sense of community is rewarded when they calm down again. That was the first year.
This past year, my mother fell ill in New Brunswick. The usual lack of reliable communication made a horrible situation worse. I tried to soldier on, keep up the good work, but my courage started to flag on the third day of our workshop. When the calm slipped away and the kids started ramping up to a feverish pitch, I had no recourse but to…sing.
It started under my breath and the song got louder. The kids stopped in their tracks and stared at me. Again with the pickerel. “What are you doing that for?” I explained that when I get nervous or upset or angry, I sing. It makes me feel better. “My mother may be dying.” The room got quiet. Then a little voice, a grade seven boy said, “ My Kookum died this morning.” We looked at each other. We spoke comforting words to each other. Empathy and loss make good glue. They were really kind to me from then on. They focussed on what was important. They made a YouTube Valentine movie to the world for me to post on my way to what turned out to be my mom’s funeral.
These are great kids. This is a caring community that needs the kind of support that makes a difference. There are more and more northern Aboriginal families moving to Thunder Bay to make a positive move in their lives. But these kids, surrounded by their families, could have a great start in their journeys if they just had more of the kinds of programs that organizations like DAREarts brings to them.
During this year’s showcase, the little kids came to see what was going on. The continuity of our visits surely must have a stabilizing effect on them, as outsiders who truly care about them. They looked at the artwork and played with it respectfully. They asked to see “That Raven movie again.” And watched their older siblings and cousins, who had gone out of the community to school, here on the screen. We were asked again and again by parents if we’re coming back.
Our answer is, as always, “If you want us to come back, of course we will.” And we always find a way. But in the meantime, the You Tube, the Facebook and Twitter all help us to stay connected. Both teachers and students. They connect with each other. DAREarts keeps coming back, year after year. We see those kids grow up. They become DAREarts mentors for other kids. The Seven Teachings and DAREarts Values mesh to make a pretty good map for learning and creating.
The only good thing about leaving the north is, we know we’ll be coming back.
-by Cathy Elliott, Mi’kmaq DAREarts First Roots Artist/Teacher