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Learning to ride dog sleds, hunt game and pick berries and medicine, students at White Bear First Nations are discovering the benefits of a land-based education

Garrick Schmidt of White Bear First Nations runs some of his dog-sledding team while teaching students at Cannington Lake, Saskatchewan, this past February.Photography by Tim Smith for The Globe and Mail

It is -20 Celsius, in the middle of a hard Prairie winter, as a group of Indigenous high school students prep their dog sled team to go out on the trail. The students have been working toward this day for months. First, they had to get to know – and become comfortable with – a team of 23 dogs, and the dogs had to become comfortable with them. Then they spent weeks training with them, learning to drive teams of 16 harnessed to ATVs.

Throughout the long training sessions, their teacher, Garrick Schmidt, always stood nearby, supervising, coaching and cheering them on.

Mr. Schmidt, who runs a dog sledding company and competes in races himself, is constantly training the students to deal with scenarios that may come up. What happens if a dog gets loose? What do you do if you go off course or if your gang lines get tangled up?

Getting 30 or so high school-aged students excited about going outside in temperatures that can reach -48 with a wind chill has not been easy. But here they are on this frigid day in February, with mitts and boots and full-body snowmobile suits, ready to tackle the trail.

“We are bringing the way of our life back,” Grade 10 student Leslie Lonethunder says.

It’s not long before he and the other youth are out on the trail on their own, while Mr. Schmidt looks on with pride.

Leslie Lonethunder runs a dog sled.

All of this is part of the first ever land-based education program on White Bear First Nations, a community of Nakoda, Dakoda, Cree and Saulteaux peoples in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Unlike typical outdoor education programs, which usually focus on physical fitness and non-cultural activities, Mr. Schmidt’s class explores Indigenous practices and traditions.

The program, which incorporates activities such as picking berries, harvesting traditional medicines, tanning hides and trapping, is not only helping Indigenous students get the credits they need to graduate, it is helping them embrace their traditional way of life.

Since starting the class, Mr. Schmidt says his students’ confidence levels have soared, behaviours have positively changed, they’re coming to school more, and the youth have a huge sense of pride and identity.

Mr. Schmidt hooks up some of his dogs to a sled. Before running this program at White Bear, he had a similar one at Ochapowace First Nation in southern Saskatchewan.

Shirley Kequahtooway spends time with the dogs and practices butchering a beaver with fellow high-school student Raya Nahbexie.

Students spend weeks training with the dogs in the Prairie cold, under Mr. Schmidt's guidance. 'I do it to ensure that these teachings are passed on in the right way,' he says.

Kevin Lewis, an assistant professor in curriculum studies at the University of Saskatchewan, has been certifying land-based educators for more than 20 years in northern Saskatchewan. He says the curriculum for courses like Mr. Schmidt’s comes from the rivers, the wind, the land and traditional teachings, and often reflects the spiritual side of Indigenous people. It is an authentic experience, with culture braided throughout the class activities. Education like this revitalizes an Indigenous way of living, he says. It helps instill an appreciation of lifelong learning and reinforces a sense of Indigenous identity.

The demise of traditional Indigenous practices is one of the painful consequences of the residential schools system, he says. Many young Indigenous people haven’t learned these traditions because the relatives who would’ve taught them were taken away from their families and forced to learn residential school curriculum.

One aspect of Indigenous culture that students in Mr. Schmidt’s class embrace is Oskapios teachings.

Oskapios is a Cree word for helper. It is an honour and privilege to be an Oskapios in Cree communities. It is a role the students take on, both in and out of the classroom. An Oskapios helps during ceremony, singings, or they’ll help keep a sacred fire going at a wake or a funeral. They are there to help any time someone needs them.

Mr. Schmidt, who is Nehiyaw and Michif and grew up in rural Saskatchewan, says the important and vital role that Oskapios hold within Indigenous communities was passed down to him by an elder.

Oskapios always put the community members, the lodges, the pipes, drums, singers and elders in front of themselves, he says. They are coachable and often have many different teachers and knowledge of the language the elders speak. ”To be an Oskapios is the most selfless act that a person can do. You’re not thinking of yourself.”

Mr. Schmidt holds one of his dogs.

The characteristics of being selfless and wanting to help the community are felt within the classroom. Since starting the program at White Bear, Mr. Schmidt has noticed that the older students are taking on more leadership roles in the class and out in the community. If a student is missing, they take time to teach their peers what they missed during class.

When asked what they would do if anybody was, for instance, stuck in a blizzard or needed assistance, Leslie Lonethunder quickly jumps in. “They would go out, and they would help. Each and every one of them, if anyone was stuck. That’s how all of us are being taught.”

“We’re deadly,” he says, and the whole class erupts in laughter.

Laughter is a big part of the course as well. “That is our medicine,” Leslie says. “That’s how we get along.”

At the beginning of the program, the students start out as “berry pickers” and then graduate to being hunters. Within Indigenous communities, this is a way of saying they started out not knowing a lot and eventually become highly competent out on the land. The class also gives students the opportunity to use their inherent treaty right to hunt, fish and trap on their traditional territory. “I think that’s the most important part with having this program. We’re not losing it, we’re slowly gaining it back,” Leslie says.

A highlight for the students was when they killed their first bull moose. This is a rite of passage for the young Indigenous hunters, who put tobacco down on the ground after the kill in honour of the moose giving its life.

Trevor Kequahtooway takes his turn to ride.

Learning these traditional practices “just feels right,” Grade 12 student Trevor Kequahtooway says. “It’s kind of like a calling. It transforms us.”

For him, the class has helped solidify his identity as an Indigenous man, in a world where he often feels negatively stereotyped for who he is.

He says it’s hard for Indigenous youth growing up with families who are affected by drugs or alcohol. Learning these new skills helps build confidence in each student.

“You come to school with these emotions. You have no one there to guide you, to mentor you, on a path, you know? You’re just lost.”

That is where Mr. Schmidt steps in. It wasn’t too long ago that he was an adolescent (he’s 31 now), and the students say that helps them identify with him more easily.

Before coming to White Bear First Nations to teach, he ran a similar program on Ochapowace First Nation in southern Saskatchewan. At White Bear, he developed the course curriculum specifically for his students, infusing culture and traditional knowledge every step of the way.

“Walking that good road, that sweet grass road, this is what it looks like,” Mr. Schmidt says. “To be able to see me ‘walk the walk,’ and set a good example for the class, and program? It helps them a lot to better understand.”

He says that he does this work for the youth, not for personal gratification.

“I do it to ensure that these teachings are passed on in the right way,” he says, so that one day they, too, can go and share these teachings, stories and experiences with their families and the future generations to come.

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