A school day for six-year-old Hunter Sasakamoose can start with lighting a fire for breakfast and end with doing math by candlelight.
In between, the boy learns life skills such as hunting and fishing, as well as first-hand science lessons about how rain soaks into the ground to help grow the plants he’s harvesting.
His education combines lessons from his ancestors on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation in Saskatchewan with the curriculum of his peers in Regina, where he goes to school half the year.
He’s taking part in land-based learning and his mother, JoLee Sasakamoose, is his teacher.
“We have this ability to just live and have the school be a part of how we are living,” she said.
“The lessons evolved really naturally.”
Sasakamoose, an education professor at the University of Regina and research director with the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, grew up with land-based learning on the M’Chigeeng First Nation in Ontario. Those lessons have influenced her work as a professor and how she is raising her child.
Hunter was enrolled in Prairie Sky School – a Waldorf-style school with a focus on art, community and nature – but when Sasakamoose was on sabbatical from her teaching position, she wanted to bring education onto the land where her son’s relatives have always found their teachings.
It meant a unique style of home-schooling in a cabin with no electricity or running water, about 400 kilometres north of Regina.
Land-based learning has always been a part of First Nations culture. It encourages critical thought through interaction with the land, an understanding of nature and its relation to science – all the while connecting with and celebrating Indigenous culture.
In Winnipeg, three schools created a land-based education initiative for the 2016-17 school year. In Saskatchewan, the Treaty 4 Education Alliance brought in land-based education programs in 2017.
The Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in Yellowknife has offered university credits for land-based programming since 2010.
Kate Kent, who recently organized a land-based education conference in Winnipeg, said schools and educators are incorporating such learning into curriculums since the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. Many of the commission’s 94 recommendations focused on education, culture and language.
“There’s so much inter-generational effects from residential school, so looking at reconciliation and moving forward, this is taking steps to try and fix what was done in the past,” Kent said.
“It’s important for our young people to learn on the land, instead of sitting in the classrooms for eight hours a day, in order to bring the cultural awareness back into our peoples.”
Sasakamoose said it was important for her son to learn outside of an institutional environment because they are descendents of residential school survivors.
“We have it in our bloodline,” she said.
“I don’t want my son to know that (type of education.) I want him to know a natural way of interacting with the environment as long as possible.”
Hunter has now returned to his Regina school, where all the other students were excited to hear about his land-based learning, which he shared on a special Facebook page he created when it began in July.
In one of his last posts from Ahtahkakoop, the young boy points to thoughtfully laid out logs, rocks and leaves. It’s part of STEAM teaching – science, technology, engineering, art and math – where he was required to build a fairy house.
“This is my fairy house,” he said with a beaming smile, pointing to different areas. “This is the sitting area with the rain log so the rain drips down and so it doesn’t hit you in the face.”