Then the music stopped. The dancers scanned the crowd for volunteers to join in.
Hundreds of hands started waving wildly. "Pick me, pick me," their upturned
faces seemed to say. "I want to dance. I want to climb out of my cross-legged crouch,
leap onto the playing field, feel that drumbeat and dance."
Amber was different than the others. She sat quietly, looking intently at the young
native dancer pacing back and forth in front of the audience trying to decide who to pick.
Meanwhile, her Grade 6 friends pointed boisterously at her head, repeating her name over
and over. The campaign worked the dancer reached out her hand to Amber and the two
climbed over the rope onto the field. The drum pounded once again, native voices rose in
song and they danced.
Amber was one of about 9,000 Toronto-area students who participated in the first-ever
education day at the Canadian Aboriginal Festival on November 20. Co-sponsored by the
Ontario Teachers Federation, education day was a dynamic entry point for teachers to
either begin or continue a discussion with their students about Canadas First
Nations and their role in our society and collective history.
"This is a real jump-off for our native studies unit," said Bonnie Palko, a
Grade 6 teacher at Fern Avenue Public School. "Theres such a lot of visual
stuff here. Eighty-nine per cent of what we learn comes through our eyes so its a
good place to start ... Im a big advocate of things we experience and hear and do
rather than what is written or spoken."
Engulfed as they were in a riot of song, dance, stories, visual art and music, there
was no shortage of direct experience here. Different portions of the stadium were cordoned
off for dancing, for lacrosse, art exhibits, hands-on crafts, a theatrical performance and
an elders area. A large section of the field was devoted to about 200 craft booths,
where native craftspeople demonstrated craft techniques and sold their wares. Food stands
ringed another part of the field selling traditional fare like fried bread, corn soup,
strawberry juice and Indian chili.
Palkos students started their day by sketching all the symbols of native life
they could find on costumes, drums, works of art, wherever. "They are just,
like, very cool," said 11-year-old Veronica, showing off her sheet filled with
animals, feathers and moons. "This is sort of like a sun, except instead of just
being a sun, theres a mans face. Heres an eye of a woman. Its just
sort of dangerous. Its like a cat and a woman in one."
YEARS IN THE MAKING
Festival co-ordinator Ron Roberts said the idea of providing an educational component
to the festival has been germinating for years. After encountering dozens of teachers
anxious to make direct connections for their students between natives who live in the
pages of textbooks and the real people living now, he became convinced that the only way
to break down the barriers was to talk directly to the young people themselves. Once he
joined up with the OTF, education day became a fait accompli.
"We know we cant teach them everything in a day," he said. "But if
you can teach a child the desire to learn, they dont need a teacher. Its so
important to teach. I think it is the noblest of professions."
Roberts said he wants children to be tantalized by how culturally different native
peoples are. But at the same time, he wants them to recognize their humanity and how they
are alike in so many ways. "They just need to know were people and that under
the skin, were no different."
Nobody highlighted the cultural differences more articulately than the three First
Nations Elders who were on hand to answer childrens questions and teach them about
the deeply-rooted traditions of healing, spirituality and respect for the environment.
"I want to say to you that when we come into this life, we come in with a
responsibility to look after all things Mother Earth, Air, Wind, Water and
Fire," Janice Longboat, a Cayuga national from Six Nations told the children.
Asked about tobacco, Sara Smith, a Mohawk from Six Nations carefully explained that it
was never meant to be inhaled and is a sacred substance for native peoples. "When we
burn it, it is an instant connection to the Creator ... Giving tobacco to each other is
like a contract."
Teacher David DePoe chose a story based on the oral teachings of the Elders to
introduce his Grades 4 and 5 students at Wilkinson Public School to learning about First
Nations. "The stories Ive done with them are about harmony with nature and a
respect for all living things. Thats what Id like them to take with them ... I
want them to have a sense of respect for the native people and to realize that they are
the original people."
DePoe spent a year writing culturally appropriate materials for schools and is keenly
attuned to the spiritual roots and aspirations of native peoples. At the SkyDome, however,
he was most intent on getting one of his students chosen to dance so he or she could
demonstrate the round dance they had worked so hard on in their classroom. Such luck was
not to be. Too many kids with similar hopes competing for too few spots on the dance
Native dance is like that, said Six Nations dancer Brian General. With the first
pounding of the rhythmic drum, it invites people to shed inhibitions and reconnect with
their own spiritual foundations and with the community as a whole. General has been
traveling to schools for years taking the messages of native dance with him to teach to
children. He said lately, he has noticed a real difference in the depth and quality of
"When I started performing in schools, I ran into a lot of Hollywood thinking. One
teacher had even said that native people were extinct ... Now, they ask very articulate
questions." General admits to the difficulty posed by presenting the traditional
heritage right alongside the idea that native peoples live among us in modern society.
"People think we still live in teepees or longhouses. We evolve just like everybody
Maureen Edwards, a Grade 4 teacher at Pringdale Gardens Public School, is acutely aware
of the fine balance between presenting natives in a historical context and as the living,
breathing people they are. A Manitoba native who taught in northern, largely native
schools in that province for three years, Edwards said the difficulty is particularly
great in a city like Toronto. Her students rarely, if ever, encounter native people in
their neighbourhoods, or if they do, they dont recognize them.
Edwards said many of her multicultural students have never even heard of Canadas
First Nations, let alone seen them. But she said her Sri Lankan or East Indian kids can
relate by looking at their own indigenous customs. "Theyre not sure
theyre real. I try to make them aware that the native people were here first."
As Edwards spoke, nine-year-old Zerlasht, one of her students, returned from a stint of
playing lacrosse on the field. "I just wanted to try to use that stick," she
said. "It was kind of hard to use. It was big and heavy. But I thought it was
interesting. I liked it best when they were jumping and the noises they made."
Lacrosse is a striking metaphor for what the festivals education day was trying
to accomplish. The game builds teamwork and communication skills, said Six Nations
lacrosse teacher Kevin Sandy. "It is a game that was given to us by our Creator. It
has great spiritual significance." But for now, he said, he just wants the kids to
have fun and learn a little. "All the rest can wait."