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March 1999

Native Culture
Meets the City

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Aboriginal Festival Draws Thousands
to Toronto’s SkyDome

A hands-on experience for elementary students helped shed stereotypes about teepees and how modern-day natives live as the new millennium approaches. But native culture also has deep and very powerful roots, as 9,000 Toronto-area children discovered at the aboriginal education day.

By Wendy Harris

The hypnotic drumming and soaring native song filled the SkyDome — filled it to the roof high above and echoed off empty balconies. On the playing field, native dancers swirled to the music, their arms and legs carving ancient patterns in the air. Around the dancers sat thousands of children, entranced by the intricate costumes and sheer energy of what they saw and heard.

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 Canada’s 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. "There’s such a lot of visual stuff here. Eighty-nine per cent of what we learn comes through our eyes so it’s a good place to start ... I’m 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 elder’s 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.

Palko’s 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, there’s a man’s face. Here’s an eye of a woman. It’s just sort of dangerous. It’s like a cat and a woman in one."


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 can’t teach them everything in a day," he said. "But if you can teach a child the desire to learn, they don’t need a teacher. It’s 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 we’re people and that under the skin, we’re no different."


Nobody highlighted the cultural differences more articulately than the three First Nations Elders who were on hand to answer children’s 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 I’ve done with them are about harmony with nature and a respect for all living things. That’s what I’d 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 field.

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 questions asked.


"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 else."

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 don’t recognize them.

Edwards said many of her multicultural students have never even heard of Canada’s 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. "They’re not sure they’re 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 festival’s 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."

Preparing for 1999

Feedback from the festival’s education day has been swift and overwhelmingly positive, says co-ordinator Ron Roberts. Plans are already in the works with the OTF and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation for next year.

Roberts says he is anticipating a close working relationship with teachers during the coming months to ensure they have more input into next year’s programming and to help tailor the day so it closely responds to curriculum needs. "We’ll concentrate more on history and the contribution of aboriginals to society," he says.

About 5,000 children were expected to attend this year. When more than 9,000 showed up there was some congestion, particularly at the hands-on exhibits. For example, many students clamoured to get into the craft tent, only to be turned away because they couldn’t be accommodated. All those wrinkles, says Roberts, will be ironed out for 1999’s Canadian Aboriginal Festival.