An innovative education program is introducing Squamish First Nation kids and their non-Native classmates to the richness of plant and animal life along the waterways of their lush corner of Coast Salish territory in British Columbia.
Last school year, 500 children in 24 classes from kindergarten to seventh grade learned about the life adventures of salmon, the magic of traditional medicinal plants and the duties of humans as stewards of the land and water.
The Squamish Rivers and Estuary Education program, a partnership between local schools, an environmental nonprofit and Squamish First Nation, provides a curriculum that incorporates the ancient aboriginal culture of the area. The program began in 2006 with eight classes from three schools participating.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time because the school board in Squamish had just had a meeting where they said our (First Nations) students were failing the science program miserably, right from elementary to high school,” said Linda Williams, membership services officer at Squamish First Nation. “The board and superintendent told the principals to do whatever it takes to get our students doing better in science.”
The program’s emphasis on outdoor, hands-on activities that bring science and environmental learning alive makes it extra enticing to students.
“They are really excited to get out of the classroom,” Williams said. “…First Nations people are really strong visual learners so that (outdoor education) strengthens the book learning.”
During the outdoor school, kids rotate among stations where they identify and release fish; plant grasses, shrubs and trees; map the shoreline; learn to recognize invasive plants; and sharpen their five senses.
The activities and the setting invite First Nations children take a leadership role in sharing with their classmates the unique knowledge about the land and water that has been handed down through their families for generations.
“Our children have been gillnet fishing with their parents and aunts and uncles, so when they are out in the field, they become the leaders,” said Randy Lewis, environmental coordinator for the Squamish First Nation.
“The non-Native kids study our traditions and go, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ And when our kids are out in the field, they become the explainers on the ground. They’re seeing their culture, they’re witnessing their knowledge being taught in the schools,” said Lewis, who is president of the Squamish River Watershed Society. “They’re not ashamed to be an Indian—they’re saying, ‘Yes, I’m an indigenous person.’”
Lewis has witnessed other intangible benefits stemming from the children’s exposure to the program. For example, when a biologist worked with one group, the kids asked about her salary, and were awed to learn she could make more than $1,000 a day as a consultant.
They listened with new interest as she told of the academic path— starting with math and science in grade school—that positioned her for such a career. “They said, ‘I want to be a biologist. I want to be a registered professional forester,’” Lewis said.
The cost of the Rivers and Estuary Education program, shouldered among several public, nonprofit and private entities, was $47,000 for the past school year. Fundraising is always a challenge, said Edith Tobe of the Squamish River Watershed Society, and the program could serve more students if it had more financial support.
In developing the curriculum, which is available on CD and via downloads, the watershed society’s education specialist, DG Blair Whitehead, collaborated with teachers from local schools. The lessons include a classroom component, designed to prepare students for the outdoor segment.
Teacher’s guides and lessons can be found at the District of Squamish website: squamish.ca/city-hall/departments/ community-services/environmental/squamish-rivers-estuary.
“The schoolchildren and their families now look at our streams, wetlands and estuaries in a new light, and recognize how important these areas are to fish, wildlife and a healthy ecosystem,” Tobe said.
Contact the Squamish River Watershed Society at (604) 898-9171, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The website is: squamishwatershed.org/ Education.aspx.
—Sarah E. Smith
The Coast Salish Gathering Newsletter is a publication of the Coast Salish Gathering The Coast Salish Gathering is a convening of Coast Salish Elders, Tribal Chairman and First Nations Chiefs with U.S. and Canadian federal and state or provincial officials to engage upon environmental and policy issues.