Students and staff at Yellowknife’s École Sir John Franklin High School spent the past week participating in cultural activities and games at the school’s first spring carnival.
The week of festivities took place in front of the high school, offering the likes of egg toss, stick pull, tea boiling, log sawing, nail pounding and storytelling.
Each station, taught by knowledge-keepers from Dettah, traditionally reflects a survival skill such as making a fire for tea, fishing with a slippery stick and cutting wood for fires.
Andrea Harding, YK1’s regional Indigenous languages and education coordinator, helped to organize the event with Sir John’s English department head, Tomiko Robson.
“It’s so great to get the students all working together and experiencing the outdoors in a traditional way,” Harding said.
“They offered the spring carnival in Dettah this year but not all of the students were able to go, so this is a great way for them to still get the experience.”
Though this is the first year the school has run such a carnival, Harding is already planning for next year. While some students have participated in the events before, for many it was their first time experiencing these kinds of activity.
Robson, who first presented the idea of a carnival to Harding, said the school had a responsibility to teach Dene Kede, a curriculum developed in part by Elders across the territory.
“One of the ways we try to integrate that into our programs is to do activities like this,” Robson said.
“It’s an important chance for Indigenous kids and non-Indigenous kids to be in touch with these activities, and with some of our community helpers and knowledge keepers.”
A crowd-pleaser at the carnival was the egg toss. Focusing on teamwork and gentle hands, two participants lightly toss an egg back and forth while gradually stepping further apart.
In a contest between students and teachers, the students won – and many teachers found themselves splattered with yolk.
At another station, staff and students worked in pairs to saw a log as quickly as possible. Dettah resident Eddie Goulet said the students learned faster than he expected.
“They’re so competitive. Some of them have never done anything like this before, but they were all trying to beat records,” Goulet told Cabin Radio.
“It means a lot for us to be out here teaching them this. I like teaching kids, I like teaching my grandkids, and I noticed today that they learned so quickly. As I gave them a couple tips, they just got going faster and faster.”
Goulet said traditional skills remain crucial to any understanding of how to live on and off the land.
“A lot of them didn’t know about things like fire-making,” he said.
“Now they know what to do in a survival situation, which is a good learning experience.”
Aidan Cartwright, who teaches subjects at Sir John from wildlife to English language arts, said the carnival was an opportunity for him to reconnect with activities he learned growing up.
“I got to do a bunch of these games when I was a little kid, and I think it’s fun getting to not only see them passed on to younger generations, but also feel like, as a staff member here, I can have a little part in making that happen as well,” Cartwright said.
“I’ve gotten to watch our kids out doing a variety of interesting activities and learning that traditional cultural activities matter, while also maybe learning some of their abilities and talents, and it’s been really special.”
Noting the school’s location – the carnival backed on to 52 Avenue, a relatively busy Yellowknife street – Cartwright said this kind cultural event allows people driving and walking by to see a snapshot of the activities, raising the profile of traditional skills.
For other staff members, watching students learn in a setting beyond the classroom was an important experience.
“It’s different when they’re out and doing it instead of just learning about it in textbooks,” said social studies department head Shannon Traynor.
“It’s different to do and experience Indigenous cultures, and it stays alive that way.”