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The Big River Reserve: Into The Future With Their Past

Deanna Wuttunee

Elder's Teepee
The Elder's Teepee on the school grounds

The people of the Big River Reserve still retain their traditional ways and beliefs. Sweat lodges are held frequently and there were three lodges during their annual sundance this year. At least 60% of the community still speak Cree fluently, according to Councillor Doug Joseph, October 7.

An alcohol rehabilitation movement afoot on the reserve uses traditional beliefs to overcome the problem rather than using the famous Alcoholics Anonymous program, he added.

Mike Bear, even though over 80 years old, is still an active member of the community. He cannot hear too well but he still lives by himself. Five of his seven children still live on the reserve and keep an eye on him.

Mary Rose Lachance, the local community health representative (CHR) says health education is an important part of her work. Some mothers refuse immunizations for their children, either because they feel the shots will make their babies sick or they want to pursue the Indian way. The hardest thing about her job is getting up in the middle of the night for emergencies. She has been the CHR for the reserve since 1981.

Even though the philosophy of the chief and council is to provide a curriculum for the school that meets provincial standards, there is also content that reflects community practises and student interests. The music program caters to local interest. Cree instruction is offered up to grade five and will be extended to grade six next year. Outdoor education was introduced this year at the grade five level which will include canoeing, survival, fishing, and trapping. They've introduced it at this level because the staff felt the lower grades need the basics of the core subjects. Home economics classes and industrial arts were modified to reflect community practises.

Douglas and Mike, his grandfather
Douglas with his grandfather, Mike
Hard at work!
Hard at work!

A large teepee has been set up on the school grounds and was blessed in a traditional ceremony. Elder Smith Atimoyoo and two colleagues from the Sask. Indian Cultural College (Saskatoon) gave instruction to the students on how the teepee reflects Indian values and beliefs. The school is preparing to continue this instruction by having elders on hand to advise and counsel students.

The principal of the school, Bill Zielinski said: "I get concerned if a white man is teaching a lot of Indian culture and I say this from a number of years of experience. I've spent seven years in northern Alberta. But even when we offered ceramics in industrial arts last year, it's amazing how many students made clay pipes."

Doug Joseph took the opportunity of thanking the principal for his work with the students.

The Big River Reserve: Into The Future With Their Past

Deanna Wuttunee

Two Childeren wait for dental work!
Two children await their turn for dental work
A Graduate
A Graduate from last year

In the three years Bill has been at the Big River School, dropouts have decreased drastically. Fluctuations in students attendance has been due primarily to transfers and student mobility. To accommodate the traditional practise of parents leaving in early summer to work on Alberta beet fields, the staff operate on a compressed school year.

Plans are in the works to expand the school by 10 classrooms. However, presently, there are four portables, a computer room in a storage room and there is no lunch room. This would leave four of 10 additional classrooms which may be the green light needed for plans to expand the K-9 institution to offer Grade 10.

To date, there are $25 million worth of education projects on the Indian Affairs' list for the province. Only $15 million has been approved, so far, by the powers that be. Zielinski and staff are optimistic that they will end up in the $15 million pool. The studies and student projections are completed at this stage leaving only soil testing and architectural design to begin construction.

The school is an important part of the community. More so because there is no band office on the reserve. An old agency house had served as the old band office but now stands gutted and abandoned. Doug Joseph said: "There was talk of a new one but the people didn't want it. It was our fault (leaders). We didn't explain properly what we could use it for. Now visitors go to the school."