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A new Cree culture program, implemented at Beardy's Memorial School this fall, is having a positive impact on the 228 students.
Instructor, Lawrence Eyahpaise Jr., says the program takes a different approach from past cultural programs offered by emphasizing both cultural and language development to all students at the nursery to Grade 7 school.
"I am taking a different approach... developing the program on my own as we go on. Its mostly conversational Cree, not written Cree, but we have books for students to use for reference."
Eyahpaise said that the former language teacher, Marg Gamble, did a "fantastic job" in the past, but he has combined the cultural awareness component to emphasize language development and vice versa.
"The children's attitudes have changed considerably, and are really positive. They are understanding the words more and some kids know more than their parents about the Cree language."
"It is a real pleasure to teach a language and see the fruits of your labor develop."
Eyahpaise said what is being taught in class has started to "sink in at home" as families,in some cases, are learning from their children.In other cases the children ask more about their heritage from parents and elders of the family.
"The vast majority of parents support the program. We like that parent support their children by helping them at home teaching them at home teaching Cree. We encourage parents to talk to them in Cree any time."
The change in students' attitudes is also reflected in an improvement of their self-esteem as Indian peoples. Which is one of the major goals of the program.
Eyahpaise uses teaching games, listening skills and has the younger children following commands in Cree as some of his teaching methods.
In the older grades he stresses greater language development, and in time will be teaching Cree syllabics to the Grade 7 students.
"We use a video camera a lot to show them what they are doing. The children really enjoy that. Unlike the usual classroom setting, Eyahpaise wanted a more traditional Indian approach to teaching. Getting rid of school desks, he replaced them with a huge carpet that covers the floor where all the students sit.
"It is much like the way they used to teach in the old days, with students sitting around listening to the elders."
He said his approach is to make his classes more inviting, so students have fun, and are "anxious to come" and learn.
Students also call him "Junior", and not Mr. Eyahpaise, as he feels they will relate closer to him and learn better.
"I am not just a teacher, but their uncle, brother, parent, grandparent, a little bit of everything because we're all related on Beardy's."
Eyahpaise draws on many Indian Traditions in teaching the program.
While 75 per cent of the course, at all grade levels, is dedicated to language development, he includes cultural examples where ever possible to strengthen what they are learning.
Students have participated in the school's pow wow, feast, various music and dance programs and a pipe ceremony.
Ongoing cultural aspects they will be studying includes crafts, nature, oral traditions with elders, art and the likes.
"The cultural aspects makes them more aware of their past. As they go along they get to learn more about their culture so that they have something to fall back on in the future."
Indian spirituality is also part of the program.
"We talk about the Creator, creation, Mother Earth, the circle of Life and the value system of the Indian people.
"The sad part is that some parents do not allow their children to participate in some of the activities because of their religious beliefs. Not all kids participate in the spiritual aspects."
He said the spirituality aspect of the program has the backing of the chief and band council.
"They understand that spirituality is important to the community. A lot of times I have heard the elders say that if you could get your spiritual life under control, your life goes a lot easier."
Discipline is another important aspect of the value system and one that the instructor enforces in his classes.
"Discipline is used not so much to scare kids, but to teach them. A long time ago you had to have discipline to survive. I'm trying to be a lot stricter as will."
The 48 students in Grades 7 and 8 have also been working on genealogy by charting their family trees.
Eyahpaise said they have been able to trace the Gamble family back to the earl 1800's. Most of the students can trace their ancestry back to the 1870's.
"We found that everyone is distantly related to each other. Knowing who their ancestors are has changed their attitudes towards each other in a positive way as well.
In the future students will work on dramas, native dancing, learn Indian legends and will constantly review their work.
"The hard part is recall. We are always reviewing because some students forget, since not all of them are being reinforced in the language at home."
Eyahpaise, who attended the old Day School on the Beardy's Reserve, was raised by parents who knew the traditional ways of the Willow Cree people.
"I've always worked with my later father and other elders... since I was 12 years old. Dad a was spiritual leader and his uncle was a spiritual leader," said Eyahpaise.
A member of the baby boomer generation and not old enough to be considered and elder despite his knowledge of traditions, he follows the traditional oral teaching methods of the elders. For years he has also kept his family's tradition by teaching to the young people of the Reserve.
He also has attended a special language program offered by the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural College for native teachers.
"The hard part for me is trying to express myself in English. I have to translate everything in English from Cree." because of this spiritual background, which is steeped in Indian tradition, he has been allowed by the band council to have a "wide open" approach in the running of the program.
"I know what I want, they (council) know it, and they let me do what I want."