That was the word you needed to be able to spell to get into my spelling club in grade three.
I grew up in a small town in southern Manitoba and was the only Indigenous kid in my class until high school. When I was in grade 3, a teacher recognized that I was an avid reader and wasn’t being challenged by some of the Language Arts curriculum. I was put in my own stream of spelling and reading and I excelled. I was so proud of myself that I invented a spelling club for my friends (the epitome of cool, I know). It was the first time in my life I remember knowing that I was good at something.
The power of education
So, it was with nostalgia and anticipation that I sat down to watch Bee Nation. The documentary follows three youths as they progress from the inaugural provincial First Nations Spelling Bee in Saskatchewan to the national finals in Toronto. My emotions were immediately stirred. It is always a joy to watch Indigenous youth shine. It is always a moment of pride to watch First Nations family and community thrive. Indeed these are the moments in the film that teach the most powerful lessons about education.
Bee Nation highlights and normalizes what so many Indigenous people have known forever – that we are capable, smart, motivated, and community-minded (among so many other things). While it is true that our communities suffer disproportionate negative socio-economic impacts at the hands of colonialism, it is not the whole truth. Despite overwhelming images and stories in media that focus on deficits instead of strengths, we are so much more.
In the schools, families, and communities we see in the film, children are celebrated and held up as the important citizens they are today – not just as abstract, proverbial “future leaders.” Everyone has an interest in seeing the kids succeed. Everyone reminds them that success is defined by what is inside of you. Everyone holds their breath for every letter of every word. Therein is the power of education.
Parents nurture their children with the best love
Like any educational system, Indigenous traditional education was just as much skill-based as it was a tool of socialization. We were interested in creating good Indigenous citizens, and the process mattered as much as the outcome. We focused on experiential learning. We relied on intergenerational knowledge. Everything we needed came from the land, including our knowledge, so our education started there. We watched for the strengths and gifts in our children, and we nurtured them to honour and respect who they were as individuals, knowing that strong individuals would help create a strong nation. In this way, everybody had a responsibility to and interest in the education of the next generation.
The last 500 years or so has done a pretty dramatic number on most of our social and political institutions, so it is not always obvious where they still persist. But, in Bee Nation, it is so clear that the values that underpin traditional systems of governance and education are still alive in our communities.
In an overcrowded reserve house, one youth points out that everybody there loves her. Raised by her grandparents, she speaks Cree and knows about her traditions. Another mom shares how she parents in a way that consciously breaks a cycle that took good parenting from her own father. She braids her son’s hair before each competition. We learn that reserve schools are severely underfunded in one scene and in the next a First Nations teacher reminds her classes that what we learn are not just words but life lessons. There is feasting and gift-giving. Kids give each other high fives. A brother coaches his sister. Parents hold and nurture their children with the best love.
It's not just about the words
Real education looks like putting Indigenous children in the centre, supporting their families, and working together as communities. It is about creating confident, self-assured young people who know what it means to be valued. It also means better funding, Indigenous language curriculum, and anti-racist education for all Canadians.
Education for Indigenous peoples has also always been about incorporating new knowledge into existing frameworks. Indeed, this skill – of blending and fusing new and old ideas – has been a cornerstone of our survival since time immemorial. While I look forward to the time when more Indigenous children are fluent in our languages than not, I am not phased by watching these young ones spell words out in the colonizers’ language. Because it is not just about the words, is it? It is about watching Indigenous children learn about themselves with support, kindness, and community. Those are the things that underpin Indigenous education and those are the things that will lead to meaningful growth and change.
Tara Williamson is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised in Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Manitoba). She is writer and musician and holds degrees in social work, law, and Indigenous governance.