How a central Alberta school turned braid bullying into a teaching moment with the help of an elder

The response to the teasing of a young student at a central Alberta school over his long hair, highlights the importance of having elders in schools, says the boys mother.

Wolf Creek Public Schools employs 3 elders to work at schools in the district, including Ponoka elementary

Tyburious Saddleback, 7, wanted to cut his braids after he was teased at school. After his mother, Akasha Hartman, informed the school, staff had an elder speak to his class. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Tyburious Saddleback, 7, sits in his Grade 2 classroom of Ponoka Elementary School, quietly sounding out words as he reads through a book. His long black hair runs past his shoulders in three braids.

Recently the Cree student told his mother he wanted to cut his hair after he was teased, with some kids touching his hair without permission, making him uncomfortable.

"This year [he's] come to us with kids saying that he shouldn't have his hair this long because it's for girls and all this kind of stuff," said Akasha Hartman, Tyburious's mother. 

"And it broke my heart because he's my son and he shouldn't be embarrassed by his culture."

Hartman pleaded with her son to keep his hair long and notified staff at Ponoka Elementary hoping they could help.

Staff were receptive, giving her a tour of the school, highlighting the focus on Indigenous culture and told her they would take immediate action, she said.

'He wears his braids with honour now'

6 months ago
Duration 2:32
A Cree boy in Ponoka wanted to cut his long hair after being teased, but changed his mind when an elder spoke to his class and made him proud to wear braids.

Sheila Potts, elder and member of the nearby Montana First Nation, visited Tyburious's classroom to speak about the significance of long hair and braids.

"In my teaching it's because it's family unity and you're intertwining your family together," Potts said. "I told them that our ancestors had long, beautiful hair.

"If you look at the men, you know, with the braids, my goodness, their hair is thick and black and beautiful hair, you know? But the meaning of the braid is what is the important thing."

Hartman is grateful to Potts as her son has changed his mind about cutting his hair.

"He wears his braids with honour now and he's never embarrassed of them," Hartman said. "We always try to at least have one braid even if it's a little bit hidden. But he always wants to have that one braid in his hair no matter what."

Sheila Potts, a member of the Montana First Nation and elder employed by Wolf Creek Public Schools, spoke to the Grade 2 class Ponoka Elementary School to help the students understand the importance of braids for Indigenous boys and men. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Shelagh Hagemann, assistant principal at the school, estimates more than a dozen boys at the school wear braids.

Some parents have shared with her that their children have cut their hair due to issues with other children, she said.

"To me, it's about having First Nations students have a voice, take up space in the classroom and be very proud of who they are and where they come from," Hagemann said. 

"Some of our younger children may have not seen or gone to school with a First Nations student and so the idea of having long hair and a boy having a long braid is something very different to them.

"Our job is to teach. And we're very thrilled to have the elders come in and provide those opportunities and work alongside us."

Importance of elders in school

Wolf Creek Public Schools, which manages schools in nine central Alberta communities, employs three Indigenous elders.

"Having elders come in, it's needed," Hartman said. "I honestly think every school should have an elder to help out with this."

Ponoka is about 20 kilometres from Maskwacis, where four First Nations are located. The elementary school has Indigenous students in many of its classes.

But the presence of elders in schools with few or no Indigenous students is important, said Ponoka principal Nathan McEntee. 

"For me, growing up in a small rural town in Alberta, I see the importance of having elders in all of our schools because in those other towns where we don't see First Nations people or we don't have exposure to First Nations culture as much as we do in Ponoka, it's really important for those students to to learn and understand First Nations culture," McEntee said.

Potts said she appreciates the opportunity to educate students in the district.

"We only live seven to 10 kilometres away and nobody knew our culture and nobody knew our way of life," she said. "Now we bring it into the school. Now we're allowed to bring it into the school."


Travis McEwan

Video journalist

Travis McEwan is a video journalist who covers stories ranging from human interest and sports to municipal and provincial issues. Originally from Churchill, Man., Travis has spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton reporting for web, radio and television. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca.