Gwich'in educators in N.W.T., bring culture and history to high school course

Gwich'in educators in the N.W.T., have developed a high school course for students that incorporates the aboriginal group's culture and history.

Students learn about respected elders, land claims, settlement patterns and family structures

AnnaLee Mcleod teaching the Gwich'in Studies course to high school students in her classroom at Moose Kerr School. (CBC)

Gwich'in educators in the N.W.T., have developed a high school course for students that hopes to reclaim the aboriginal group's culture after the legacy of residential schools.

"I think it's a reclamation of identity of who we are as a people and how we instill that in our youth," said Velma Illasiak, principal at Aklavik's Moose Kerr School.

The course was developed by the Gwich'in Tribal Council, its teachers, elders and cultural researchers after they met in 2014.

It's taught in English and compliments Gwich'in language classes that students take throughout the Beaufort-Delta region.

The course covers a range of topics about Gwich'in culture and history. Students learn about land claims, geographical settlement patterns, family structures and stories of respected elders.

"I always knew there was definitely more to learn about," said Grade 11 student Dwight Stefansson, who was one of the first students to take the course this year.

Many aboriginal groups continue to struggle with the legacy of residential schools, where some students were sexually and physically abused and forbidden to speak their native languages.

Some still blame the tainted history of the schools for low graduation rates among aboriginal students, which today hover around 50 per cent in the Northwest Territories. 

Teacher hopes course can make a difference

"Some of us who have been in residential school for so long — education is so linked to residential schools we have to get over that," Gwich'in elder Ruth Stewart said when the curriculum was being developed.

That view has been passed down from generation to generation, and Gwich'in teacher AnnaLee McLeod hopes the new course can change that.

She says some elements are getting students to sit up in their seats, especially when they learn about local elders.

"Looking at them you see their eyes. A little twinkle here and there. And then they go, 'Who is this person?' And I go, 'You are related to that person,' and they go, 'What!'" said Mcleod from her classroom at Moose Kerr School.

The elective course is being taught in the communities of Aklavik and Fort McPherson and compliments a course developed for Inuvialuit students. In addition to in-class study, the course also has an on-the-land component.