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'Two-eyed seeing': Carcross tries on-the-land science class

Many students remember dissecting a frog in high school: A new class offered outside Carcross has a twist on that. Students prepare a rabbit and make stew. It's a small example of how Indigenous culture is incorporated into a new science class offered outside Carcross.

New partnership between Carcross/Tagish First Nation, Yukon College sees students obtain science credits

In this still from a classroom video project, students work on a caribou hide. One example of classroom exercise is seeing how hides are tanned using animal brains, then discussing the chemistry of the technique and why it works. (Courtesy of Dominic Smith Johns and Jared Gatensby)

Outside Carcross, Yukon, near Crag Lake, there is a wall tent decorated with caribou antlers.

Inside, there is a wood stove with tea boiling. There is a lazy dog who is sleeping away the sunny afternoon on a plywood floor.

On the wall is a chart of the periodic table, a chart on archeology, and an explainer of isotopes and carbon dating. 

The tent is a classroom, and it's where a new course — a hybrid of science and traditional knowledge — is being offered by Yukon College and the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (CTFN).

The large wall tent was brought from Fort McPherson Tent & Canvas in the N.W.T. and serves as a classroom. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

'Two-eyed seeing' 

Colleen James is a member of the general council with CTFN. She says the camp fulfills a promise to work from "two perspectives."

She says students learn about biology, chemistry and physics, "through the eyes of the First Nations people as well as through southern science." 

The new course is accredited through Yukon College and allows students to obtain the equivalent of a Grade 10 high school science credit in 10 days. Only 12 students can be enrolled per session.

It's officially called SCI 030: Introduction to Science.

"The vision, if you've ever heard of the term, is 'two-eyed seeing,'" said James.

"Western science sort of takes things one subject at a time and breaks it down. The Indigenous perspective is more entwined. What's happening with the tree is not separate from what's happening with the fish, and all of those connections."  

Yukon College's Frances Ross, right, speaks with student Nicky Charlie from Ross River, inside the wall tent. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Using their brains 

One part of the course has involved tanning hides. 

Earlier this week, James brought in a caribou hide which will be tanned using the animal's brains. Ungulate brains contain an oil called lecithin that serves as a natural tanning agent to lubricate skin.

"Because this is a pilot science camp, we tried to bring it home around natural chemistry and what's happening there. This solution does soften and whiten the hide," James said.

"So that's what we're doing and that's why we're working with a hide, so that the students can experience the beauty of creating such a fine piece of cloth or hide." 

The class then discusses the chemistry of tanning and why using animal oil is effective.

Nosy neighbour: the classroom is right beside the Carcross/Tagish First Nation's recently-purchased farm, where livestock is raised for local use. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Making a stew in science class

Another example of how this differs from a typical science class is in how biology is taught — there are no dissected frogs here. 

Students at the camp were this year given rabbits from the CTFN's new farm at Crag Lake, as well as gophers which were trapped by a local elder.

Frances Ross, coordinator of land-based programs for Yukon College, says the academic study of biology remained but the assignment was changed in an important way. 

"The Western science way is, you have an animal in the classroom, you objectify it, you put pins in it to identify different organs, and then it gets thrown out and that's the end of it," she said. 

Students in this class instead made a stew.

"We talk a lot about respect of animals, and protocol of how we collect animals and giving thanks to the land," Ross said. 

This still from a video shot in class shows Dominic Smith Johns working on a rabbit. The biology element of the science classes are incorporated into the preparing of a meal. (Courtesy of Dominic Smith Johns / Jared Gatensby)

Visits to the lakeside tent and the farm

Jared Gatensby is one of the students from Carcross. He graduated high school last year and now works with CTFN's steward program through the Carcross-Tagish Management Corporation and is taking extra credits to boost his resume.

"It's an Indigenous mixture with the course," he described. "There's two ways — there's Indigenous science, and then Western science. Indigenous is more hands-on outside," he said.  

"I'm just thankful for being out here. It's not every day you get to be out here, enjoying the weather — the nice blue skies, nice sun. Get that tan," he said with a laugh. 

All the students have been completing movies with iPads as part of the course. 

Dominic Smith Jones, from Carcross, was wrapping up his video project on Thursday. 

"I like how it's hands-on," he said. Compared to high school, he said the class is "quite different because, like, you're in the land."

Classroom material is posted inside the wall tent. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Tent will be on the move

The wall tent is a large model bought from Fort McPherson Tent & Canvas and trucked down from the N.W.T. 

For now, it's installed near Crag Lake in a region known to the CTFN as Grizzly Bear Throat or Cranberry Lake. It's right beside farmland used by the First Nation. 

"It's nice to be out here by the animals. It was my first time getting to pet a horse last week, so I was pretty excited," said Gatensby. 

The tent is going to be moved to different places as the pilot project with Yukon College develops. The next stop will be Haines Junction for another class.

Colleen James, left, council member for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, helps to wring out a caribou hide outside the wall tent. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

About the Author

Philippe Morin is a reporter based in Whitehorse. Follow him on Twitter @YukonPhilippe.