Sask. First Nation kids head to New Zealand to learn about Treaty of Waitangi

A class from Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan is going to New Zealand to learn about Maori culture and the Treaty of Waitangi, which founded the country.

Chief Little Pine School students set to perform at Waitangi Day celebrations on Feb. 6

Students from Chief Little Pine School after a hike up Blue Hill in Little Pine First Nation in Saskatchewan. The class does a lot of outdoor learning with a focus on building self-esteem and identity. (Submitted by Chief Little Pine School)

A group of First Nation students from Saskatchewan will be learning about treaties this week, but not in their typical classroom.

The Grade 7/8 class of 18 students from Little Pine First Nation, along with eight chaperones, is heading overseas to New Zealand.

Lamarr Oksasikewiyin, a teacher at Chief Little Pine School, said that when he started talking about New Zealand in September, the students "thought it was just another lesson."

"I said 'we're actually going there.'"

This group of youth in the Awasisak Nikan program at the Chief Little Pine School will be spending the next week in New Zealand to learn about the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. 'Aotearoa' is the Maori word for New Zealand. (Submitted by Chief Little Pine School)

Oksasikewiyin said he wants the students to learn that the world is bigger than the reserve and travelling and seeing the world is possible.

The idea to travel to New Zealand came when Oksasikewiyin was in Brazil for the World Indigenous Games and met  Maoris from New Zealand.

"That's how we started a connection," he said.

"After talking with them for a while I noticed we have a lot of similarities between our histories."

Oksasikewiyin said some of those similarities stemmed from having to deal with colonization.

Class trips are not uncommon for many school groups but the uniqueness of this Grade 7/8 excursion is the class — it's a program integrated into the school to educate about culture.

The land-based program Oksasikewiyin teaches, Awasisak NIkan which means "children first," was started a few years ago by Christine Munroe-Jack.

The group of 18 students will be accompanied by eight chaperones on the trip. They've got matching new jackets that teacher Lamarr Oksasikewiyin said will help them stick together so no one gets lost. (Submitted by Chief Little Pine School)

According to Oksasikewiyin, curriculum objectives are met while the program is designed to build identity and self-esteem for the youth at the same time. 

The class has many outdoor learning trips from residential school walks to fishing to hiking.

The focus of this trip will be to learn about the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand's founding document, which was signed on Feb. 6, 1840. 

Originally signed by 40 chiefs and the British Crown on that February day, 540 Maori chiefs had signed on by September of that year. New Zealand was proclaimed a country in May 1840.

The group will visit the site of the treaty's signing. A few of the students said in a telephone interview that they can't believe they are really going to New Zealand.

Iyesha Bull and Ashley Thomas said at first they thought Oksasikewiyin was joking about going to New Zealand. Now, they both are anxious and nervous at the same time. Neither has been on a plane before.

Bull and Thomas said they are excited for the flight and even more excited to learn about the Maori people.

Feb. 6 is a public holiday in New Zealand and Oksasikewiyin said the group will be participating in Waitangi Day celebrations at the treaty grounds by performing a powwow song and dance.


Brad Bellegarde

Reporter for CBC Indigenous based in Saskatchewan

Born and raised in Treaty 4 Territory, he holds an Indian Communication Arts Certificate from the First Nations University of Canada and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Regina. Follow him on Twitter @BBellegardeCBC