This story was published in Sister Triangle Magazine (2010).
I looked out my classroom window at the canvass teepee erected in our green outdoor courtyard. Earlier that week we’d celebrated the teepee raising by hosting a traditional feast. The elementary students and my colleagues from next door joined our high school in the gymnasium. We sat on coats or blankets, the men and boys on one side, the women and girls (in our long skirts or shawls wrapped around our waists) on the other. Each of us was asked to bring our own cutlery and plastic containers to help take away the leftovers. Many of our young men as well as male teachers and other male guests served us – row by row – stew, bannock, fruit and other tasty treats. Elders sat by one wall in a central location. Before we ate, there were speeches and prayers.
Looking back into my classroom, I handed out a worksheet called “Teepee Teachings” to my grade ten students. My students and I were similar to the overall school’s population, 60-70% First Nations students taught primarily by white staff. As had been explained earlier by the gentleman assisting with the teepee raising, each pole on the teepee has a theme: happiness, love, faith, kinship, cleanliness, thankfulness, sharing, strength, good childrearing, hope, obedience, respect, humility, ultimate protection, and balance. I said, “Everyone choose one of the teachings and make a poster.” In the next two days we made a border near the ceiling, circling my classroom, displaying these powerful words.
We have a tradition in our high school. On Mondays we play O’Canada over the intercom; on Fridays we play an Honour Song. The Honour Song has First Nations drumming and singing. We ask our students to stand for both of these songs. I sing along with O’Canada (usually by myself…afterall, I teach COOL high school kids). At first, I didn’t know what to do during the nearly four minute Honour Song. Then it hit me: I can pray. I began using the teepee teachings as a guide to my prayer during the Honour Song. I shared my strategy with my students who were receptive to the idea as a way to help focus during the song.
At the end of last year, sitting in my classroom, surrounded by these teachings, I received an essay on the final exam by a grade eleven girl who dances pow wow. I remember tears streaming down my face as she explained that she prays as she dances. She explained that many of the elders are also praying as people are dancing. I reflected on my own childhood memory of Mom and Dad taking me to pow wows and how the drumbeat comforts me still today. How rich to realize that I am welcome to bring my prayers alongside First Nations prayers, and perhaps my comfort comes from answered prayers, offered on my behalf.
A few weeks ago I got “caught” in the school office during the Honour Song. It was awkward, the two secretaries, the driver instructor, me, and a couple parents, all standing, listening to the drumming and singing. Then I remembered, I can pray. I closed my eyes and followed the words posted around my classroom, the words of the teepee, and I asked my Creator to help me bring these words to life for my students that day as we were heading out on the land for a field trip which is part of a project incorporating Treaty Teachings about the land and the Arts. When the singing was over, my head and heart were focused on my students and their needs. Our tour began with an elder’s prayer at the Standing Buffalo, Buffalo pasture. At the end of our visit, we gathered in the Standing Buffalo gym and again the elder spoke to our students, emphasizing the importance of their spirituality, noting that one day things will be difficult, and that they will need to know how to pray.
I remember emails shared back and forth before the feast. My colleague, who is a Christian as am I, was afraid of attending the feast because she might compromise her faith. I’d encouraged her that our white society had spent much of our country’s history trying to teach and shape First Nations people, to most often oppressive ends. I encouraged that as believers, we need to now be learners and listeners if we are going to be part of the healing necessary for both of our races. She ended up attending the feast and was glad that she had.
If there is anything I am learning, living and working in Fort Qu’Appelle for the past eight years, it’s that prayer is something that transcends culture. Prayer seems to be part of humanity’s DNA. Just today I received an email from a colleague who asked the entire staff to keep her son, who has cancer, in our prayers. At the beginning of our school year, Mike Pinay, an elder addressed our entire school division. He said, “Have you ever been in a hen house?” He paused, then said, “That’s what it sounded like while I was waiting back stage.” The audience, over 1000 teachers strong, who had been visiting feverishly, laughed and then quieted. He spoke briefly of the importance of teachers, the trust we are given to care for children, the call to doing things “in a good way”, and then he bowed his head and lead us in prayer.
Social Justice is elusive. All major institutions such as jails, hospitals, and schools, are keenly aware of inequities; however, schools are in the best position to make a difference in the lives of individuals, especially those at risk. Education can interrupt cycles of poverty, violence, abuse, powerlessness, and poor health.
As schools take on more opportunity for equity, it will challenge us as teachers. Whereas many institutions, including schools, shy away from spirituality, those of us who would be inclusive of First Nations needs within our school situation must entertain that spirituality is part of a balanced existence. Even prayer may be part of a school setting.
Schools are not just factories where information is pumped into students’ brains. Schools are places where society can grow. I am proud to be part of a staff, here at Bert Fox Community High School, who are making a systemic difference in the lives of students: for both those who would be successful anywhere and those who need every chance they can get in a world that is stacked against them.