The Niitsi’tapiipohsinni: Blackfoot Language 1 course was held over eight days during and at the Kainai sundance ceremony. My hope in signing up for the course was that by trying to learn the language myself, I would gain new insights into how a learning environment can support teaching and learning the traditional language, culture and way of life.
We had classes and meetings and hung around visiting in the tipi, I was able to sleep in the tipi for five nights, and we were out on the land picking red tea, sage and sweet grass. I had never spent time in a tipi before, let alone sleep in one. It was very cool sleeping at the Sundance camp. Every night in the middle of the night we could hear the drumming and singing by the various societies. Plus I had the wonderful experience of getting up every morning at the camp and picking fresh saskatoons in a nearby gully for breakfast!
I sensed my perspective shifting from:
How do we incorporate aspects of the traditional indigenous learning environment into the contemporary school design?
How do we provide authentic traditional learning environments within and around the school site, in addition to providing the spaces and supports required within the school?
Authentic Traditional Learning Environment: The Tipi
The tipi provides a wonderful setting for storytelling, particularly at night with a campfire.
Tipis on site can be used for overnight stays. At one of the schools we have worked with, they do an overnight each year at the school for the Grade 5 girls.
The connection to nature felt inside a tipi – the smell of fresh air, the light filtering through the canvas, the sounds of birds, wind and rain - can never be recreated in a classroom.
The entire tipi is a traditional, cultural construction, and even the act of building the tipi provides a learning opportunity for the students.
Authentic Traditional Learning Environment: Nature
The natural environment is equally important. Bruce Wolfchild, an elder with us, commented that “You need to learn the language and way of life on the land.”
One morning while we were picking saskatoons an elder walked by us carrying a few plants he had picked, and stopped to chat. He explained the use for each plant, and pointed out a few others nearby, and commented, “This is a pharmacy out here.”
In addition to the many lessons that can be gained from the land, the health benefits to the children of being outdoors as much as possible cannot be overstated.
Our school design checklist will include ways to support and encourage having tipis, sweat lodges and other traditional structures on the school grounds, natural landscaped areas for playgrounds and outdoor classrooms, and pathways to natural areas surrounding the school site. We will endeavor to set the school within the natural environment, and not apart from it, as is so often done.