Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon has celebrated a major milestone, marking 25 years of teaching Indigenous children about their culture.
The organization runs the Aboriginal Head Start and Biwaase’aa programs, with the former offering education and cultural programming for children aged two to six.
Biwaase’aa, meanwhile, is geared toward youth aged seven to 18 and their families, and offers academics, and life skills training.
Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon executive director Marilyn Junnila said there are many benefits to including cultural teachings alongside academics.
“We invite elders in, as well as our staff, provide cultural learning,” she said. “We do land-based activities with the children, so we may take them out for nature walks through the bush so that they learn what the various animals are that’s in the bush, what the tracks look like for the for the various animals, they learn about mother Earth and the abundance of nature.”
Junnila said it’s important for youth to know where they came from.
“Through our culture and through our language, they start to learn that,” she said. “They start to identify themselves with the people that they’re they’re seeing on a daily basis.”
“They’re taking pride in who they are and in our our history, in our culture and our tradition. They they’re able to talk to elders, to know some of that history that have been lost and taken away from us throughout the years.”
A celebration on Friday included a mini powwow, cultural activities, a barbecue, and guest speakers at the program’s location on John Street Road in Thunder Bay.
‘They can just be themselves’
One of the attendees was Paul Francis, who brought his three kids, all of whom are enrolled in Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon programs.
“The premise of the program is culture, so I think that that was really important that they have that as a foundation to their education, not just at home,” he said. “But also to prepare them for for school.”
“That’s part of what these programs do, is if they’re not getting it at home, then it’s another way where they can just be themselves.”
Francis worked for the Biwaase’aa program, which is now offered in about seven schools in Thunder Bay, for several years, and said he’s seen the positive impact it’s had.
“It really had an impact on culture in general, and seeing it more present and visible in both the Catholic and public school board,” he said. “Before our program, you really didn’t see powwows happening in school, or community members coming into the schools.”
“We were really able to bring that to the forefront to the school boards, and be able to have kids smudge, be able to do drumming.”
Cherrell Loyst, whose had children enrolled in the programs, called them “amazing.”
She first got involved because of a “child that was in desperate need of something special, and they were talking about putting him into regular stream school, and I knew that wouldn’t work. So I called here and I basically cried.”
“They took us in and we’ve been here ever since, child after child.”
A level of trust
Children who attend Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon programs, she said, are loyal to them.
“We came [Friday], and my child, he graduated in June and we just came around the corner and he’s screaming, ‘I’m here, I’m here’ and getting hugs from everyone,” Loyst said. “Sometimes that’s difficult to get in the school system.”
“You don’t get that loyalty from the kids,” she said. “And that says it all, the absolute level of trust, right? Children know. They know in their heart and they know who’s good and who’s not.”
“And it just shows in the beaming smile on their face.”