Sto:lo women set to perpetuate language, culture

June 23, 2005, vol. 33, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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Canoe pulling, salmon canning and buckskin dressmaking - they are an unusual set of extra curricular activities for teachers in training. But the eight women who are the first graduates of Simon Fraser University's developmental standard term certificate (DSTC) program are not your usual student teachers.

They are Sto:lo women nearing middle age. Two of them are close to 60 and many are grandmothers with no more than a high school education. As members of the Sto:lo nation - an aboriginal group with a dying culture and language - they are passionate about keeping both alive. They begged, borrowed and juggled hundreds of hours over the last two years to obtain a DSTC.

Sto:lo elders, in collaboration with SFU and the B.C. College of Teachers, developed the unique program. It helps Sto:lo student teachers to become fluent in their native tongue, Halq'emeylem, learn Sto:lo culture, and meet the requirements of the faculty of education's teacher professional development program (PDP). They also learn to create Sto:lo language and culture-based learning resources using new media technologies.

DSTC graduates can use their certificate to ladder into education degree programs at SFU. Their certificate and PDP qualifications prepare them to teach any subject across a curriculum in their native tongue in aboriginal and non-aboriginal public and community schools.

“With only a handful of Sto:lo elders left who are fluent in Halq'emeylem, these graduates will become cultural and linguistic saviours,” says Laura Buker. Of Sto:lo ancestry, she is a lecturer in the faculty of education who teaches First Nations courses, and is doing her doctoral thesis at SFU on the history of the revitalization of the Halq'emeylem language. “These graduates will ensure the transfer of their language and culture to younger generations through the education system.”

Their dedication to balancing an overflowing plate of responsibilities reflects their commitment to fulfilling their cultural and linguistic destiny. These grads had to carry an 80 per cent academic course load while completing 12 weeks of practicum teaching in Chilliwack and Agassiz schools. They also attended to ongoing family and community needs.

Wendy Ritchie practiced nightly as a canoe puller for an important traditional canoe race. Muriel Roberts, the matriarch of a family of 13, made a buckskin dress for one of her grandchildren to wear at a contest and canned salmon for elders. Judy Douglas tutored, worked full-time and took care of her five grandchildren.

The graduates say the joy and sense of achievement in seeing their practicum students discover their language and culture was well worth the effort.

“Students had so many questions and they really enjoyed being able to express how they felt in their own language,” says Laura Kelly.

The Cultus Lake area Sto:lo graduate introduced an eagle feather, an aboriginal cultural symbol, into a circle of youngsters during her practicum.

“The children were like sponges after that. They wanted to know so much about our culture it made me realize how much of it is hidden behind a wall and how I was able to help them see beyond that wall.”

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