Grads from Mi’kmaw school on why learning their culture was so important | Article

Drumming, braiding ‘so special’ for these kids


  • Kids around Canada are graduating.

  • That includes Grade 6 students from John J. Sark Memorial School in PEI

  • The school is on Lennox Island First Nation.

  • Students at the school spend years learning about Mi’kmaw culture.

  • We talked to two students about what it feels like to graduate.

  • Read on to hear what they shared. ⬇️ ⬇️ ⬇️

It’s that time of year again — kids across Canada are graduating.

For 11-year-old Anabella Lewis of Lennox Island First Nation in Prince Edward Island, leaving her elementary school feels like leaving her safe place.

“It’s like, when you’re gone somewhere and then when you come all together, like with your family, you feel like home. That’s what my school feels like,” she told CBC Kids News.

She and other students at John J. Sark Memorial have spent years learning Mi’kmaw, their ancestral language, along with other traditional practices like drumming, smudging and sweetgrass weaving.

Now, they’ll be transitioning to a public school outside their First Nation, where those practices aren’t baked into the school climate.

CBC Kids News spoke with her and another graduate about what it’s been like to be steeped in cultural teaching for years and how it feels to make that transition.

Culture not always embraced

Although Mi’kmaw culture is celebrated at John J. Sark Memorial today, it wasn’t always like that.

As recently as the mid-1980s, practicing Mi’kmaw culture, including everything from drumming to speaking the language, was illegal at the Lennox Island First Nation school.

Until then, it was an Indian day school, which was similar to a residential school except kids went home at the end of the day rather than staying overnight.

Until 1987, John J. Sark Memorial was akin to a residential school. Residential schools existed in Canada from 1831 to 1996 and were funded by the Canadian government and run by Christian churches or provincial governments. (Image uploaded by Christy Rossiter)

Many First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to go to these schools, where they were stripped of their culture, and thousands died from abuse and neglect.

A celebration of Mi’kmaw

Since it was handed over to the First Nation in 1987, educators, students and the community have worked to transform the school into a place where students learn to feel proud of their culture.

Each morning, for example, students announce the weather in both Mi’kmaw and English, which is broadcast through the community for everyone to hear.

The Grade 5-6 class at John J. Sark Memorial poses with their drums in the school cafeteria. The students have learned a handful of songs in Mi’kmaw. (Image uploaded by Christy Rossiter)

For soon-to-be graduate Anabella, those cultural practices made her proud to be Mi’kmaw, especially learning how to braid.

“I love to braid, and we have to love our hair because when others went to residential schools, they didn’t have what we have. They couldn’t have long hair,” she said.

Along with braiding hair, Anabella and other students learned how to braid sweetgrass and about rituals performed when taking from nature.

“It’s for Mother Earth. For us, when you get something from the ground, you have to spread tobacco on the ground to give honor to the creator,” she said.

Anabella Lewis, 11, said that her favorite part of school has been learning how to braid. (Image uploaded by Christy Rossiter)

Drumming ‘just feels good’

Her classmate, 12-year-old Riley Bernard, has also found joy and pride through his culture.

For him, it’s been learning how to drum.

“It just feels good,” he said.

“It’s part of my culture and I kind of want to learn a lot about it because I might want to put together a drum group one day.”

John J. Sark Memorial School Grade 6 students Riley Bernard, left, and Xavier Bernard practiced drumming on a lunch break. (Image credit: Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Riley said his favorite memory of Grade 6 happened recently when he and a few other students were drumming outside and several tourists stopped to listen.

He said it felt freeing to perform in front of others.

“I was kind of nervous about singing, but I just sang anyway.”

Looking ahead to Grade 7

After graduating, many students from John J. Sark Memorial transitioned to Hernewood Intermediate School for Grade 7.

Their new school is about a half-hour drive away and is a public school that isn’t specifically catered toward First Nation students.

Anabella and Riley recently took a field trip to visit Hernewood and were excited for the next stepping stone in their schooling.

Riley and Anabella’s yearbook photos, along with their reflections on what they like about their school. (Image uploaded by Christy Rossiter)

“I’m feeling quite excited because I’ve been wanting to go there for a while now,” said Riley.

Anabella, who loves sports, said she was really excited when she and other students were shown the gym at their new school, and says she can’t wait to play badminton.

But leaving her elementary school is going to be tough, she said, particularly because it’s those cultural traditions that made her feel so at home.

“I’m sad because I’ve been here my whole life. I just want to thank everyone who helped me.”

Before they graduate, Anabella and Riley will be participating in a schoolwide mini powwow with their peers. As Grade 6 students, they will play a key role as leaders.

They will also have an official graduation ceremony on June 27 that will include singing, dancing and cultural celebrations as an ode to the school they’re leaving behind.

Have more questions? Want to tell us how we’re doing? Use the “send us feedback” link below. ⬇️⬇️⬇️

With files from CBC News

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