Teaching Traditional Skills in Turnor Lake

=== by Bob Sutherland ===

A description of one community's approach to teaching their teenagers some traditional skills.

This is the introduction to Photographs of Teenagers Fishing.

Fishing, hunting, trapping, picking wild blueberries and wild cranberries are all important economic activities for the community of Turnor Lake. It is important that the children and teenagers learn these traditional life skills.

I know that the youth quickly learned how to pick wild blueberries and wild cranberries because young entrepreneurs were often at my door during berry season trying to sell me their pickings.

During the winter months occasionally some respectable ladies would come to my classroom door to escort a few teenage boys or girls out of my classroom. The students involved always reacted with total surprise to this sudden event because they did not know why they were being summoned. As the classroom teacher I was not given any explanation as to what was going on.

Long afterwards, after many days of asking the school administration and any other adults I thought might know something my barrage of questions, I finally figured out what was happening. Without advance warning the students were being sent home from school to quickly change and pack some warm clothing. Within an hour they would be heading off into the forest with some adults for a few days. In a small group out in the bush they were being taught hunting, trapping and camping skills.

A few months later I found a letter that one of my female students had typed on a school computer. It was about one of these hunting, trapping and camping trips that she had been on with a few of her girl friends. She described the sudden change from sitting in a school classroom mid morning to riding on a sled behind a snowmobile by noon with barely enough time in between to figure out what to pack. She described her reaction two days later to finding a dead animal in a trap that she had set. The animal was small enough that she could carry it back to the campsite herself. She learned how to skin the animal's fur and prepare its meat. Her writing was full of her excitement over her first kill but provided scant details about what actually happened.

Near the end of the school year I overheard some of my male students in boastful conversation comparing their shooting marksman skills, or lack thereof. During their hunting, trapping and camping skills trip apparently they had learned to use a rifle or shotgun to practice shooting at a target.

The children in Turnor Lake outnumber the adults. There is no guarantee that every child has a parent, grandparent or adult mentor readily available in their family to provide them with fishing equipment and teach them how to fish. Consequently one morning some community members decided to remove all of the young teenagers from their school classrooms that afternoon and take them fishing. The actual classroom teachers and students effected by this decision did not find out about their afternoon school field trip until just minutes before they were dismissed at noon to go home for lunch. Rather than return to their classrooms after lunch they were instructed as to where they should meet to go fishing. "Bring your fishing gear" was the last thing everyone heard as they stepped out the classroom doors.

It was springtime. The ice had just melted earlier that week from the surface of the lake. The fish were hungry and easy to catch. There was a bridge at the narrows between two lakes that was within walking distance of the student's homes. Very seldom did a vehicle travel down that road and cross the bridge. It was an excellent location to take a large group of students to go fishing.

This was an opportunity for the teachers to step aside and let the students teach each other. The students used whatever fishing equipment they had been able to scrounge up on short notice during their lunch hour. The students taught each other how to fish. They taught each other how to clean the fish by cutting the edible meat off the inedible parts.

A field kitchen was set up by the side of the road. The students had an opportunity to make some traditional bannock bread and cook it with their fish in large frying pans over an open fire.

As to be expected in a native community the adult women who were present experienced difficulty with the concept of giving up their traditional role of dominating and doing everything in the kitchen. The thought of simply stepping aside to become observers and supervisors while letting the students learn to do the cooking is not something adult native women are accustomed or willing to do.

The students had an opportunity to eat the fish and bannock they cooked. It was hoped that many of the students would catch and clean enough fish that they could take some home in a small plastic bag to feed their family a meal or two. It was further hoped that some extra fish would be caught that could be collected up and distributed to some of the elders and families in the community who for whatever reason where unable to fish for themselves.

The following pages display my collection of photographs of the students fishing that afternoon. The photographs were taken by some of my students and myself using my camera. I noticed throughout my school year in Turnor Lake that some of the teenagers had a tendency to be quite artistic and creative when shooting photographs with my cameras.