Pride, joy, and relief that months of planning had finally paid off.
Organizers of Maple Creek’s first Unity and Wellness Youth Cultural Symposium experienced all three emotions as the event came to a fitting climax on Friday afternoon with Indigenous dancers captivating a huge audience with a Pow Wow demonstration. There was also hope that another symposium will be held, if not in 2024, then perhaps the year after.
“My dream is big, I’ve already started thinking about next year,” said Rob Stewart, MCCS principal, whose school was the venue for the two-day experience.
Stewart was part of an organizing team, which included Shelley Huck, Sidney Street School principal; Curtis Biem, Chinook School District curriculum coordinator; and Irene Oakes, from the Nekaneet, an educator and former women’s fancy dancer. They began planning about seven months ago for an event that would support mental health and wellness while sharing the history of Nekaneet.
About 500 students attended, coming from Maple Creek Composite School, Sidney Street School, Great Plains College, Gull Lake, Fox Valley, Consul, Cabri, Tompkins, Burstall and Hazlet.
They heard from three keynote speakers, who have survived generational trauma to achieve remarkable success: Zoey Roy, an artist and educator; Laryn Oakes, a world champion fancy shawl dancer and educator; and Patrick Mitsuing, a champion fancy dancer and entrepreneur.
The trio delivered messages of hope, testimonies to the fighting qualities of the human spirit.
In between the presentations in the school gym were breakout sessions covering a wide variety of topics. They were held in classrooms throughout the school.
Thursday’s sessions featured robotics, lacrosse, traditional drumming, sports and leadership, beading, bucket drumming, bannock making, peer support, guitar and vocals, wellness after addiction, blanket exercise, Nekaneet history, reconciliation in media, careers in healthcare, country line dance, and collective song-writing.
Friday’s sessions covered history of the Cypress Hills, personal wellness, traditional medicines, tipi raising, Ahkameyimok, hand-games, What is Thundering Hills Pow Wow?, role modelling through leadership, drumming/singing.
Reflecting on the symposium, Stewart seemed scarcely able to believe what had occurred over Thursday and Friday.
“The original concept was huge and almost impossible,” he said. “Our vision was so big. We had all these great ideas, but absolutely no way to do it. With all of us having the same vision, we were able to find a way to make it happen.”
Stewart said one of the biggest challenges was financing.
“An event like this is not cheap. It’s expensive. When we had the original conversation about it, we had a zero budget. We didn’t have the money for it in our school, and the division certainly didn’t have money to support our vision.”
It meant finding ways to raise money and win support from sponsors.
“I’m proud of where we are right now, this is a big event for us. Some people will appreciate it, some people won’t, but that doesn’t bother me. What I like about it is this: the people who are here are here because it’s good for them and it’s good for us. We are also trying to support Nekaneet.”
Stewart said one of the aims was to create excitement for the weekend Pow Wow. Increasing an understanding of Indigenous culture, and the importance of singing, drumming, and dancing, was a way of boosting support for Nekaneet’s showpiece event.
“The Nekaneet are partners, and we are working together. A big focus of the symposium was the cultural element. We wanted to reach out and share information with our kids.”
He added: “I really have a new appreciation for the skill and talent that we have in Nekaneet. You don’t have to go very far to find people that are specialists in a particular area.
“That’s been the biggest growth piece for me. I’m proud of the Nekaneet, proud of their presenters, proud of the communication we have established that we never had before. We are building that and hoping that it continues in the future.”
Stewart said he was already looking forward to another symposium.
“Maybe it’s something we do every second year, but 100 per cent I’ve got some ideas already on how we move forward with this and what it’s going to look like. We will be reflecting on this.”
Huck was equally hopeful that Maple Creek will see more unity and wellness symposiums.
“I hope this isn’t a one-off,” she said. “There is lots of stuff we can learn from. We have something to build on.”
She added: “The last two days have been fantastic – lots of excitement and interest. There has been a buzz. Kids were excited, and everything has gone smoothly, which is nice because this was a huge undertaking that we started talking about back in September.
“To see it actually come to light has been very rewarding.”
Huck, who helped prepare the hot-dog lunches, said her Grade 5 students had attended the event.
She hoped they had been inspired by the messages of hope from the speakers.
Oakes said the symposium provided a wonderful learning opportunity – and she too hoped it would be repeated.
“This is a great beginning to reinforce the importance of the practices that were started by my grandparents and great-grandparents and our original leader with the local ranchers. Without the local ranchers’ support, we would not be here in the hills because they are the ones that lobbied the federal government for us to get land. So, we’ve lost our way here and there throughout the years, but we are bringing it back and it’s only through young people that we are going to be able to blaze that trail through true unity, through true reconciliation, and we need more sessions like this, more symposiums like this where the youth can understand this more.”
Oakes believed true reconciliation was taking place through the work of Chinook School Division, Maple Creek’s two principals, vice-principals, and teachers; they were working in partnership with the Nekaneet, whose members had come forth to share their knowledge.
She also praised students for embracing the cultural sessions and showing a hunger to learn more.
“It’s great. I hope to see more of this. I was very encouraged.”
Oakes said it was inspiring to hear young leaders like Zoey Roy, Laryn Oakes, and Patrick Mitsuing.
“They are making the change. They are actually walking the talk. It’s not superficial, it’s real.”