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Poundmaker Cree Nation scholar wins $105K to rethink the education system

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WATCH: A Saskatchewan scholar reconnecting with her roots on Poundmaker Cree Nation was awarded a hefty scholarship. Now she’s rethinking how to incorporate the traditional teachings into the education of future generations.

It was more than just a fishing trip.

It was about understanding the animals, their habitat, their diet, their tendencies.

“Everything about their life, I learned from my dad,” said Alexandra Nordstrom, reflecting on the time they spent together out on Cole Bay at Canoe Lake in northern Saskatchewan.

After the excursion, the 25-year-old’s father, a land-based educator, taught her how to fillet the fish.

“I feel like that was a very special moment for us,” Nordstrom said.

“The whole process for me, it was really ingrained in creativity and story and traditional or customary knowledge.”

Read more: Land-based learning links curriculum with Indigenous culture

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Forging that connection with her family and their Poundmaker Cree Nation roots has become both a personal and professional passion of hers.

A PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, Nordstrom has been awarded a $105,000 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

Her project, Land-based Learning and the Arts: Indigenous Worldviews in Curriculum and Pedagogical Practice, will study how to incorporate the processes she’s discovering for herself right now into the education of future generations in a more finite way.

A complicated journey

The research, although in the early stages, has been as complicated as it sounds.

Nordstrom, like her father, who was adopted by a Euro-Canadian family at a young age, grew up off-reserve. They lived in the Battlefords, travelling to Poundmaker for powwows and community events.

“I wasn’t really taught in school anything about Indigenous history,” Nordstrom said.

Read more: How post-secondary schools are working to include indigenous knowledge in programs, address barriers

Reconciling the western thought that has guided her education so far with what she’s been learning about on the ground lately has been challenging, she said.

“I have a great family and I’m very privileged,” Nordstrom said. “But at the same time, there is a severed connection.”

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The more she explores, the more she said she’s realizing the nuanced and wide-reaching impact of colonialism and intergenerational trauma.

“The organic flow of knowledge-sharing and relationship-building and kinship, that has been so severely interrupted by the systems that we have in place right now,” Nordstrom said.

“The systems that we have in place, they’re not conducive to bringing people together in this way.”

Rewriting the history books

Dedication to that difficult work of bridging communities and ideologies was a trait of Chief Poundmaker, for whom the reserve is named.

Read more: Justin Trudeau exonerates Saskatchewan chief of historic treason conviction

When a bison shortage left his people starving in the 1880s, Poundmaker pressed Canadian government officials to meet, with no luck.

For looting homes in search of food, the nation’s members were attacked by the Canadian military.

Poundmaker’s people were the victors. The chief, who did not fight, called them off to prevent a massacre.

Poundmaker, the peacemaker, was wrongly labelled the instigator. He was convicted of treason, imprisoned and died shortly after.

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The nation fought for more than a century to have him exonerated and his legacy of co-operation recognized.

Click to play video 'Cree leader finally exonerated of treason after 134 years' Cree leader finally exonerated of treason after 134 years
Cree leader finally exonerated of treason after 134 years

‘We must provide opportunities’

Floyd Favel, the curator of the Chief Poundmaker Museum, has become a mentor to Nordstrom.

“We all have that responsibility and duty to carry forward our noble leaders and their thoughts and their action and their hopes for the future,” Favel said.

“I see Alexandra do that.”

Both artists and arts educators, Favel and Nordstrom have come together on a number of projects in recent years.

While Nordstrom is currently working with Favel on a virtual iteration of the Poundmaker Indigenous Performance Festival, he previously worked with her and her best friend to bring their idea for an on-reserve educational summer camp to life.

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That camp, which taught youth about the land through creative processes, is the basis for Nordstrom’s future PhD research.

“We must provide opportunities for people like her,” Favel said.

“By connecting to your cultural roots, which is how people talk about it, you’re connecting back to the energy of Turtle Island,” he said.

“And so your western education is gradually being absorbed by the spiritual creative energy of the land.”