John Sayers, an Aboriginal education worker in the district for more than 20 years, created a special wooden feather to commemorate the project and presented it at the opening while Storefront teacher Robin Wiens looks on. - Barb Brouwer photo.

Poetry collection preserves Indigenous knowledge

B.C. author collaborates with Shuswap students, First Nations elders

A small group of people celebrated a significant event at the District Education Support Centre last week.

A powerful book of “historical collage poetry” created by School District #83 Storefront School students was launched on Jan. 9.

The book, The Drums of Hope: Knowledge Keepers’ Words is the culmination of a collaboration between former teacher and published B.C. poet Wendy Morton, Indigenous elders and students.

The project originated in 2008 when Morton was commissioned by the Alberni Valley Museum to write poems from archival photos and journals for display in the museum.

She soon realized an entire First Nations population was being ignored and began interviewing Indigenous people, learning about their rich culture and the tragedy of the residential school experience.

That segued into Elder Project books, since produced in several B.C. schools and a conversation last year with Irene Laboucane, district principal Aboriginal education, who fully supported the project.

Morton has described poetry as the shortest distance between two hearts.

“I have seen First Nations, Métis and Inuit youth sitting with elders, turning their elders’ stories into poems. Two hearts connecting,” she says.

Morton brought her heart and the project to the school district in October.

On the first of two days, Storefront students learned the mechanics of writing what Morton calls “collage poetry,” says Mishel Quaal, School District #83 Indigenous education resource teacher.

Students were given a selection of magnetized words and photos and asked to combine what they were seeing into a sentence.

On the second day, 13 local knowledge keepers were paired with 10 students, who were encouraged to hear and see the poetry in the elders’ stories, adds Quaal.

The result is a selection of moving poems.

Accompanied by photos of the elders and students, several of the poems speak to the joy of the elders’ early days among their own people and the terror, punishment and eventual brokenness that resulted from their residential school experiences.

“There were difficult times; going to Kamloops Residential School. There were five of us who would talk our language: we got beaten, strapped, tortured and starved,” wrote student Emma Grant in her poem about Jules Arnouse.

“My siblings and I were told we were going on vacation. My mother knew that wasn’t the case. Twelve years of discipline, whipping. The language I spoke was forbidden and eventually over time, broken as well…” wrote Hannah Hackle, who interviewed elder Virginia Wooldridge.

Among the knowledge keepers was John Sayers, whose poem written by Eiton Davila details how he went to 11 schools before Grade 3, never learned to read or write, but gleaned many values and morals from his Scottish grandmother and Métis grandfather.

Sayers was an Aboriginal education worker in the district for more than 20 years.

He opened last week’s meeting by saying what an honour it is to, at last, be included among Canada’s Indigenous people.

Sayers noted that when he first began working with the school district, parents would come to the Indigenous room to see what was happening.

“They’d never heard our stories; 99 per cent knew only of teepees and totem poles,” he said, noting his pride and pleasure in seeing the growing importance placed on Indigenous stories, language and culture in the curriculum.

A talented and well-known carver, Sayers’ art is featured on the front and back covers of the book of poetry.

He brought one of his beautifully carved feathers featured on the back cover to last week’s meeting so project participants could sign it before sending it to Morton.

Sitting next to Sayers at the meeting, Storefront teacher Robin Wiens expressed his approval of the Knowledge Keepers project and pointed out he had learned a great deal from Sayers during the many years he worked with him.

Also impressed was School District #83 superintendent Peter Jory, who described the project as being a very important process for transforming attitudes.

He also praised the project for its authenticity and hands-on approach.

“You knew you were making a change through your work,” he told students Evan Burgo and Brooke Keating, both of whom contributed poems to the book.

Dianne Balance, School District #83 director of instruction and Storefront School principal, noted the project was powerful for both elders and students.

“It was a magical experience and incredibly powerful for the students,” she said. “I hope it’s the beginning, that we keep bringing in the knowledge keepers and having the kids share the stories.”

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