When Kris Odjick first learned how to make a traditional Algonquin drum, his teacher laughed at him.
Kris is a second-year sociology student at Carleton University today. The lesson stayed with him over the years, he said.
“I remember screwing up five or six times before I got it right,” said Odjick. “Through laughter and the teacher poking fun at me, it made me want to learn more.”
More and more people are turning to hands-on learning. Community leaders and teachers now recognize the role of fun in passing down traditional knowledge, said Dr. Elaine Keillor, a professor at Carleton University.
Keillor is part of a team of educators who created and launched the online learning resource On the Path of the Elders last March.
Fellow Carleton professors Dr. John Medicine Horse Kelly and Dr. Marie-Odile Junker worked with Keillor to design the project. It is grounded in the traditional knowledge of the Mushkegowuk Cree and Anishinaabe peoples.
Carleton University’s Centre for Indigenous Research, Culture, Language and Education (CIRCLE) led the project. The partners included BlackCherry Digital Media, Pinegrove Productions, Inukshuk Wireless and the Canadian government.
“Here’s a really rich culture that we can explore through gaming,” said John Seck, president of BlackCherry Digital Media. The company designed an online role-playing game that adds real meaning to archival photos. The site also includes voice recordings of First Nations elders.
The project teaches the art of negotiation. At the same time, youth learn the histories of some aboriginal communities involved in Treaty No. 9, said Keillor.
“We’re trying to put forward the aboriginal view of the treaty,” said Stan Louttit, member of the Moose Cree First Nation and one of the research consultants for the project.
Within three months of its launch, the website had more than 25,000 visitors, said Seck. Many of the users logged on from remote areas across Canada.
The project targets culture and community in north Ontario, said Seck, but it does not stop there.
“It is getting used right across the country; Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and as far out as Saint John.”
Part of the project’s appeal might be its empowering point of view on First Nations’ histories, said Odjick.
He grew up in the Kitigan Zibi Anishinaabe First Nation near Maniwaki, Que. The national news did not talk about the strengths in aboriginal culture, he said.
“If we just watch the national media, all we hear is the local communities and the plight they are going through,” he explained. “It does not show the community, it does not show the togetherness. It only shows one side.”
The project’s team members say they hope that the website will be a resource for teachers and students.
A popular feature on the website is a six-level game. Players work through six different paths and earn the chance to renegotiate Treaty No. 9.
Traditional skills are the basis for each path. In one, players must gather plants for medicine. In another, they manage local resources. All are brilliantly visual and engaging.
A 1998 University of British Columbia study inspired the six-path game. Cultural Continuity as a Hedge Against Suicide in Canada’s First Nations looked at youth suicide rates for B.C.’s 196 First Nations.
Youth suicide rates vary across the country. Health Canada’s website says the rates for First Nations youth are five to seven times higher than non-aboriginal youth.
Michael Chandler and Christopher Lalonde, the main investigators, implied that some of B.C’s First Nations communities had lower rates than others.
Communities with access to self-government, education, police and fire services, health care, land claims and cultural facilities saw youth suicide rates go down. In some cases, the between 1987 and 1992 were zero.
The study implied that communities with none of the factors saw youth suicide rates 800 times higher than the Canadian average.
One path combines police and fire services and health services. Each other path looks at one factor.
“We tried to underline that element through traditional thoughts and practices,” said Keillor. She says she hopes the interactive project will help youth connect with their culture.
“If they are not engaged, they are not going to learn anything,” said Seck. “We do not want people playing because they are forced to.”
Many remote Canadian communities have Internet connection. Interaction with the outside world often plays a key part in how youth form self-identity, said Louttit.
Youth can not see themselves in a positive light when TV shows, movies and video games focus only on mainstream culture.
“If there is nothing that is created specifically for them then what kind of view are they getting of the world,” said Seck, “other than ‘I’m not significant enough to have a really nice video game made about my culture.’”
Team members say they are realistic about the project’s impact on youth. It is not going to be the end of First Nations youth suicide.
“But it is possible to raise somebody’s self-esteem, or make them feel better about themselves, or make them feel that somebody cares about their culture because we have treated it with respect,” said Seck.
“I think that is a worthwhile goal.”