Drumming and singing can be heard throughout the halls of Takhini Elementary School every Wednesday.
The sounds come from a classroom where Grade 2 teacher Melanie Bennett is teaching 28 kids how to drum, dance and sing in First Nations style.
The kids gathered in a circle, some wearing First Nations’ regalia and some carrying drums, and Bennett began the lunch hour with a welcome song.
It is the first time the kindergarten class had been invited to join the drumming and singing club.
During the welcome song, the little boys crouched low to the ground with their palms out and facing upward while the girls swayed back and forth with their hands on their hips.
These are traditional welcoming poses.
They then moved onto the Grandma Song, which teaches the kids to respect and listen to their elders.
All of the songs were sung in the Trondek Hwech’in language. Bennett got permission from her elders to teach it to the students.
She spent a summer learning the language and gaining elders’ trust so she could teach the songs properly.
Teaching the traditional songs of her First Nation is something Bennett has always wanted to do.
In her First Nation there is only one fluent speaker of her language left; singing songs is a way of passing the language down to the younger generations
“It was really frustrating for me as an adult to have to start relearning my language and I’m still learning it,” said Bennett.
“I’m not a fluent speaker, but I’m learning it piece by piece and I just find that singing is the best way to do it.
“Because I was away from my home territory and couldn’t be with their fluent speaker, I would make songs up and I just said that, ‘if I can do it, anyone can,’ especially for kids, and it just developed as a passion — this is something that should be passed on.”
The first songs Bennett learned were from the Trondek Hwech’in and were given back to her generation after almost disappearing.
“We can’t forget it again and the best way not to forget it is through teaching it,” she said.
Bennett never intentionally set out to become a music teacher. But now that she is one, she finds the singing and dancing having great power amongst the kids.
“I firmly believe because we have so many First Nations in our school and a lot of our First Nations kids come from different areas, there is a sense of detachment from their home First Nation when they leave, there are actually only five (out of 28) kids here that are Kwanlin Dun, which is the First Nation around here, and the rest are from Outside.
“I think for the First Nations kids, it gives them a sense of belonging and attachment that, ‘Oh, I can actually sing my songs out here.’
“You could see the kids smile when they did the Ross River song.
“I was looking at them and they’re the kids from Ross River, so to have that little bit of attachment and know that they are still being recognized outside of their home territory” is uplifting, she said.
When Bennett first started working with the First Nations students at Takhini Elementary she found they didn’t have a lot of pride in who they are and where they come from.
As she started teaching drumming and dancing, she could see their pride and understanding grow.
She laughed, saying that she saw one little girl singing the traditional songs as she walked down the school hallway.
“When you see them get up and perform – it’s pretty empowering for them,” said Bennett.
“And the other side of it is: when they hear the elders and parents afterwards give them so much praise for doing it, it’s very empowering for them.
“I watch their self-esteem just flourish.”
As with teachers within First Nations, Bennett doesn’t believe in standing over the kids as an authority figure. Instead, she guides them because they are willing to be taught.
Some of the youngsters don’t pay attention during the lunchtime lessons, but Bennett says this is OK because it is the First Nation way to have some people in the community do the learning and listening while some children run free.
“The best way I can describe it is when people are gathered at a potluck and some of the kids are running all over and nobody is listening, but there are people who are listening and that’s their role in the community.
“If those little guys are running around that’s acceptable, but it’s not the same in the school system.
“So I really impress upon the children the older models of teaching … I’m not here to be a power over these kids, but I’m here to show them that I know it.”
The drumming and dancing club is not restricted to First Nation children.
“It’s got to be open for everyone because I would be doing reverse racism if I didn’t,” said Bennett.
“Besides, I think bringing in non-First Nation kids adds a tremendous amount.
“I think it adds understanding between the kids.”