Marion Schafer sits under a big top tent craning forward on a little plastic chair. She is waiting for the moment very soon when her grandson Nathaniel becomes the first person in her family to graduate. When she tries to talk about this moment the breath catches in her throat.
“I’m so happy,” she says, pausing. “I’m emotional. I’m so proud of my grandson.” She stops as tears creep into the creases around her eyes.
Marion and her husband Esau Schafer both flew down from Old Crow to attend the Class of 2016 First Nations Graduation Ceremony. They were not the only ones. This year nine Vuntut Gwitchin students, most of whom grew up in Old Crow, received their high school diplomas. For the community of 245 people the achievement is significant. The journey for these students has not been easy, nor has it been straightforward.
Glenna Tetlichi is the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s educational support worker in Whitehorse. “It’s a big graduating class for a small community like Old Crow,” she says. “These kids face a lot of challenges: they miss home, being away from their parents, their environment, not having their traditional food every day. Whitehorse is an alien environment.” Glenna, whose own son Joshua is graduating today, looks over the crowd of parents and says, “It’s hard to find the words, it’s an amazing feeling today.”
Four years ago Nathaniel Schafer left his family in Old Crow in order to attend high school in Whitehorse. He went to Porter Creek in Grade 9, then switched to F.H. Collins. He stayed at the Gadzoosdaa student residence throughout grades 10 and 11 before moving in with family friends for his final year.
“It was tough,” he says, shaking his head. “My first year, it was hard to be without my parents, hard to be around people you don’t know. I missed being on the river, hunting caribou. I missed my community, it’s where I’m from. That’s my home.”
For Esau, Nathaniel’s grandfather, sacrificing years at home in order to further his education was what Nathaniel needed to do. “You know, since he was small I worked with him to come this far,” he says solemnly. Then Esau smiles broadly and adds, “He knows all his traditional knowledge. The other side of the coin of living in the modern world is to graduate. There’s more to be done, to further his education. As long as I’m healthy I’ll support him.”
Outside of the ceremonial graduation tent Tracy Rispin brandishes a lint roller. Her son Tyrell Kassi stands a good foot taller than her, grinning sheepishly as his mother swipes him down, fussing over his hand-sewn moose hide vest. Tracy spent a long time creating the intricate beadwork of that vest, and even longer waiting for this moment.
“Ty has been away at high school for three years,” she explains. “It is very hard to send your child to the city, to be raised by other people, but we made that choice.”
Today Tracy is wearing a beautifully intricate piece of beadwork, the traditional belt she used to carry Ty around in when he was a baby. “Those flowers here,” she says, pointing to the bright blue glass beadwork, match the flowers on his graduation vest.
“My son is a pretty confident, wise young man,” Tracy explains. “I encourage him to always make his choices. That’s part of growing up. There was never a time he wanted to come home. His education is too important to him.”
Despite the long distance over many years Tracy and her husband worked to maintain a strong connection with their son. That meant constant communication, especially through the harder times. It meant flying him back to Old Crow over major holidays and working during those short windows of time to continue building their relationship. It also meant care packages of dry meat, bannock, and chihshoo (whitefish) from Old Crow.
Attending high school in Whitehorse is not the only option for students from Old Crow seeking to graduate. Since 2012 students have also had the option of completing their required high school credits at the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School. For Camisha Charlie-Tizya, the option to complete her studies at home made graduation possible. “I came down to Whitehorse for Grade 10, but I went back to
Old Crow and finished my school there,” she says, playing with the fringes of her beaded hide dress. “I was lonely for my family, I missed my siblings, I missed the food.” Camisha credits the hard work of Chief Zzeh Gittlit Principal Eleanor Charlton for helping her through the course load. “Math,” she says “is my best subject.” As for graduating, “It means a lot to me, I wish everyone was here but I know they’re looking down on me.”
For all of the Old Crow graduates, recognizing the community of people who helped get them here is incredibly important. Nathaniel Shafer doesn’t talk about his accomplishments without first acknowledging the Tetlichis, whom he lived with throughout his final year of high school, his Aunty Verna who made his embroidered graduation vest, and his sisters and brothers.
After paying respect to their families, the Vuntut Gwitchin grad class’s eyes sparkle as they think about the future. “I’m excited to be at Native Grad,” Ty Kassi says. After this he plans on working and attending the Yukon College carpentry program.
Nathaniel Schafer beams as he looks over at his grandparents. “I’m so proud. I’m so happy my grandparents made it. I can’t wait to start life.” His best subjects, English and math, have pointed him towards post-secondary education with the goal of becoming an aircraft mechanic.
When it comes to advice for future high school students from Old Crow, Ty shares some of his experience. “Do your work,” he says gravely, “don’t get into the bad things. Keep focused. It’s the way to succeed in life.”
Pavlina Sudrich is a freelance reporter from Whitehorse.