Old Crow celebrates high school graduation successes

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.

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Exposure notice issued for April 3 Air North flight

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley has issued another… Continue reading

Crystal Schick/Yukon News file
Runners in the Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon race down the Yukon River near the Marwell industrial area in Whitehorse on Feb. 3, 2019.
Cold-weather exercise hard on the lungs

Amy Kenny Special to the Yukon News It might make you feel… Continue reading

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: The Neapolitan election

Do you remember those old bricks of Neapolitan ice cream from birthday… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
This week at city hall

A look at issues discussed by Whitehorse city council at its April 6 meeting.

Two people walk up the stairs past an advance polling sign at the Canda Games Centre on April 4. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
April 12 is polling day: Here’s how to vote

If in doubt, electionsyukon.ca has an address-to-riding tool

lwtters
Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Yukon RCMP reported a child pornography-related arrest on April 1. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press file)
Whitehorse man arrested on child pornography charges

The 43-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and making child pornography

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The postponed 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been rescheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
New dates set for Arctic Winter Games

Wood Buffalo, Alta. will host event Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, 2023

Victoria Gold Corp. has contributed $1 million to the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun after six months of production at the Eagle Gold Mine. (Submitted/Victoria Gold Corp.)
Victoria Gold contributes $1 million to First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun

Victoria Gold signed a Comprehensive Cooperation and Benefits Agreement in 2011

Most Read