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Students help to fill in heritage gaps

HAINES JUNCTIONWho was your great-grandfather, and what were his favourite stories?For what reasons might it be important for you to know that…


Who was your great-grandfather, and what were his favourite stories?

For what reasons might it be important for you to know that your grandmother had diabetes from early childhood?

Grade 7 students at St. Elias Community School recently dealt with these and similar questions, and presented their findings at their Elder/Ancestor Heritage Fair held on February 21.

Fifteen students displayed their findings and photographs for the school, the community, and Kluane Lake students from Destruction Bay.

 “Literacy and First Nations content are two of our school’s goals, so that was part of my plan.

“All of the students wrote letters and essays as part of our project,” says Leisa Robinson, teacher and the fair’s chief organizer.

Six judges plus Robinson interviewed the students and evaluated the projects.

As well, elementary students circled the gym with their teachers, and matter-of-factly marked their own checklists.

“Is this display colourful?” “Nope.” “No mark for that, then.”

Criteria included writing proficiency, display, and student enthusiasm in the oral presentation.

The winners — Taylor Sembsmoen, Dana van Vliet, Shania Jackson, Jonnie-Lyn Kushniruk, and Wendy Hartman, will be invited to participate in the Yukon Historical Fair in Whitehorse on May 1.

The winners there will go on to the heritage fair in Victoria. (Next year’s fair will be in Nunavut.)

 “To make the Elder/Ancestor Project real we started by inviting Alex Van Bibber to visit our class to tell some of his stories,” says Robinson.

“Two of the students, Dalton Van Bibber and Taylor Sembsmoen, are related to Mr. Van Bibber.”

Chloe Godson, a Grade 10 student and previous heritage fair winner, also spoke to the Grade 7 class. She related her experience of researching her grandmother’s life and being chosen to take her work to a Montreal heritage fair in 2004.

Prior to this, she had not known much about her grandmother, who lived in Ontario.

Godson told the class, “A few weeks later my grandmother passed away.”

Godson hoped her story would encourage the younger students to see the value of their own ancestor research and heritage fair.

 “We began in October to allow time for research and for replies to the students’ letters requesting biographical material, family stories, recipes, and photos,” says Robinson.

“The students combined all of these with their essays to make up the displays.”

She provided a model for the essay writing by using her own mother as her subject. She provided question outlines for gathering the ancestor information.

During the project, students practised research, computer and oral storytelling skills. (At the fair, the judges asked them to relate a favourite family story.)

The Dakwakada Dancers opened the fair with dancing and singing after a lunch for the town’s seniors, Champagne and Aishihik elders, and judges.

Technology, artifacts and food enhanced the heritage displays; the school gym became an intriguing mosaic of cultures and contrasts.

And it all fit.

A Power Point presentation of a Southern Tutchone grandmother’s history was a paradox in itself. That and a strobe light in another display, contrasted sharply with the archival, black-and-white photographs pinned to the backboards. 

Elvis Presley singing Unchained Melody (one grandmother’s favourite song) and the beating of a moose-hide drum (made decades ago by elder Annie Ned) offered another contrasting dimension.

Some students demonstrated their heritage by using recipes. Guests happily sampled Boterkoek (Dutch butter cake) or, in another display, potato pancakes.

Now that the fair is over, copies of the essays are being stored, with the photos on CDs. (After a similar fair in 2006, some of the stories were included in a community-based storybook titled, From First We Met to Internet.)

Robinson expresses the value of the project for herself and for her students. She says, “It’s fun to see the students writing in spite of themselves.

“And what I love about it is the connecting of students with family. It personalizes education, it’s relevant, it’s a sense of roots.

“And our stories are our wealth, like the title of Kitty Smith and Angela Sydney’s book. That was our theme.”

Considering that these students are only 12 years old, many of them demonstrated a remarkable grasp of their project’s importance.

“It’s a benefit to me and my family because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says student T.J. Henkel.

Some students expressed keen interest, and offered opinions on the value of their endeavours.

A few recognized the genetic implications as well as the communication and social benefits of their research and ensuing connections.

Dana van Vliet and Shania Jackson both raised the idea that if their grandmother had diabetes, it might be in their genes as well, and they should know about it.

As well, van Vliet, a passionate soccer player, was thrilled to learn that her great-grandfather had been an accomplished soccer player in the Netherlands.

“Semi-pro,” she says with a shy grin.

Taylor Sembsmoen waxes philosophical.

He asserts that if we don’t know about our ancestors, “a person’s psychological feelings wouldn’t be filled in. It’s like an empty space.”

St. Elias Community School’s Elder/Ancestor Project seems to have filled in some of that space.

Elaine Hurlburt is a writer based in Haines Junction.