Students help to fill in heritage gaps

HAINES JUNCTION Who 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.

Just Posted

Whether the dust jacket of this historical novel is the Canadian version (left) or the American (right), the readable content within is the same. (Michael Gates)
History Hunter: New novel a gripping account of the gold rush

Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike is an ‘enjoyable and readable’ account of history

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your furnace and your truck need to go

Perhaps the biggest commitment in the NDP deal with the Liberals was boosting the Yukon’s climate target

Awaken Festival organizers Meredith Pritchard, Colin Wolf, Martin Nishikawa inside the Old Firehall in Whitehorse on May 11. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Performing arts fest plans to awaken artistic talent in Whitehorse and the rural North

‘A value of ours is to make theatre as accessible as possible.’

April Mikkelsen tosses a disc during a ladies only disc golf tournament at Solstice DiscGolfPark on May 8. John Tonin/Yukon News
Yukon sees its first-ever women’s disc golf tournament

The Professional Disc Golf Assocation had a global women’s event last weekend. In the Yukon, a women’s only tournament was held for the first time ever.

Dave Blottner, executive director at the Whitehorse Food Bank, said the food bank upped its services because of the pandemic. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Food Bank sees Yukoners’ generosity firsthand

“Businesses didn’t know if they could stay open but they were calling us to make sure we were able to stay open.”

A prescribed burn is seen from the lookout at Range Road and Whistle Bend Way in Whitehorse May 12. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Editorial: Are you ready for a forest fire?

Citizens for a Firesmart Whitehorse have listed some steps for Yukoners to boost safety and awareness

Caribou pass through the Dempster Highway area in their annual migration. A recent decision by the privacy commissioner has recommended the release of some caribou collar re-location data. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News)
Privacy commissioner recommends release of caribou location data

Department of Environment says consultation with its partners needed before it will consider release

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Family pleased youth will be able to get Pfizer vaccine

Angela Drainville, mother of two, is anxious for a rollout plan to come forward

Safe at home office in Whitehorse on May 10, 2021. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Federal government provides $1.6 million for Yukon anti-homelessness work

Projects including five mobile homes for small communities received funding.

Drilling at Northern Tiger’s 3Ace gold project in 2011. Randi Newton argues that mining in the territory can be reshaped. (Yukon government/file)
Editorial: There’s momentum for mining reform

CPAWS’ Randi Newton argues that the territory’s mining legislations need a substantial overhaul

At its May 10 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved the subdivision for the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s business park planned in Marwell. (Submitted)
KDFN business park subdivision approved

Will mean more commercial industrial land available in Whitehorse

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. Whitehorse city council has passed the first two readings of a bylaw to allow pop-up patios in city parking spaces. Third reading will come forward later in May. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Whitehorse council pursuing restaurant patio possibilities

Council passes first two readings for new patio bylaw

Most Read