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Trapping traditions with the fish

CARMACKSPeter Menzies’ classroom at Tantalus School is, in many ways, a typical shop space. Paint is splattered on worktables and a sawhorse…


Peter Menzies’ classroom at Tantalus School is, in many ways, a typical shop space. Paint is splattered on worktables and a sawhorse lies abandoned in the middle of the room.

At the back of the technical education classroom sits a half-finished couch and a stack of coffee tables — standard fare.

But it is the biggest project in the room that makes this class special.

A traditional Tutchone fish trap prototype, about the length and width of a pickup truck, is spread out on the cement floor.

Made of willow and bound by babich (animal sinew), this arrow-shaped construct was the Tutchone peoples’ time-honoured means of catching salmon.

And as big as the trap is, the philosophy that brought it to the classroom is even larger in scope.

This is the technical education program’s first major project using Northern Tutchone technology, since the class was resurrected at Tantalus two years ago. The project is part of the school’s attempt to make the classroom realistic and relevant to this First Nations community.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to bring in local curriculum that enshrines local knowledge,” said Menzies.

Members of the community have been researching the fish trap design for several years.

Ottawa outlawed the wooden traps in the 1930s. Residents say the move forced First Nation people to buy nets from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The traps aren’t illegal anymore, but they are no longer widely used. Building the prototype trap in the school under the community’s guidance was a way of reflecting local priorities, said Menzies.

“It acknowledges that Northern Tutchone technology is important.”

Most of the Grade 6/7 kids who have been working on the project since mid-May have relatives with fish camps.

While they may not have seen a traditional trap before, they understand the important role fishing plays in their community.

“These kids get the fact that they are doing something that is part of who they are as Northern Tutchone people, in school,” said Menzies.

Shannon Combs, 11, weaves wet babich (pronounced ba-beesh) around two willow limbs with ease. When she was first told about the project, she

wasn’t sure it could be done.

Now, the tech ed period is the highlight of her day.

“I mostly like it because we can learn about our

past and our elders’ pasts,” she said.

Combs fishes with her grandma and is familiar with nets and ice fishing, but this is the first time she has seen a traditional fish trap in real life.

While Combs reaches into a nearby plastic tub to get another piece of wet babich, her classmates are scattered across the shop.

A boy with baggy pants and a hat on backwards slices pieces of dry hide into thin strips for more babich. Another student uses a saw to sharpen the end of a willow branch. It will be used at the rectangular trap’s entrance to prevent the salmon from escaping.

There are a few smart remarks tossed about, but the overall the mood in the room studious.

Keeping kids motivated in tech ed does more than construct a fish trap, it also builds enthusiasm for staying in school, said Menzies.

“Early indications are that the kids see it as a really cool part of school, and it reinforces the idea of going to school and trying hard.”

In a community still trying to heal from the scars left by residential school, projects such as the fish trap can help alleviate cynicism towards the white school system, said Menzies.

In the past, First Nations people have felt their culture wasn’t valued in the school system, said Tantalus principal Cully Robinson.

These days, Yukon’s Education department has enhanced First Nation’s culture in the classroom, said Robinson.

But all this may not be enough to keep First Nations students in the Tantalus School.

The Little Salmon/

Carmacks First Nation is currently negotiating with Ottawa to open its own school in the area.

Robinson respects the First Nation’s right to choose, but said the public school system has a lot to offer First Nations students.

Back at Menzies’ classroom, the focus is on preparing the fish trap for the elders’ approval at the First Nation’s upcoming general assembly.

Menzies moves quietly between clusters of kids. There are no lectures or handouts.

Instead, he offers tidbits of advice interspersed with enough space to allow students to figure out the construction on their own.

In the Athabaskan worldview, knowledge — not the tools or materials — is the technology.

A fish trap can be torn down when the season is done, but it is the learning process that keeps the

culture alive.

In July, the fish trap prototype will be set in Tatchun Creek near Carmacks.