Culture and the classroom
GNWT wants Dene-language instruction within five years, conference hears

by Glen Korstrom
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 03/98) - Primed by hours of discussing culture-based schooling, Joanne Erasmus stood at a microphone and blasted Education Minister Charles Dent.

"I don't understand how we can have French immersion and not Dene immersion," said the Yellowknives Dene First Nation member.

"That's an insult. I'm insulted."

Erasmus, who works as a student counsellor at Aurora College, berated Dent for a school system sorely lacking culture-based education.

She said cultural neglect means elders and others must attend symposiums such as the Strength from Culture workshop at the Explorer Hotel earlier this week.

"Why can't we have our own brown faces teaching us?" she asked.

Dent said he agrees with the concept of Dene immersion, which is one main reason for holding culture-based education conferences.

"We'll achieve some parity for Dene education teachers. Our goal is to reach it by 2003."

Meanwhile, others were pleased with the chance to discuss ways to assure young Dene and Inuit students can feel a part of their historical roots.

"I must not speak Eskimo in school," was what keynote speaker and University of Alaska professor Dr. Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley said teachers forced him to write 100 times as a child.

Only then could he go home.

Kawagley explained several methods of assimilation before outlining ways Dene and Inuit can sustain their culture.

"We as native people suffer from a split personality," he said.

"Some days we act like a Westerner, others we act in more traditional ways."

Educated in an Alaskan church-run school, Kawagley learned and used English, putting aside his traditional Yupiaq language.

Though he married a fluent Yupiaq speaker, he was adamant his children not learn Yupiaq because, "I thought the language was useless."

He realizes how conditioned he was by Western schooling. Now he does all he can to promote indigenous culture.

Part of this culture is intuitiveness. For example, a universal among many different Northern cultures is to predict weather by walking outside bare foot.

"It goes beyond rational thinking," he said. "That needs to be incorporated in our schools."

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