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What's in a Song?

What's in a Song?

Indigenous Peoples Day is More Than a Day...

Spearheaded by the incredible efforts of the Indigenous Education Team, supported by other staff, and brought to life through an ongoing partnership with the Tla’amin Nation, Ƶ is able to offer a multitude of incredible programs for Indigenous students that enables them to connect deeply with their roots and learn more about their ancestry. Some of these programs focus on preserving the traditional Tla’amin language, while others honour Indigenous knowledge and provide students with a safe, holistic, and identity-affirming education through land-based and experiential learning. 


What's in a Song?

A unique and transformative experience that students get the opportunity to partake in is a cultural retreat called “Story to Song”, facilitated by staff within the Ƶ along with the support of community members and staff from the Nation. This year, on April 24th, 17 students came together at the Outdoor Learning Centre for three full days of cultivating connection and deep cultural learning with a focus on storytelling, music, and arts. 

Story to Song dates back to 2010 when it was first created by Gail Blaney. She noticed the gap in students’ cultural knowledge due to colonial impacts, and specifically that Tla’amin had lost a lot of their traditional songs. Inspired and determined to reclaim music and arts, she reached out to William Wasden, a knowledge keeper and gifted song creator from Vancouver Island to pitch her vision. By this point, Drew Blaney, had already used the Story to Song creation approach, however, as he was still a high school student, he wasn’t comfortable leading the process on his own. With Wasden’s expertise and assistance, the two worked together until Drew gradually took over the sessions when Wasden wasn’t available. To this day, Wasden and Drew share a long and deep connection, and what started as a vision, turned into a resurgence for modern and traditional music for Tla’amin People and Indigenous Peoples from all over the region. 


A decade later, students continue to benefit from this immersive cultural program. Often, one of the most beautiful things that happens at this event, is that somewhere between the initial gratitude circle to the last moments of packing up their belongings at the cabins, many students claim that there’s an internal transformation that occurs. 

It could stem from the music and art creation, or from the invaluable teachings of the Elders and knowledge keepers, or maybe it’s a subconscious act of peeling a layer within themselves that happens while participating in sacred activities, which reveals a deeper connection to their roots. Even students who may have not felt completely connected to their ancestry before expressed a newfound longing to feel connected, to learn, and to know more about who they are and where they come from. 


Throughout their few days together, students got to participate in activities such as making shell rattles, drumming, dancing, weaving with cedar, beading, jewellery-making, learning different plant knowledge, practicing ayajuthem, listening to poetry, canoeing, taking cold plunges, going through a sweat lodge ceremony, and of course, storytelling, which ultimately led to their own song creations that were later shared with each other in a safe space. 

In previous years, some other activities also included drum making, paddle carving, medicinal plant walks, traditional BBQ salmon, lahal (a game), canoe protocol and paddling techniques, and cooking Bannock on an open fire. 


When Nature Sings...

This year, when the group first met at the Gazebo on day one, Drew Blaney facilitated a circle where everyone got the chance to share both personal and traditional stories. He coached the students through the process of how to turn a story into a song and how to recognize when nature sings. You may have heard the phrase, stop and smell the roses before, but how many can say they’ve slowed down enough to listen to nature’s music? There are so many beautiful sounds all around us, and so that is what the students were instructed to do - find inspiration from sounds such as water splashing against the shore, birds singing, or the rustling of the leaves on the trees. In pairs, they ventured off to find a spot on the land that felt good to them, sat down, and just simply listened. 

qatθ̓ (Coming Together)... 

A significant aspect of the retreat was sharing time and meals together. After a day full of activities, students and staff were welcomed back to spend time together and eat traditional foods while sharing their experiences. Although some students were hesitant and nervous to share at first, they quickly realized how safe the space was for expressing anything on their minds, and that’s when the magic happened. Their ideas and thoughts began to flow out of them like a river, and soon, songs were being created for everything! 

One of the student’s said “I’m feeling really grateful for the forest and think we need to protect it”, so there was a song for that. Another said that “all of this culture feels like healing”, so there was a healing song. A third said, “I want something upbeat for a sport’s competition”... so they wrote a song for that too! All these ideas were workshopped as a group and the students were supported with their translations by Gail Blaney and an ʔayʔajuθəm linguist, Marianne Huijsmans, who helped for a day. 

While the group sang songs together, a few students chose to help Elder, John Louie, prepare for the sweat lodge ceremony, which took place later that evening. Some of the preparation included tending to the fire and preparing the Grandfathers (rocks) by brushing them. The very next morning when the students woke up, John had returned to lead a sohoθot (spiritual cleanse) in the lake and taught them about the importance of well-being and how water can be treated as medicine. Most students and staff chose to participate and completed four dunks in the cold lake. When they got out, it almost made them feel invincible, like they could do anything. 



It’s challenging to encapsulate such an impactful experience into a few pages, but, if we had to try, we’d say that it was a weekend full of creativity and playfulness, feelings of vulnerability mixed with angst, and a little bit of chaos, which ultimately led the group to build an unbreakable bond through all these beautiful shared moments. 


What the participants had to say…

Educators and Staff:

“The positive impact on students and staff alike over these few days together – really together – was tangible. There is such a longing for experiences like these; we have to find ways of increasing such opportunities. Perhaps there is a day on the horizon where these are not just wonderful one-off, special events but this way of being and learning together can be the framework and pedagogy of the educational experience.” - Sophie Call, Director of Education, Tla’amin Nation 

“Coming together for those 3 days of cultural immersion was such a gift for the students and staff. There were so many powerful moments shared and lots and lots of laughs. There was definitely a feeling of achievement when it was over. I think that time and space allowed the students to open up come together in a way that I haven’t seen.” - Heather Doherty, čɛpθ (Indigenous Culture and Student Support Worker) 


“It was definitely really fun. The sweat lodge was one of the best parts as well as the canoe.” 

“It was a good place to be... I especially enjoyed being able to practice fishing.” 

“It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed all of it, the food was good, and I enjoyed the cultural activities"


A Message from the District Principal of Indigenous Education, Jessica Johnson: 

“When BC's curriculum was redesigned in 2016, it included a foundational focus in three competency areas: thinking, communication, and personal and social. S2S is rich competency-based learning. In addition, the First Peoples principles of learning remind us that learning takes patience and time. One of the gifts of this program is that students are afforded the space and time to connect with themselves, one another, with their culture and the land. It is through these relationships that students were able to build confidence in vulnerability, knowing that we were all there together with a common goal. As an educator, it really highlighted for me how transformative learning can be. The education system will benefit from prioritizing the many generations of Indigenous brilliance that has cultivated confident, thriving, and sustainable societies.” 

Thank you to everyone involved in creating such a memorable experience for the students of qathet region! 

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