Bow Valley students learn the cultural, ecological significance of bison | Backup messages

Like the Walking Buffalo, who traveled the world to share indigenous culture and ways of knowing, the elders of Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda continue this tradition with the animal after which the former Bearspaw chief is named.

Last week, Year 5s from Bow Valley schools gathered at Star 6 Ranch near Exshaw, where they listened to and learned from four elders about the ecological and cultural importance of the bison, a key species to the area.

“This area is traditional land. Here we performed ceremonies, sun dances. We dance for the buffaloes and all the other animals that took care of us,” said Îyârhe Nakoda Elder and Knowledge Keeper Philomene Stevens, whose traditional name is Mackochi Weya (Mother Nature), to students at Exshaw School and Lawrence Grassi Middle School.

The Îyârhe Nakoda, along with many other indigenous cultures, worship an animal that has long relied on it for everything from food and shelter to clothing and tools before colonizers who wanted to harm the indigenous people of these lands hunted it to the brink of extinction and their way of life.

“We have names for every part of the buffalo, even inside. We don’t waste anything and we inherited that from our ancestors and grandparents,” said Stevens.

In collaboration with the Bow Valley Biosphere Institute, students not only learned the meaning of each part of the animal, but also learned the names of these parts in various indigenous languages, including Stoney, and the history of how the animal’s presence affected the landscape for the benefit of all species.

The program for the event was developed differently in different schools, some of which have a higher proportion of Indigenous or non-Indigenous students, culminating in a field trip where they were also able to learn from each other in an intercultural environment.

“Canmore students learned about the ecological importance and history of bison in the landscape, and how the animal, as a keystone species, has impacted the landscape,” said Heidi Widmer, an environmental educator at Biosphere.

On the other hand, Exshaw students were visited by the elders and keepers of knowledge in March, where the focus was more on the language and traditional uses of various parts of the bison.

The learning format was inspired by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall who coined the concept of “seeing with two eyes”.

“That’s when we combine the indigenous ways of knowing, can you imagine seeing it with one eye and seeing the western perspective with the other eye,” Widmer said.

“When we combine the two, we have a fuller version of the understanding.”

The concept also promotes building relationships between schools.

Landis Burr, a 5th grade teacher at Nakoda Elementary School who attended an event earlier in the week with Banff Elementary School, said their local students are very proud to share everything they have learned from the elders and knowledge keepers .

“They’re already quite familiar with these kinds of protocols and things like that, so they were really proud to share that part of their lives with other kids,” Burr said.

Sharing knowledge among their communities and neighboring communities is part of Îyârhe Nakoda’s journey, said Virgil Stephens, First Nation knowledge keeper.

With more new arrivals to Canmore, Banff, Exshaw and Cochrane every year, the elder believes it is more important than ever to continue this tradition.

“It is up to us whether the next generation will transfer this knowledge. It’s part of our ways – teaching; to honor our ancestors, as this guy did,” he said, pointing to a Cochrane $5 bill – used in the local currency program – with Chief Walking Buffalo on it.

Widmer added that it is important for students to learn about the ecological and cultural history of the earth so that they can act on its behalf.

Within the Banff National Park area, bison did not roam in the huge herds that were common on the plains, but even in small numbers helped shape ecosystems as historically the dominant grazers.

Elder and Knowledge Keeper Ollie Benjamin said he was pleased to see the bison reintroduced to the national park in 2017. He noted that the revival of the Panther Valley herd is proof of their belonging and importance to the landscape.

“We went back there a while ago to check on those buffaloes, and their numbers have (more than) tripled from a herd of 16 to 84,” he said. “It just shows how much they can come back.”

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