Land-based Education Lets Youth Reclaim Lost Traditions

|  Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Land-based Education Lets Youth Reclaim Lost Traditions
Taste-testing freshly butchered game, Birch Narrows Dene Nation.
In our culture, we need our foods. Hunting, gardening. When we go on our hunting trips, I just love seeing us all getting involved in everything. Seeing my grandparents so happy. Because us younger kids are doing what they used to do when they were younger.
Jada, former student and current land-based education participant, Birch Narrows Dene Nation (Turnor Lake)
Jada, 19, a recent graduate and still enthusiastic participant in her community’s nutrition and land-based education programming, recalls one of her fondest memories from her childhood:

My grandpa or the other hunters would go early morning and look for the moose. [Once they found it], they would come back and eat and do whatever they had to do and then they’d go back out and I would go back out with them. We would go looking for the moose.

There was a storm coming and it was getting late at night so they wanted me to go back to the cabin. Then they shot the moose and came back and we got the moose in all its parts and we cut it up and gave some to the Elders and gave some to us and gave some to everyone at the cabin.”  

Participating in the hunt with her grandfather and other community members is part of a legacy that Jada values and knows is important to her Indigenous identity and to her community’s well-being.
I like seeing the smile on peoples’ faces and seeing everyone getting involved. Being out in the bush just makes me so happy. Being with everyone and seeing all of the babies running around. We go berry picking or else set a net or go hunting or sit drinking a cup of coffee by the fire, talking to each other, laughing, telling stories.
Jada, Birch Narrows Dene Nation (Turnor Lake)

Jada’s mother regularly organizes community hunts, and she and her mother are active participants in a variety of food and nutrition-related activities at Turnor Lake, part of Birch Narrows Dene Nation located on Treaty 10 territory in northern Saskatchewan.


Jada knows that hunting, fishing, and other local food gathering practices are vital for Indigenous Peoples not only because they provide healthy nutrition, but also because they offer connections to ancestral knowledge and tradition.

“Traditional foods are important because they’re more involved in culture. Getting the meat and fish and everything makes me feel more involved and more connected to my Elders. We get the meat for them and [I like] seeing their smiles on their faces and seeing everyone connected and involved in their culture,” Jada said.

The Birch Narrows nutrition and land-based education program has been supported by Canadian Feed The Children and its generous donors since 2020, and it has grown significantly since then.

In 2022, 200 people, including 150 students, participated in training on food use, nutrition and cooking. More than 1,150 pounds of produce was grown in the community garden, which is supporting 35 families. This is essential in a community with just one local store, where the nearest large shopping centre is three hours away, and when fuel and food prices – already high in this remote community – have skyrocketed.

Multiple generations are involved in processing meat in the field during a recent hunting trip, Birch Narrows Dene Nation (Turnor Lake).

Land-based education is more than just teaching youth in an outdoor setting. It recognizes the many physical, spiritual, and mental connections Indigenous people have with the land. Not only is land-based learning an opportunity for learning about culture, it can also improve mental and physical health in children and youth and restore their relationship with the land.

Land-based education allows youth to learn in the form of ceremonies, language, traditional medicines and integrates culturally-relevant teachings into school subjects such as science, math, art, and history.

- Leah Overbye, nutrition student, University of Saskatchewan in Ingredients for a healthier tomorrow


Birch Narrows’ community kitchen was a hub for co-ordinating food distribution during the pandemic and continues to be a focal point for land-based learning now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted. It brings people of all ages together to celebrate,

Making cookies with Kookum, Birch Narrows (Turnor Lake).

learn and share teachings about traditional practices along the entire food cycle: from organizing hunting and fishing trips, to processing and distributing the meat, to workshops on starting a home garden, canning, and preparing food hunted, caught or grown locally.

For Jada, these activities have helped provide focus, fun, and renewed hope. She has noticed that “some of the kids here don’t get involved in anything and like to complain about not doing anything. So when my mom sets up these kinds of things they get involved, and we don’t see [much complaining] any more, because of how [many] activities are going on in the community kitchen.”

She and her friends will often drop in to bake an apple crisp or cookies, attend one of the many youth-focused classes, or share a coffee and a chat with one of the Elders who enjoy socializing in the bright and airy space.

After each community hunting trip, people gather in the community centre to process the meat together. It is here that youth, including Jada, have been able to learn important skills. “I learned that there are guidelines on the moose when you cut it apart. I just found that so cool and like, plucking ducks, smoking the meat, and learning how to cut the meat,” Jada shared.

Jada will likely leave her home community for post-secondary studies soon, but she’s intent on taking what she’s learned with her. “When I do get into university, I want to try to bring my culture into these things. Showing them all the things I’ve learned while I’ve grown up.”

Engaging youth in activities like hunting, fishing, food and medicine foraging is invaluable for reasons that go beyond the obvious practical ones of skills-building and food provision. Land-based education offers youth opportunities for identity, self-esteem and confidence building, inclusion, and connection – to the land and waters, to ancestral knowledge, and to each other.

Atikameg youth butchering a moose, building skills and confidence together.

These are some of the social determinants of health that can have far-reaching consequences if they are unmet, as is often the case in Indigenous communities where inter-generational trauma and the impacts of ongoing colonialism and racism has robbed a generation or more of Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

Bobby, a Mi’kmaq Elder and youth group leader in Esgenoôpetitj First Nation in northern New Brunswick, has seen the power of a fishing and hunting trip to create tight bonds between youth who have faced social and other challenges. He led a recent group on a moose-hunting trip, teaching gun safety, how to call a moose, and traditional ceremonies that give thanks to the animal for giving its life.

“They loved it. We were up at four o’clock in the morning one day to go out to the woods. We thought they’d all be sleeping [but] they were all like, “are we there yet? Are we there yet? Can we get ready?” It’s amazing to see how, we missed that one generation, but now this generation…when you show them something new like this it was like something out of a book,” Bobby said.

Bobby was especially struck by how the group cohered: “they all came in and it was very respectful. They even made up their own song and it made those eight kids come together. You know they’re from different backgrounds. One was two-spirited, one was the middle school bully, one was just lost and didn’t know the path they were taking. But once you got them together it was like, ‘okay I gotta do this and you gotta do that.’ Everybody had their little jobs.”

Darrell, a member of Whitefish Lake First Nation, regularly leads week-long fishing and hunting trips for youth groups in their Atikameg community in northern Alberta (Treaty 8 territory). He shares Bobby’s belief that land-based education offers today’s youth important social and emotional learning as well as traditional knowledge and practices that have been lost as a result of the residential school experience of their grandparents or great-grandparents.

We have to keep trying to create opportunities where [youth] can actually have hands-on experiences or they just might not learn.
Darrell, community member and youth group leader, Atikameg

Darrell has worked to involve students from as young as Grade 1 in traditional activities including gardening and agricultural endeavours, and makes a point of including Elders who can share important teachings. For example, the Atikameg food forest began with each student being given their own tree to plant, and an area is planned where students can meet with Elders at the food source site to learn about Indigenous practices for planning, planting, and maintaining a self-sustaining natural environment for food and medicine growing.

In Esgenoôpetitj, Bobby describes how he works with students as an Elder by infusing cultural teachings in something children and youth do naturally: play outdoors. He has students go out and climb a tree. “We give some of them tobacco and we say, go find your spot. You’ve got 15 minutes to lay your tobacco down and focus. Do what you want, read a book, but focus about your spot and your tree. We tell them, when they’re reading, to read out loud because the trees are listening to you because they’re alive too. Some of they have a hard time to read but you can see them all trying their best.”

We want to keep these foods alive that our ancestors used to eat. We catch and hunt fish, partridge, I usually do that with my Papa (grandfather) and I’m glad he can teach me all the ways. My Papa teaches me everything from deboning the fish and defeathering the partridge, it has been quite the experience.
Zoe, 14, Neyaashiinimiing

Land-based education initiatives are increasingly being aligned with the school curriculum, serving multiple goals. In many communities, school, community gardens and food forests are teaching tools for nutrition and traditional foods preparation. Extracurricular land-based education activities like hunting and fishing trips, medicine and food foraging walks integrate traditional teachings with math, science and history lessons.

At a recent Atikameg event for students, families, and invited guests from the local school district, Darrell mentions that “our [school district] Superintendent was really happy to see how the land-based learning program and the curriculum were working together for students and [were also] able to feed so many people.”

As in Atikameg, Esgenoôpetitj recognizes the vital links between land-based education and the school curriculum. Helen, a band councillor and coordinator of Esgenoôpetitj’s Brighter Futures program, spoke about how schools are taking up the mantle of integrating cultural and land-based teachings into their curricula.

The pandemic inspired outdoor classrooms, but Helen says that land-based teaching is becoming more common and extending into new areas. We’re finding our school is more into cultural teaching. That was missing for the longest time. We have the Heritage Fair, traditional Tuesdays, they’re learning more about drum making. For twenty years there was a big gap, now our teachers are learning land-based teaching,” Helen said, adding that the most important benefit is that “our kids will have the attachment to their heritage.”