Young hunter, Atikameg
"Being a sovereign nation is … having food sovereignty. We have our fall harvest every year where the community goes out hunting for a week and then we all gather and process the game. We teach our young ones how to process the food and where it comes from so they can pass that knowledge on. That's a passion of mine, getting back to our traditional ways and teachings. ”MARCUS, CHIEF, RED ROCK INDIAN BAND
For children and youth in Indigenous communities across Canada, the opportunity to reconnect to the land through traditional activities like hunting and fishing is invaluable. These practices have multiple benefits. They teach important skills, offer opportunities for recreation and teamwork, and provide food for families and communities.
Beyond that, they connect youth to their Indigenous identity, and give them a sense of purpose and belonging that stems from being in relationship with ancestral ways of knowing shared by Elders and knowledge-keepers in their community.
HANDS-ON LEARNING THAT BRIDGES A GENERATIONAL GAP
Helen, a band councillor and coordinator of the Brighter Futures program in Esgenôopetitj, a Mi’kmaq nation in northern New Brunswick, and Bobby, an Elder and youth worker, are helping to engage Esgenoôpetitj youth in hands-on learning about traditional practices.
With funding from generous Canadian Feed The Children donors and working with the local school, Helen and Bobby have organized fishing, hunting and food foraging trips for youth groups.
“[We] had this big idea about taking the kids out [to] get back to our heritage of hunting and gathering and fishing. We’re focusing on the Grade 8s … trying to get them back into their culture of harvesting and looking for game and wild potatoes, and where we go find our medicines,” said Bobby.
TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE BUILDS CONFIDENCE AND BELONGING
Bobby was impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and how quickly they bonded during a recent outing: “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. They loved it. They all joined in and it was very respectful. They even made up their own song and it made those eight kids come together.”
Darrell, a member of Whitefish Lake First Nation, regularly leads week-long fishing and hunting trips for groups of youth to teach skills and expose students to traditional practices in their Atikameg community in north-central Alberta. He shared an example of how Atikameg Elders, who accompany the groups, passed on valuable traditional teachings during a recent trip.
After spending a couple of fruitless days experimenting with different fishing spots, by day three the group still wasn’t catching anything. Their Elder guide “told the students how the water flowed in different ways and how one Elder set a net [in a specific spot] and did really good this time of year. So we tried setting the net while other people were ice fishing … and we got 20 jack fish,” said Darrell.
The youth who participate in these programs also gain confidence and social skills as they learn not only from guides like Darrell and Elders from their community, but also from each other. On this same trip, 16-year-old Jerry shared what he had learned on previous trips. “Jerry was the only one that remembered how to tie a leader on for ice fishing,” Darrell reported, “so he became a kind of mentor to the other kids.”
LAND-BASED LEARNINGS: BEYOND SCHOOL AND FOR THE FUTURE
Once youth have gained these skills, many are taking them back home to their parents who may not have had the same opportunities in their own lives. “With hunting and fishing, you see them with their parents [showing them what they’ve learned]. I’m looking at the bonding with the kids and the parents, there’s a lot of that happening,” Bobby said. “Last year, after we were done hunting, [the students] went out with their parents afterwards. They’d go hunting and they’d be very proud calling the moose for their father or whatever. It’s just amazing.”
Hunting and fishing trips, while important experiential learning opportunities for students, also support communities’ longer-term food security and food sovereignty goals.
Darrell and Jerry returned from their ice-fishing and hunting trip with 15 rabbits and 20 or more jackfish and hosted a community gathering in the school gym. “We cooked rabbit stew, and a bunch of the moose that we [hunted] in December and had a feast for the students and some invited guests,” said Darrell. “Our [school district] Superintendent came and she 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.”
Youth who are involved in community hunts are helping to feed people today, and they are also learning skills that create a foundation for a food-secure future for generations to come. “We like to get [Elders and youth] together because there's a lot of knowledge that that the Elders hold that needs to be passed down. It's going to be our youth and our children teaching us in the future,” said Marcus, Chief of Red Rock Indian Band in northern Ontario.
An active hunting and fishing guide himself, Marcus adds that he sees land-based education as a good way for young people to develop their occupational interests and skills. “I teach them how to hunt game and to process the game and then to package it up … everything right from start to finish. They're building these skills at a young age. This way they're able to carry that through into adulthood and then when they're Elders. Teaching these youth the skills gives them another avenue for careers or interests in the future.”
Red Rock Indian Band’s Gathering Place – which opened in September 2021 with a moose hanger and a butcher shop – is a focal point for such teaching. Facilities like these enable First Nations to fully capitalize on community hunts, offer vocational skills, employment and other economic opportunities, and increase the availability of local, traditional foods – all of which are vital components of Indigenous physical, social, and spiritual well-being.
Bobby also sees occupational opportunities stemming from the skills he’s teaching youth today: “If we can keep these kids hunting and fishing, maybe there’ll be a job out there. Up from the river from where we own the reserve, there’s [a resort that attracts U.S. tourists] and they’re always looking for guides so this could possibly lead for them to have a job on the river doing what they really like.”
Marcus envisions how teaching hunting, fishing, and food processing skills might enable a complete re-imagining of his, and other First Nations’, economies.
“When we talk about industry, we're really stuck on the traditional version of that: outside industry, careers outside of the reservation, outside of our First Nation. But what's starting to happen now is that our culture and our traditions and our teachings are becoming an industry in itself. So we teach our young people everything they need to know about Anishnaabe ways and next thing you know, they can have a company that does that. They can have a business where they butcher moose or they clean fish [or they go] out on the land, teaching people how [to make traps] and how to survive on the land. Our culture and bush craft and our traditional teachings and medicinal teachings and our knowledge could be an industry in itself as long as our people take advantage of that and share it.”