Cultivating Traditions and Teamwork at Atikameg

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Cultivating Traditions and Teamwork at Atikameg

In Indigenous communities across Canada, hunting, fishing and food foraging trips are teaching youth valuable skills and connecting them with the land, waters, Indigenous traditions, and each other. These land-based education opportunities offer youth hope and purpose, and foster knowledge transfer from Elders and Knowledge-keepers to youth.

a group of kids pose for the camera, with a little boy in front posing with a fishLand-based education is often centred in shared spaces that engage entire communities in food production, processing, and distribution. Food forests, co-operative gardens, and other horticulture and agriculture activities represent not only a way to increase food diversity and improve food security, but have been essential in pandemic recovery and returning to Indigenous communities the opportunity for self-determined land and water stewardship, climate change mitigation, and a sustainable path to food sovereignty.

Most Indigenous communities, including Atikameg (Whitefish Lake First Nation located in Treaty 8 territory in Alberta), have been and continue to be significantly impacted by the breakdown in food distribution systems and supply chains and the dramatically rising cost of food and other household goods that occurred throughout 2023. For Atikameg, located four hours north of Edmonton, an additional threat was 2023’s extreme forest fire season – a frightening and disruptive sign of the worsening impact of climate change.


YOUTH CONNECTIONS WITH THE LAND

two girls gut caught fish Darrell Fors, a Knowledge-keeper and Land-based Learning Lead at Atikameg, continued to lead fishing and hunting trips for youth in Atikameg as conditions allowed, to help reconnect them with traditions around food gathering that might otherwise be lost. These are important opportunites “where [youth] can actually have hands-on experiences or they just might not learn,” Darrell said.

Darrell reports that students are actively involved in the food systems and nutrition programming. Students have a desire to help those around them, and are strengthening their relationships with community Elders and fellow students.

The food systems program – which includes the food forest, nutrition education, and a thriving poultry program – is stimulating students in many ways: they are gaining knowledge, a sense of mastery and self-sufficiency, and tangible life skills by raising chicks. These lessons transfer over to their academic subjects, such as science.

Darrell says that “In my opinion, chicken therapy is better than horse therapy: children name them and raise them, learning life lessons. They build connections and come out of their shells.”

two girls smile posting with chickensDarrell also leads Atikameg’s food forest development, which is entering its fourth year in 2024. The community has reported that the food forest and related community garden has helped them recover from the pandemic in several significant ways. Darrell reports that food security in the community has been improved through the distribution of fruits and vegetables from the community garden. While the food forest is not yet yielding much produce, he has hope that a greater variety of fruits and vegetables will soon be available and he is excited about showing students how to process apple sauce and fruit leather once trees start bearing fruit.

The food forest has been a first step towards expanding Atikameg’s food programming,” Darrell said. They are now engaging in a variety of traditional practices including berry picking, growing veggies hydroponically, and offering community members and students cooking, preserving, and dehydrating classes.

All students, most staff from the school, parents, and community members have been involved in the food forest in some way. “Students are interested in and are learning about the entire process of food growing from planting through to harvesting,” Darrell added.


HEALHY FOOD FOR ALL

Jerry, a regular participant in Darrell’s guided trips, has been active in planting fruit trees in the Atikameg food forest and has helped in the community garden, too. “It’s a lot of work [but] gardens are important to help you eat healthy food,” Jerry said. He has learned a lot about food and nutrition and sees the opportunity to combine food obtained through hunting and fishing with the produce from the community garden. “We can make stew and combine Indigenous food with vegetables,” he said.

groups of children gardenDistributing food from Atikameg’s garden to community members helps ensure healthy fruits and vegetables are a part of peoples’ diets. It also reduces the economic burden on families due to rising inflation, especially important in this community where food is very expensive and fresh, healthy food not always available, and where transportation costs are prohibitive for many people to reach the closest grocery store an hour away.

There has been a noticeable increase in the use of healthy food and less reliance on external food systems. This bodes well for longer-term health,” said Darrell. He also notes that teaching community members traditional methods to grow and preserve food has built their nutrition knowledge and increased their confidence and self-reliance.

Produce from the garden is being used in the school food program, distributed to community members, and extra food was taken to market in the fall,” reported Darrell. There is hope that the gardens and food forest will become productive enough be a source of revenue for the community.

But most important of all, food-related initiatives at Atikameg have become a cornerstone for relationship-building, community cohesion, trust, and connection. These are the markers of emerging food sovereignty and sustainability.