Program for Indigenous girls much more than a day camp

Before students descended on the University of Alberta for the hectic start of fall term, a small group of 10 to 16-year-old girls from the Edmonton area were on campus for a summer camp with a difference.

The Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership (YIWCL) is a day camp with immersive Cree language-learning and fun activities rooted in leadership concepts. But Rochelle Starr, the program’s current director and a graduate student in the Faculty of Education, says the larger goal of YIWCL is to create a blueprint for programs to help young Indigenous people connect with their culture and find out firsthand there’s a place for them at post-secondary institutions.

Connecting to Indigenous knowledge systems

Starr helps design and deliver YIWCL, and as a PhD student specializing in Indigenous Peoples Education she’s also using her experiences with participants as part of her research into how to formalize and deliver teachings about Indigenous traditions, knowledges and epistemologies to young learners who may not encounter these concepts otherwise.

“Our knowledge systems are instructions for us on how we can live a good life, how we can be strong and how we can take care of ourselves, and our responsibilities to our community and our nation, so when we don’t have that knowledge, we’re not able to live to our full capacity. That’s why it’s so important to connect with those teachings, because it gives people spiritual strength,” Starr says. “We can go to school and be successful within Western society, but being successful within Indigenous society means something totally different—it’s a spiritual process.”

Some of the young women who attend the program come from foster care or other settings where they don’t have contact with their communities or their culture, explains Starr.

Claudine Louis, who holds a PhD in Indigenous Peoples Education from the Faculty of Education and did a leadership workshop at this year’s camp, says YIWCL provides important cultural knowledge participants are unlikely to encounter elsewhere.

“The intention is to introduce them to their language and culture, to introduce Indigenous knowledge systems that are embedded in the teachings so that can be shared,” Louis says. “That’s not in the existing Alberta curriculum, so we need to create avenues that can support that. We know that we need to develop the sustainability and transferability of that Indigenous knowledge. We need to create supportive systems to nurture that, so the U of A has thankfully supported that by providing space and resources.”

The importance of role models

 The girls enjoy bannock on a stick at Cooking Lake, in Alberta's Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area.
The girls enjoy bannock on a stick at Cooking Lake, in Alberta's Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area.

Another advantage of basing the program on campus is introducing participants to Indigenous professors and instructors who can share their own experiences of combining traditional knowledges and academic pursuits.

“I’ve been inviting all the Indigenous faculty to come and visit and say, ‘Hey, there are a lot of Indigenous people here doing awesome things, and you belong here too,’” Starr says.

“It’s a huge accomplishment that the U of A has seen so many scholars come from this faculty, and the majority of those scholars are women,” Louis adds. “It’s important for young girls to know that.”

The long view

For the last eight years, the camp has run in space donated by UAlberta. This past July, YIWCL wasn’t able to accept as many participants as it has in previous years, because its primary funder was unable to continue supporting the program.

Partial interim funding was provided by the National Indian Brotherhood Trust Fund, but the lack of a funding partner has cast the program’s future into doubt.

So, what next? Following this year’s camp, Starr was in contact with professional fundraising organizations to work on ensuring that the program continues, not only for the benefit of the young women that attend, but for the broader benefits she hopes will come from her research.

“Within Indigenous education, we know what the issues are. We’re trying to figure out ‘What is an Indigenous education? What does that look like?’ The most difficult question is ‘How do we do this?’” Starr says.

“This program is kind of addressing the ‘how’ in a very microcosmic way, and so that’s why we want to make this more adaptable to others so what we’re doing can inform their practice and inspire other Indigenous programs that are trying to get off the ground.”

To learn more about the Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership, visit their website.

Feature image: YIWCL participants at a sweat with Elder Bernie Makokis in Enoch, Alta.