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November 7, 2002 DreamCatching catches on for native students



Clifford Paul explains a method used by students in the University College of Cape Breton’s Bachelor of Science Community Studies program to identify rocks and plants in a forest using cue cards.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Melanie Takefman

When Darren Googoo was growing up in Cape Breton, he would stand around a fire before going fishing. He never questioned the purpose of the ritual, but now, thanks to the infusion of indigenous knowledge (shortened to IK) into science curricula, he understands that smoke neutralizes scents that deter fish from humans.

Googoo, the director of education of the Membertou First Nation community in Cape Breton, was among over 50 delegates attending DreamCatching 2003 at Concordia, a conference designed to foster an interest in science among native youth. From Feb. 19-22, educators and scientists from Whitehorse to Kahnawake took part in professional development workshops in math and science.

In the lore of several native tribes, a dreamcatcher is a web within a hoop that people place in their windows to filter out bad dreams and retain good ones. In a culture rich with metaphors, a dreamcatcher is a fitting image for teachers, particularly those of native children whose parents‘ generation is poorly represented in the science and engineering professions. Of Canada’s 165,000 engineers, approximately 100 are native.

The third edition of Dream-Catching was inaugurated with a broadband multimedia presentation called Web Portraits: A Day in the Life of an Engineer. The interactive Web site portrays the daily routines of three native engineers who achieved professional success without compromising their ties with their communities. Each sequence features visual and audio clips and shows how these engineers contribute to society.

Sara Morley, the director of Web Portraits and a Concordia graduate, pointed out that because Web Portraits is aimed at youth, the data is easy to navigate and full of didactic games that showcase how engineering is integrated into everyday life. For example, as an illustration of a civil engineering task, users must manoeuver through a network of roads and determine where to erect road signs.

Robert Deom, a Mohawk civil engineer from Kahnawake featured in Web Portraits, was exposed to engineering at an early age through his father’s work. Yet, he knows that many native youth are not as lucky.

He views projects like this as “a long-term investment.”

“The more role models you have, the more people will be enticed [into the profession] and the more people that are enticed into the profession, the more role models you have,” Deom said. ‘It’s a virtuous cycle, but it has to get a certain amount of momentum.” He added with a smile, “I’m looking for people to hire.”

While high-speed Internet connections are not widespread, the Inukshuk Internet Fund, which provided a large part of the funding for the project, specified the development of broadband content. Furthermore, according to Dawn Wiseman, NAEP’s co-ordinator, many remote native populations possess cutting-edge Internet technology because “it lets people move beyond their communities.”

The conference was organized by Concordia’s Native Access to Engineering Program (NAEP), a project that services educators of native students through online and hard copy resources. Corinne Mount Pleasant-Jetté, the founder of NAEP and a professor in Concordia’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, believes that engineers contribute an essential function to aboriginal communities because they stimulate economic development, which leads to self-sufficiency.

One of the underlying themes of the DreamCatching conference was how to integrate students’ identities into the educational process, instead of suppressing them. One way is to include native languages in science curricula.

Languages like Mi’kmaw, which is spoken on Cape Breton Island, contain references to scientific phenomena. “If everyone had a knowledge of Mi’kmaw, they wouldn’t have to learn about science,” said Clifford Paul, a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Science Community Studies (BSCS) program at the University College of Cape Breton.

Paul presented an overview of the program at the conference as a model for synthesizing Western and native perspectives of science. The BSCS curriculum is based on the concept of MSIT, which means “everything” or “all-encompassing” in Mi’kmaw. Students in the program must participate in community outreach programs like a summer camp for high school students.

Like Darren Googoo’s fishing tale, Mi’kmaw knowledge pre-dated Western science in many respects. The ancient Mi’kmaw word for “world,” wskitqamw, was formed from “sphere” and “crusty surface” at a time when Europeans thought the world was flat. Also, Buckley’s Mixture cough medication is based on the “god awful tasting stuff” that Darren Googoo and other Cape Breton natives concocted for cold relief.

In its fourth year, the BSCS program is gaining popularity and its students are being heavily solicited for employment, largely with the government poand in research. While native scientists often leave their homes, many contribute their knowledge to their communities.

“You’ve got to go away to get experience,” Robert Deom said during a plenary session. He added that he is a better engineer for having observed various methods without cutting the strings to his native upbringing.

“You bring those strings with you and they pull you back.”

For more information on NAEP or to view Web Portraits: A Day in the Life of An Engineer, visit http://www.nativeaccess.com.