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
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 Canadas 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
fathers 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. Its a virtuous
cycle, but it has to get a certain amount of momentum. He added
with a smile, Im 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, NAEPs co-ordinator, many remote native populations
possess cutting-edge Internet technology because it lets people
move beyond their communities.
The conference was organized by Concordias 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 Concordias 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
Languages like Mikmaw, which is spoken on Cape Breton Island, contain
references to scientific phenomena. If everyone had a knowledge
of Mikmaw, they wouldnt 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 Mikmaw. Students in the program
must participate in community outreach programs like a summer camp for
high school students.
Like Darren Googoos fishing tale, Mikmaw knowledge pre-dated
Western science in many respects. The ancient Mikmaw word for world,
wskitqamw, was formed from sphere and crusty surface
at a time when Europeans thought the world was flat. Also, Buckleys
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.
Youve 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
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.