Alberta Teacher’s ‘Keeping Tobacco Sacred’ Initiative Wins Governor General’s History Award

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An Alberta teacher has received national recognition for an educational initiative that gives students a hands-on appreciation of tobacco in indigenous ceremonies.

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Elk Island Public Schools teacher Michel Blades Bird is one of six winners of the 2021 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching. His initiative, known as “Keeping Tobacco Sacred,” has students learn about the importance of tobacco in indigenous cultures while growing the plants in class.

Having worked with indigenous students in various learning settings over the years, Blades Bird said she has seen them participate in traditional functions where tobacco, often in the form of cigarettes, plays an important ceremonial role.

“As one teacher put in that situation, it becomes very awkward when cigarettes are passed around to his students,” he said.

According to Alberta Health Services, traditional or ceremonial tobacco is different from commercial tobacco used in cigarettes and similar products that contain harmful chemicals.

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On the outskirts of Lamont, a city 50 km northeast of Edmonton, Blades Bird teaches at the Ranch Learning Center, an Elk Island Public Schools classroom located at the Elk Island Child and Youth Ranch, a group home for youth under government care. Many of the youth who attend the class at the ranch experience a variety of conditions including addictions, trauma, abuse and brain injuries, she said.

While studying for a master’s degree in education at the University of Calgary, Blades Bird added, an instructor gave him a tobacco plant that he eventually planted, planting an idea that germinated in the Ranch Learning Center classroom about five years ago and has since then it has blossomed. with students learning traditional farming practices.

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Students at the Ranch Learning Center near Lamont, Alta., learn how to grow ceremonial tobacco as part of the “Keep Tobacco Sacred” initiative. Supplied Photo /bird michel blades

“It was a natural progression to help children in care who don’t have access to an elder on a regular basis, or access to their families, their teachings and their community,” he said. “This is something we could do to help encourage the idea of ​​coming to school every day, because there are plants there that need your attention.”

Instead of relying on commercial tobacco, students in grades 5-12 (some of whom have been in care from a very young age) learn how to grow traditional tobacco in an aquaponic tower garden and in the ground before drying, curing and preparing tobacco for ceremonies. use, she said.

“It’s something that we can support them with: bringing cultural connections and helping them find themselves, their identity, their language, and bring them closer to those ways that they can walk for themselves when they leave care,” she said.

In addition to recognition, winners receive a $2,500 prize while their schools earn an additional $1,000. Blades Bird said that she already has some ideas on how to spend the money.

“All of our indigenous students right now turned out to be Cree, and one at the end of last year said, ‘I want to learn my language,’” said Blades Bird, adding that she herself has already started teaching students some basics of the language. .

She plans to invest the prize money in learning resources such as educational posters and hopes to have a Cree language teacher on site next year.


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