Creating Pathways to Education: Spelexílh, Anjeanette Dawson Weaves Indigenous Wisdom in the Classroom
Sometimes you look for a path, and sometimes the path finds you. The latter is certainly true for Spelexílh, a Squamish Nation member residing in the traditional unceded territory of her ancestors in Vancouver/North Shore. She has been involved in Indigenous education for over 35 years in different capacities. She left her position with the Squamish nation in 2019 after 22 years in the education department and took a job at Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School, a school for students with learning disabilities.
A part-time counsellor and part-time Indigenous specialist, she’s leading the Indigenous program and supporting the teachers with Indigenous education, teaching from a Squamish perspective. She also supports teachers in her consulting work, and she’s creating an Indigenous module for heads and chairs of boards of independent schools across Canada.
Spelexílh moved north in the 80s and education actually was “found” by her career path when she was asked to TA in the band operated school in Kingcome Inlet. She earned her teacher's aide certificate and had children. She moved back home, put her kids into public school and got work with the school district as a First Nation support worker. When she was hired by her Nation, Spelexílh went from working and supporting Indigenous students with their learning to being able to advocate for them. She now loves her new role learning with students that did not fit in that public school system, knowing first hand what that feels like.
Spelexílh’s parents are residential school survivors and she’s the youngest of the nine. Education wasn’t a priority in her family and she dropped out in grade 10. She went to work and moved away, which was when her career found her. Spelexílh went back to school herself in her early 40s and got her masters of education. She waited until Indigenous education options were available because she didn’t want to pursue a westernized, colonized education system.
“A lot of teachers and mentors had walked into my life with the culture and the language and things like that, which I use in my daily job now, I put all that to use in my master's program. I was able to share from an Indigenous worldview, from my own experiences and upbringing, really telling the story. It's a true story,” she reflects.
“There are a lot of Indigenous students out there that still feel that what the system looks like, and the structure of it is not meant for us. And it's not."
"We have this opportunity with the new grad requirements coming into play soon, and all of these questions are being asked now. It's a time and place for all of that structure to be thrown out the window, and we can start new, because the current system, there's just a short window for them to teach and for our kids to learn something and that's not the Indigenous way of teaching and learning. They learn by doing until they pick up the task, but that's not how it is in these institutions. I'm lucky I'm in a place where I can share that now and say,
‘Let's start brand new. We've been in the status quo for decades. We don't need it anymore. We need to benefit learners and not what we think they need.'”
Looking back, she has few regrets. “I don't think I would change anything from my upbringing, because it's made me who I am today, a strong indigenous person,”she says. She had to learn how to use her words because she wasn’t allowed to as a young girl, but she feels all the experiences she has had positioned her to help others because she can relate to where they’ve been.
“The teaching is that we're all meant for something, and just have to be patient. We can't know everything. That's why we build these structures and networks of people that we lean on and especially in my job, I don't know everything, I can't know everything, so I have to bring those experts in.”
She also teaches patience in the way interests and aptitudes can come into our lives at different times, as she only picked up wool weaving in her early 40s after a lifetime of feeling like she lacked artistic talent. Spelexílh was one of 10 weavers that revived wool weaving in her area, a lost art for over 152 years. That skill became a workshop that teachers can use in their classrooms across subjects and it’s been in demand for ten years. When she has time to take care of herself, she likes to read, write and weave, do research, go to movies and concerts, and attend longhouse ceremonies.
Reflecting on her career she says, “I'm very honored to be here. This is what I do, this is what the creator has meant for me to do in my life. It's constant. I just launched my website last June. I had two brothers in the education and cultural area that helped me launch my website and it's kept me busy ever since. I lean on the teachings that have been shared with me by my mentors. That's how I communicate with people in a good way because that's how I want to be treated. I certainly understand why I love to do what I do. A lot of people asked me about downtime, which I don't have a lot of, but it's meant to be that way because I think this is what I've always wanted to do.
“I'm blessed with the knowledge that people have shared with me and then the experiences that have been put in front of me.”
Education as a career path found Spelexílh, and now she’s helping students and teachers find a path to Indigenous education that is more aligned with the needs and values of her community. She might not want to change anything looking back on her life, but she’s certainly changing the future of Indigenous education and Indigenous learners across the country in her work.
November 2022 Updates: Spelexílh now works BC Generals Employee Union as the Indigenous Education Officer and continues to share her knowledge, experiences and teachings across the lower mainland. Supporting educators across the lower mainland and BCGEU members across the province.
Special thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this blog post.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.