Planting Seeds of Culture: Eileen Beaver Teaches Language and Life Lessons out on the Land
“I always tell people, you have to plant your seeds and let them grow. At times you watch other people grow with it and it's amazing. It's amazing how our language is so alive,” says Eileen Beaver of Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories. She went to residential school in Fort Smith, met her husband and had seven kids, three of whom have passed on, but those weren’t the only kids she raised.
She has been a foster parent and taught life skills to youth, encouraging them to pursue their education while knowing who they are and where they come from. She taught language in high school for eleven years before retiring from employment, but not from sharing her culture.
“Education is really important, it's the key to a lot of careers and a lot of success.”
“I always come back to promote and to encourage people to use their language, to be strong within their culture in their heart and to know who they are so that they develop self confidence,” Beaver explains. She’s taught syllabics, cultural activities, camping on the land, canoeing and trapping and even undertaking journeys with grade seven students to help them build confidence for high school while learning land-based skills or moose hunting with older youth.
For seven years, she raised her kids on the traplines and she strongly felt her kids needed a strong cultural foundation after her own upbringing where she faced challenges with a family that struggled with addictions. She homeschooled her kids until she felt it was time for them to be more social and they moved into town.
In the summer, her family led workshops and summer camps funded by the local social services organizations. At camp, participants earned certificates in water safety, first aid and firearm safety and spent time swimming, setting snares for rabbits, learning traditional knowledge, hiking and harvesting wild rice.
Beyond skills, campers built relationships. A local RCMP officer who was Cree came to the camp and shared his own story of growing up on reserve and the struggles he had that led him to become a police officer. He did sweats with the participants and the time they spent together meant the kids were more willing to participate in community programs that included police in the future. One of the campers even grew up to start his own camp and asked for his siblings to come the next year.
Language learning is a skill Beaver came to understand the importance of over the course of her life. “No matter what language you speak.. It was very, very important in the culture because that helped open doors. Developing self confidence, they know who they are, and they're not ashamed of being who they are,” she explains. Between residential school and colonization, there was a lot of shame and oppression that came with speaking an Indigenous language. Beaver saw how students who stuck it out learned how important it was to walk in two worlds, learning from elders and learning Western ways.
“These young people had the strength within themselves to want to learn the language. They wanted to learn more about their culture.”
The learning experiences Beaver and her husband shared were not just for Dene children, they were open to anyone. One challenging experience Beaver had was in teaching language and culture in a classroom where one of the children was raised to believe what she was teaching was evil and bad. He argued a lot and was very upset about what they were learning in school. She asked his mother if he would want to sit out but she was adamant that he participate, though she disapproved of even drumming. Now, that lady shares that she is practicing her culture, having come a long way from her initial beliefs around cultural practices.
“Our land teaches us our language. Our culture teaches us our language. We have to be proud of it. We have to make our hearts strong, and our minds strong.”
In contrast, one of the little boys would tell his grandmother all the stories he heard at school and it filled her heart with joy to know her grandson was receiving these teachings. She’s seen community members return to traditions and embrace sobriety or reduce their drinking and those who learn the stories and teachings are able to share them with others and keep the culture going.
Something she loves about her culture is all the laughter. “Dene people, when they laugh, their eyes just light up and they sparkle when they're laughing. No matter how much the world around them is chaos or falling down, they find something crazy,” she giggles. Storytelling often brings forth laughter for the storyteller and the audience and there’s so much joy.
The other thing she loves is her language. “Our language is beautiful. It's really beautiful. That's what I'm talking about when I say, ‘if we bring this out and bring our children to even bring that back home, the people in the community will start using it,” she muses. She’s seen participants in her classes go on to find ways to participate in language and culture work later in life and it brings her hope about the ripples of impact her teachings create.
Eileen Beaver always tells people, “you have to plant your seeds and let them grow. At times you watch other people grow with it and it's amazing. It's amazing how our language is so alive.” She’s planted many seeds in her time and seen her language and culture blossom, like the confidence of the young people she instructs. Out on the land and in her community, she’s built a space for learning and connection so her people’s ways of being continue to thrive.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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.