What it’s like to raise kids on the rez during a pandemic

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Parenting

This may be surprising to some, but raising kids on the rez during a pandemic has been a blessing for my family—and many others. When COVID-19 hit, my daughter, River-Jaxsen, wasn’t enrolled in public school yet—she was three, almost four. But we enrolled her in some online classes and began to expand her virtual learning experiences to the world outside Poundmaker Cree Nation, where we live. (The reserve is north of what the colonial world refers to as North Battleford, Saskatchewan.)

We fill the days balancing land-based and traditional knowledge with education that will be required in the public school system, in order to prepare her. It’s an intermingling of her mother-tongues and what our people have been practicing for generations, along with the science of the natural world, mathematics that connect to daily living, and fuelling our bodies with a kinship to the land through substantive hours outside. She knows how to set snares, how to make the soup from the wapoose we do get (this means rabbit in Anishinaabemowin), and how to give back to the land after receiving such a gift.

Despite our fragmented Internet connection, we also signed up for classes through outschool.com, and began to hear from other Indigenous families online about what their homeschooling experiences have been like during the pandemic.

Dad of six Brent Achneepineskum, one of my relatives back home on Pays Plat First Nation in northwestern Ontario, switched to homeschooling at the very beginning of the pandemic in order to keep his children and his older family members safe. Their family consists of six children, four of which he homeschools. He has interwoven a multi-generational, pre-colonial approach to education and homeschooling with the kinship of his own father, Jack Achneepineskum, who helps teach some of the younger children about the land, life itself, and how to be a good human. 

Living in a small community in northwestern Ontario comes with its challenges, including the often choppy wifi that cuts out for days on end. But the Achneepineskum family navigates around it daily with the integration of hands-on activities and old-school classroom teaching. They take the kids out for walks on the land, conduct science experiments with household ingredients, and integrate traditional teachings.

Brent made the difficult decision to leave his job and stay at home in order to give his children this high-quality educational experience—a privilege he knows many people can’t afford. His time at home with his kids has helped him assess each of his children’s learning styles and realize how the mainstream education system may not have identified their strengths and weaknesses. “The larger education institutions are failing Indigenous kids,” he says.

Pre-COVID, his children attended a public school in the small town of Schreiber, a 30-minute bus ride away each day. At school, many of their Indigenous cultural practices were never mentioned. But at home, his kids receive customized lessons based on their individual skill levels. Brent says their creativity, independent thought processes, problem-solving skills, and time management have all improved exponentially. “And as I learn more about each of my kids, the bond we have as parent and child gets stronger.”

Many Indigenous families like Brent’s (and mine) have been able to use this time at home to weave traditional living into the educational experience—something our kids wouldn’t normally receive in the public school system. Hunting, fishing, trapping and Indigenous language exercises are now all a regular part of their routine. They’re getting lessons on how to harvest an animal and utilize as much of it as possible. Brent’s family is currently learning the art of brain tanning hides to make clothing. (This is a traditional method of preserving and softening a hide with the animal’s brain.) 

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Nine-year-old Dreyson, one of Brent Achneepineskum’s six kids, demonstrates that learning to hunt and tend to rabbit snares is part of their homeschooling curriculum on Pays Plat First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Photo: Courtesy of Brent Achneepineskum

“The children have formed a deeper connection to their ancestors and the land,” says Brent. “They’re becoming more self-aware of their identity as young Ojibwe men (Anishinaabe). And they’re so proud of it. In fact, they feel sorry for others who are not connected as deeply to Mother Earth.”

This is something that resonates with many Indigenous families who have been making big decisions about schooling and work/life balance during the pandemic. These lifestyle adjustments are being made across our communities, with a shift to a “new” way of living that’s actually, for us, a very old, traditional way of living.

In the past, our ancestors never really saw children as a nuisance, or as getting in the way of daily living or work. They simply saw children as being present to learn their roles and responsibilities as they grew up, working and learning alongside adults. 

I’d argue that before COVID, capitalism and colonial systems were in the way of us fully connecting with our children. In our traditional kinship systems, our children were always with us. Babies were attached to our breasts, our backs, or our hips, as we did what we had to in order to survive. Now that we’ve seen this firsthand, we’re starting to create spaces for children to thrive while we work from home and homeschool our children at the same time. We are noticing a deep resurgence of the knowledge that has existed within our families for generations, and it’s magical.

The pandemic has showed us that we are strong enough to balance it all, and the concept of continuing to homeschool post-COVID is huge for many Indigenous families. I’m seeing lots of conversations about creative approaches to home-schooling in Facebook groups such as Indigenous Motherhood.

It’s also important to remember the context and history of Indigenous education, and residential schools. The connection to grandparents plays a huge role in preparing children for life, long-term. For Brent’s father, Jack, the impacts of residential school, and his own experiences of attending those schools, still trickle into his life and into his children’s lives. Being the mishomis (grandfather) for his grandchildren and teaching them what he knows about life is the closest he can come to feeling grounded. He has reflected on his own life lessons and mistakes he made in the past. He says that the opportunity to teach and share life with his grandchildren has created shifts in his life that he didn’t think were possible.

Now that the vaccine has made its way into many of our communities, many of our elders, and moshums and kokums, have received it. On Poundmaker Cree Nation, members of the 60-plus age group have all been vaccinated, and back home in my own community of Pays Plat First Nation, elders will receive their vaccines in the coming weeks, along with immune-compromised individuals. Many of my older relatives say that they feel protected now, but they will continue to live in safe ways. People on our reserve are still masking and social distancing. We miss travelling to pow-wows , dancing with friends and relatives, and enjoying time with loved ones on the land. But there is gratitude that the vaccines are here. Now it simply comes down to seeing some long-term, lasting results.

This spring, I am thinking more and more about what it means to have a relationship with our homeland, because we cannot travel. We are staying put. We have time to grow our own food, and to teach ourselves practices from generations ago, like crushing and drying chokecherries for snacks, snaring rabbits, digging up prairie turnips, and doing everything we can to let the land know how deeply we love her. We can continue the practice of revitalizing, and restoring, Indigenous practices that have worked for our families for generations—that is exactly what our families, communities, and nations need.

The land knows what it is doing. And as Indigenous peoples, we trust that every single day.

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