Learning From The Land

Robert Michon | Communications Specialist, ARTA
Ashley Feldberg and Alana Schamber | Photos

Outside a small teepee in the woods of central Alberta, about twenty children, ages 7 to 13, gather around a fire that they had made with only materials provided by nature: cattails as tinder and friction for a spark. Warm and sheltered from the wind, they use hand-carved wooden spoons to gobble down môso-mîcimâpoy that they spent the afternoon preparing themselves. While they eat, a knowledge-keeper tells them stories from the Plains Cree tradition — stories, they all know, that have a deeper purpose than the entertainment they provide.

This might sound like a scene from an Indigenous Canadian history book, but it’s actually the experience of a present-day group of students in the Wetaskiwin area, some Indigenous, some not, all taking part in a style of education that goes back thousands of years: land-based learning.

Land-based learning begins with the belief that the earth itself is humanity’s first and greatest teacher. By learning to live in concert with the
lands and waters around us, we can learn not just to survive but to thrive. The land can teach us about ourselves, our history, about the importance of responsibility and community. It’s a style of education that retired educator Bob Silverthorne has been imparting upon younger generations for his whole career, and something he continues to be passionate about in his retirement.

As a Plains Cree knowledge-keeper, Silverthorne hosts eight-week courses for children in the area, covering the four main tenets of living off the land: creating fire, building shelter, gathering water, and learning to feed oneself. But it’s not survivalist training. Each practical, hands-on lesson comes with a teaching that connects with a more broad, rounded curriculum.

“In our second semester, we learn how to make arrowheads from obsidian, the same way they were made pre-contact with settlers,” says Silverthorne, giving an example of how this plays out. “But Alberta doesn’t have natural obsidian; it came here from around St. Anthony, Idaho. So, while we learn a hands-on skill, we talk about the real history of the land: How did the obsidian get here? Did Indigenous peoples trade? Did they travel? The kids learn about real social studies, real history, and real community interaction.”

Silverthorne also emphasizes literacy in his program as an introduction to the kinds of knowledge students will pursue. Wilderness novels
like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet — already well-loved in Canadian classrooms — are a perfect fit. “Hatchet is about a kid, Brian, same age as our students, who gets stranded in the wilderness,” says Silverthorne. “But he survives and lives really well because he has some good skills to lean on. And those are the same skills the students are going to learn. Brian learns to make a spear to catch fish; we learn to make a spear to catch fish. Brian learns to cook his fish over the fire, and we do the same thing.”

Because of the age differences of the students, Silverthorne pairs up younger and older readers as reading buddies so more experienced readers can help younger ones with challenging books. While they read together, they learn how to communicate and support each other’s learning. “In a classroom, many kids can’t do a physical skill or an academic skill, and they end up feeling ostracized,” Silverthorne says. “We don’t allow that. Everyone supports each other’s development.”

And it’s not just students who support each other — Silverthorne invites parents and volunteers to assist in the lessons, too. Alana Schamber has three children in the program, and she is grateful for the opportunity for her kids to learn what it means to be good stewards of the land. “I think it’s important to learn about the land you’re living on, and the people who first inhabited it,” she says. “We love nature and the way it connects us to each other. I want my kids to develop a relationship with it and a respect for it.”

Land-based learning is becoming more common in schools and curricula across Canada as a teaching tool for both reconciliation and environmental consciousness. Silverthorne believes that it can be a powerful tool for all who want to live in harmony with the land. “We believe that on this land, there’s room for all,” he says. “We don’t own it because the Creator made it for all of us, and so we share it. The knowledge that has been given to me is not for me to keep but to be passed on to the young people. If you want to live with the land, you have to take care of it.”