Aki Kikinomakaywin’s ‘learning on the land’ camp in Thunder Bay gets Indigenous youth excited about science

Aki Kikinomakaywin’s ‘learning on the land’ camp in Thunder Bay gets Indigenous youth excited about science

Indigenous youth gathered this week at Lakehead University and Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont., in a special camp centered on Aki Kikinomakaywin — Ojibway for “learning on the land.”

Seventeen young people aged 12 to 16 came from First Nations across northern Ontario to participate in the second year of the program that began July 16. The activities included conducting stream assessments through Indigenous ways of knowing, combined with Western science.

A big goal of the camp is to teach STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) by way of land-based, hands-on activities, and to encourage youth to want to pursue post-secondary education.

Water is life, and without water there would be no life. So [the youth] need to learn the cultural side of how to protect and care for the water, not only for our generation, but future generations.– Sheila DeCorte, knowledge keeper

For Nicholas Cada, who’s from Mississauga First Nation, the camp helped him learn a lot about his community and people. Nicholas, 16, said he may even pursue a career in pharmacy.

“The most interesting thing [I’ve learned is] probably the nature or the medicine walk we went on recently,” said Nicholas.

“Going out into the wild and just looking at the different medicines we use that are still common in pharmaceutical areas, that are just completely natural, is really cool to me.”

Combining ways of knowing

The camp covers the cost of food and accommodations for the youth, including a charter departing from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to get to Thunder Bay

Lydia Johnson, project lead for Aki Kikinomakaywin, said this year’s camp was months in the making.

“To be here and be with the kids has been amazing, and I think, as you can see, everyone’s having a really good time,” she said.

Dillon Koopmans teaches the youth at Aki Kikinomakaywin how to perform a stream assessment of the river connecting to Lake Tamblyn at Lakehead University.
Dillon Koopmans, the senior manager of education at Water First Education & Training Inc., teaches young people at Aki Kikinomakaywin how to perform a stream assessment of the river connecting to Lake Tamblyn at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Johnson said leaders work to root the camp in Indigenous culture, stories and teachings.

“We are also trying to do a two-eyed seeing approach where we weave together Indigenous and Western ways of knowing,” she said. “So you’ll see through a lot of our activities that we try to bring both of those ways of knowing in.”

One of the goals of Aki Kikinomakaywin is to get Indigenous adolescents excited about post-secondary education, through a novel teaching method.

“Being able to show that we can do science, and we can use our culture and use our teachings, and do things in tandem I think is so important,” said Johnson. “And hopefully we’ll start bringing a bunch more youth into post-secondary, and also connected youth, into post-secondary.”

Protecting and caring for all living things

Sheila DeCorte, from Anemki Wajiw, is one of the knowledge keepers at Aki Kikinomakaywin.

DeCorte said it’s important for the campers to learn about the significance of water.

“Water is life, and without water there would be no life,” said DeCorte. “So [the youth] need to learn the cultural side of how to protect and care for the water, not only for our generation, but future generations.”

Kayden Cherneske, 14, a camper from the Ojibway First Nation of Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg, collected a water sample to do a stream assessment, in order to understand the impacts of land use on water. He said testing on several samples would help him learn if the water was safe to drink.

Kayden Cherneske from Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg collects a water sample for Aki Kikinomakaywin's stream assessment.
Kayden Cherneske from Netmizaaggamig Nishnaabeg collects a water sample for Aki Kikinomakaywin’s stream assessment. Cherneske says the samples will be tested to determine if the water is safe to drink. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Dillon Koopmans, senior manager of education at Water First Education & Training Inc., taught Aki Kikinomakaywin campers how to perform a stream assessment of the river connecting to Lake Tamblyn at Lakehead University.

Koopmans said it’s important to remember the goal is to help, heal and protect the water when doing work on it.

DeCorte said it’s the responsibility of Indigenous youth to protect and care for all living things.

“If they want to go into the Western science of water, then they’re going to need to also be aware of the cultural side of things, so that they’re remembering to honor and respect Mother Earth — remember to honor and respect the water itself, because it is a living entity, and to respect all beings here on Mother Earth.”

DeCorte added it’s hoped students gaining knowledge from Aki Kikinomakaywin will want to pursue a career in Western science.

“Or maybe they’ll become a knowledge keeper on the opposite side of things. But even if the ones that aren’t as engaged, even if they retain one thing all week, then that’ll be positive too.”

Bringing knowledge back to communities

Nicholas said he plans to bring what he’s learned at the camp back to his community.

“I know that back where I’m from, we have not so much medical attention. So it’s going to be good to go out there and maybe offer some traditional alternatives to popular medicines.”

Another camper, Kiaya Nowegijick of the Ojibway First Nations of Gull Bay and Webequie, said she had an interest in medicines and stories, and liked how the Aki Kikinomakaywin leaders conducted the teachings, “how they learn how to live on the land and medicines, and just culture stuff, to reconnect with their culture.”

Kiaya, 15, also hopes to share what she has learned with her community so they can grow together.

“Even before this, I wanted to be an Indigenous advocate for my community, and to fight for our rights and fight for our land back.”

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