“I was so very blessed to grow up with my family and learn about my culture, but so many Indigenous children didn’t,” reflected Stephanie Big Plume, program facilitator for the Calgary Stampede Foundation’s Indigenous Youth Program, Soar. “A lot of my friends who [were Indigenous but didn’t grow up in an Indigenous family] asked so many questions about their culture and what everything meant – like why we smudged and why it was just as important to give back just as much as you take. If there was a program like Soar, or people who actively went out of their way to explain why the recognition of culture is so important, I think it would have made a real transformation.”

On Saturday, February 24, more than 35 Indigenous youth gathered in Sweetgrass Lodge in ENMAX Park to explore their cultures, build new relationships and, most importantly, have fun.

Facilitators Kristy North Peigan (top left) and Malcolm Moses (bottom right) help lead activities for the participants.

Soar was led by several Indigenous facilitators from various backgrounds and specialities. When designing Soar and the Stampede’s other Indigenous Youth Programs, it was important to make sure the facilitators’ roles in the community convey different types of career paths from their personal experiences; this gives youth participants a way to believe in the possibilities their future can have while feeling inspired to follow their dreams.

“I am very happy to be a part of this program and would love to see more like it; this program gives me an opportunity to be the mentor I was lacking in my childhood,” explained facilitator Darren WeaselChild. “It’s important that the children feel comfortable connecting with others and make lifelong friends that live here in the city. I found that making friends with similar backgrounds is vital to maintaining a cultural identity in a multi-cultural city.”

The facilitation team shared traditional teachings through fun and interactive games, while engaging participants using dance and art.

“There is an opportunity for my community to contribute to the social and economic fabric of this country,” explained Tim Fox, Soar facilitator and Director of Indigenous Relations at the Calgary Foundation. “For this to happen, we need to equip future Indigenous leaders with empowerment, connections to culture and opportunities to re-integrate our values and ways of life back into their lives.”

Following a smudging and opening payer, Soar participants started the day in a sharing circle and playing icebreaker games to get to know one another.

The group smudged in the morning to start the program in a good way.

One game, called “Chores”, features someone calling an activity and participants have to quickly form teams to complete it. Here, groups of three were “cleaning their tipis”.

“My favorite moment in the day is about mid-morning, when all the kids who just arrived are starting to come out of their shells and aren’t afraid to engage and make friends,” said Big Plume. “It’s at this moment when they know they can be themselves completely – and I think this strongly needs to be encouraged.”

Traditional dances were next on the agenda and the group split into two with the younger participants learning step dancing, led by the talented and engaging Russ Baker, and the older participants learning grass and jingle dancing.

Malcolm Moses teaches participants about the history of the grass dance, adding that “the beat is in you, you’ve had it all along” to eager learners.

Cieran Starlight, 2018 Calgary Stampede Indian Princess, and Vanessa Stiffarm, 2016 Calgary Stampede Indian Princess, joined Big Plume in the jingle dress dance lessons.

One of the afternoon activities was time dedicated to the opportunity creating art that represents a forward-thinking future.

“The Indigenous community doesn’t think in terms of years. Our thought process centres on generations,” Fox said. “The last 150 years has only been a few generations when we know our people have lived and governed this land of Turtle Island, now North America, for generation upon generation. I would be naive to expect change to occur in my lifetime. I do this work in preparation for future generations such as my daughter’s generation, and generations of other Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.”

Craft supplies of various types, shapes, colours and sizes were provided so that each participant could create something truly unique and meaningful and convey their visions for the future.

The day came to a close with a gratitude circle where each participant had the opportunity to express their gratitude for any aspect of their life. “I’m thankful for being First Nations” and “I love being around other kids like me!” were two heart-felt examples of what they had to say.

Cieran Starlight presenting her work of art in the sharing circle and describing what the future of Indigenous cultures looks like to her.

Attendance in and anticipation of the Stampede Foundation’s Indigenous Youth Program days has remained strong since the first session last year, with high hopes for the remaining three sessions of 2018.

“My heart is really in this,” Big Plume said. “I read something that explained that what you’re remembered for is what you’ve done for others, not for yourself; I don’t think there is a better way to be remembered than by serving others, whether that is bringing them a smile or giving them a fun day.”

Vanessa Stiffarm was all smiles throughout the day!

About the Indigenous Youth Program:

Soar was the third Indigenous youth program since its inception in 2017; the first session, Day of Fun, was all about introducing Indigenous youth to the education program while creating a safe space for them to feel comfortable and welcomed. The second session held earlier this year, Rediscovery, was collaboration with the YMCA and focused on diving deeper into Indigenous cultures.

The fourth, and most recent, Indigenous Youth Program was Robot Day held at Sweetgrass Lodge on March 17. Participants worked on teams to build and program LEGO robots, ending the day with an action-packed race around miniature CS Chuckwagon barrels. Indigenous astrophysicist Rob Cardinal told participants of his life experiences and encouraged them to follow their dreams. Cardinal is the Executive Director at The First Light Initiative, which exposes Aboriginal youth of all ages to telescopes, astronomy and the wonders that fill the sky.

First Robotics Society facilitator Logan Arcilla works with a participant programming a robot to deliver a bee to a hive.

Robot Day was the third of five planned Indigenous Youth Program days for 2018 and was created in part by a generous donation from Mel Benson to the Calgary Stampede Foundation. Benson is president of Mel E. Benson Management Services Inc. an international consulting firm working in various countries with a focus on First Nations/Corporate negotiations, and is a member of Beaver Lake Cree Nation, located in northeastern Alberta. He is a member of several charitable organizations and prides himself on being active in his community.

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