Errington Elementary School students, along with some counterparts from Oceanside Elementary, honoured First Nation paddle teachings — and celebrated the paddle local Indigenous artist Bill Helin created for the school — in a ceremony held on Thursday, Feb. 1.
Part of a two-year planning project by Errington Elementary focusing on First Nations teachings, the overall message of the paddle teachings is one of unifying people in a journey of education and life, said Helin.
Of Tsimshian ancestry from northwestern B.C., Helin said, “The paddle is a real integral part of the journey in our society and the journey in life.”
Used both as a tool for travelling across the water and as weapons, paddles would be raised upwards as one entered the territory of another Indigenous group as a sign of peace, and to show one’s individual life crest, he said.
“(The crest) represented their tribal roots, and so that was a big part of (students’) understanding, is that everybody has a choice in what type of animal is their favourite, whereas Aboriginal people usually have a selected and gifted hereditary system that passes on an animal crest.”
As part of that understanding, each student chose an animal and painted it on a miniature paddle of their own, and helped to create a paddle that represents their class.
In addition to these cultural teachings, students also learned about carving tools as techniques from Helin, when he carved the school’s paddle in October as an artist in residence.
“All classes spent time watching Bill Helin carve our school paddle, asking questions, helping as a carver helper or with photography,” said Janet Richards, Errington’s teacher librarian, who was involved in organizing the program.
“These are really great programs just because they do that; they give a real thorough understanding for the kids about what the process is and the respect of the culture,” said Helin.
The design Helin created for the school paddle, at the request of the school, was a representation of a wildcat, the school’s mascot. Helin called the design the first of its kind.
Helin gave the paddle to the school on Feb. 1, when Errington students showed off their classroom paddles and Oceanside Elementary students in the First Nations dance group performed for the school.
Indigenous resource teacher and Qualicum First Nation member Carrie Reid also spoke at the event, discussing how paddles must be respected and cared for, as they come from living things that were sacrificed in the service of taking people where they need to go.
While there are various cultural and artistic aspects to Coast Salish paddles, they are of course an important tool, said Reid.
“Traditionally… it’s like your tires on your vehicle,” she said. “You can’t operate a canoe without one. It was a really important tool, so you had to look after it.”
Some of the lessons Errington students learned about the paddles went beyond the cultural and artistic. Reid spoke to students about the physics of paddles, discussing their different shapes and lengths, and the reasons for each, often having to do with the type of water being paddling through, she said.
Another aspect of the paddles Reid discussed at the ceremony was the tradition of hanging paddles in the forest for a month in the winter, which she said was a way of allowing paddles to rest and be with the trees that they came from. But it’s also a time of year where stormy weather makes travelling by canoe dangerous, so people would stay home, she said.
While classes at Errington discussed topics including survival skills, Hul’qami’num words and more in relation to paddles, Reid said there are many more subjects that could be taught through First Nations paddles and canoeing in general.
“There is so much science behind a paddle,” she said. “Like, if you’re paddling through kelp, or if you’re in big ocean water, you don’t have the same paddle as if you’re paddling on a river,” she said. Knowing where is best to sit in your canoe in what situation, or what type of wood to make a paddle out of and why, are more lessons that First Nations knowledge can teach, Reid added.
The paddle teachings are just part of the First Nations programming Errington Elementary School is undertaking, partly in response to the new B.C. curriculum that emphasizes bringing First Nations members and knowledge into classrooms.