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Indigenous culture recognized at UCHS flag raising

UCHS senior girls’ volleyball team practises truth and reconciliation,

UNITY — With their home volleyball tournament taking place only a week before National Day forTruth and Reconciliation, the Unity Composite High School senior girls’ volleyball team decided again to make a statement.

Last year they wore orange scrunchies. This year, not only did they wear orange uniforms throughout the weekend, first they hosted a school assembly, raising Treaty 6 and Métis Nation flags in the gym and inviting First Nation guests to speak, Sept. 23.

The girls followed that up by involving all 11 visiting teams. Every player was given a bow, respectfully made from a kokum scarf, and an orange paper shirt. In their team package, players were asked to write a pledge on moving forward with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action No. 63.iii: “Building student capacity for intercultural understanding, empathy and mutual respect.”

The school assembly kicked off with the entry of special guests and participants, through an honour guard composed of the volleyball team members. The guests included Kristina Hansen, senior girls’ volleyball captain; Tallon Starchief, UCHS student; Elder Sylvia Weenie; Kim Night, Indigenous advocate, Living Sky School Division; Sherron Burns, LSSD learning consultant for First Nations, Métis and Inuit engagement and achievement; and UCHS Métis/First Nations parent Jess Crier and her two youngest who attend Unity Public School.

Just prior to introducing the guests and having them enter the gym, principal Aaron Melnyk welcomed everyone and explained the hanging of the flags was a specific action the school was taking in pursuit of truth and reconciliation. He said the flags would become a constant reminder to everyone using the gym of the importance of reconciliation to the school.

After the guests had walked through the honour guard, Kristina offered tobacco to Elder Sylvia on behalf of everyone present.

As Kristina and Tallon held the two flags, Melnyk said, “Hanging these flags is a symbol of the trust that we are looking to establish between all peoples of this land.”

The flags were then given to Elder Sylvia for a blessing. Before praying over the flags and the gathering of people, she spoke to the assembly, saying it had been an honour to be invited. She added, “I’ve often told my children that I didn’t think I would ever see the day when our First Nations knowledge would be honoured – in a good way. And today it’s going to show the world that we all can live together and live side by side.”

Elder Sylvia Weenie speaks at ceremony

Elder Sylvia then asked “each and every” member of the audience to help her in the prayer: “help me to ask the Creator to bless each and every one of us, our families, that we may live together side by side and also to bless our home fires, all of our relations and to bless these flags that they may hang in your schools as a reminder about what our forefathers wanted for our people. And let’s all pray together to the Great Creator and ask for his blessings.”

Everyone was asked to pray in their own language and the Elder did not use the mic during the prayer.

As the flags were hung, Addison and Gracen Rewerts, members of the volleyball team, spoke, describing the importance and symbolism of the flags. Ashlyn Greenwald read the treaty land acknowledgment.

Coach Vicki Orobko spoke about the kokum bows made by the girls, how the kokum is the head of the family and life-giver, and about the history of friendship between Ukrainian immigrants and local Indigenous people. With the immigrants’ stitch work influenced by the floral designs of the Indigenous people, “the kokum scarf became a sign of respect for each other; that’s why we chose it,” she said.

Elder Sylvia thanked everyone “for showing respect and honouring the flags that we just blessed and I truly, truly honour you for the amount of understanding that you’re showing today. And that is my dream for tomorrow. That is my dream for the future, for my children to be able to walk side by side with you and to be equal with one another, to help one another. That is the meaning of these flags that are up here.”

She spoke further about the flags, noting Treaty 6 was signed in 1876. She said the intention of the First Nations was to share their land, and the use of the pipe during the signing ceremony was inviting the Creator to be present as a witness.

Both Elder Sylvia and Night, her daughter, spoke about the phrase, “as long as the rivers flow.” The originally wording, which can be found in Treaty 4, was “as long as the waters flow” and was actually a reference to women, those who give and sustain life. “In our view, women are life-givers … a portal between the spirit world and the physical world,” said Night. 

A woman’s role is to take and sustain life, to take care of the children and Night said, “I always have a heavy heart because we have to have a day where we need to be reminded that every child matters.”

UCHS offers words from members

Jessica Crier spoke about her own experiences and thoughts on “raising Indigenous kids in their own Treaty 6 territory.” As well as the two UPS students, she has three children who attend UCHS. She said “it’s becoming easier to ignore our differences and embrace our similarities.” She hopes no children, including her own, will ever “be left out, bullied, starving or lonely.”

Melnyk then named all participants and speakers in the flag raising ceremonies, thanking them “for helping us take this important and one of our first steps and a very important step.”

And then it was time to play volleyball, but games were interrupted the second day by another ceremony in the gym. The teams met after lunch Sept. 24 so the Warriors could tell their competitors about the meaning and significance of the new flags hanging there.

Orobko again spoke about kokums and the history and significance of the kokum scarf. She said, the scarf “represents strength, empowerment and resilience among people” while the kokum “is a safe place; always welcoming and she’ll offer support and be there for you.”

Each Warrior then read the reconciliation pledge she had written on her orange paper shirt aloud and hung it on the walls of the gym, after which everyone else was invited to do the same.

At the end of the tournament, McLurg Broncs were silver medallists, the Warriors bronze and winning gold was the team from John Paul II in North Battleford.