Ancestors in Training at Xpey’ Elementary

Xpey’ means cedar in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language of the Musqueam people. Xpey’ is an Indigenous Focus Choice School on the East Side of the City of Vancouver whose goals are to nurture social emotional learning and foster pride in and knowledge of Indigenous culture, language and ancestry. The vision at Xpey’ is to foster academic excellence, strength of self, and pride in Indigenous ancestry and teachings. Students from across the district are invited to attend and at this time 90 percent of the population are from an urban Indigenous background. 

The calming scents of a morning smudge, the prolific and colourful Indigenous artwork and a small sign that says, “You are who your ancestors sang about in their ceremonies. You are their revolutionary prayer. You are their sacred gift to the world,” set the tone for teaching and learning here this week. This year marks Xpey’s first year partnership with youthLEADarts. We are working with the grade 4/5s and the grade 6/7s, their teachers, administrators and cultural support workers.
As the eagle’s feather was passed around the opening circle and the youthLEADarts program introduced, there was uncertainty in the air. This week promised something different, it broke routine, it brought two classes together at once. It was a different form of community, calling on different learning and creative styles to be expressed, risks to be taken and respect to be shown.  
When we began our drama games, some put a toe in and hid behind hoodies, others jumped in fully ready to engage. Our warm up was truly spent warming up to one another, learning to trust, to try, encouraging the invisible to become visible. Together, we began something new. 
Students began reflecting on their roles as “Ancestors in Training” in Sheniz’s mandala building workshop and wrote some initial reflections for their I Am poems. I am human, I am a person, I am tall, I am an epic gamer were our first building blocks.
Sheniz asked them to choose an object for the centre of their mandala to represent them, then to build on it and around it using objects found in nature to represent their community, the people, places and things that protect and support them. So many stories were shared. One student used stones at the centre of his mandala, in a kind of fire pit. He drew faces on them to represent his ancestors. At the end of the session, we could keep one piece and then return the rest to nature. He chose to keep the stones, so his ancestors would always be near him. 
Closing circle had many highlights. Every student spoke up and participated, even those who had been silent in the morning. As the sign on the door suggests, we are recognizing, exploring and expressing our sacred gifts, as individuals and as community.