A group wave celebrates the opening of to ?enähjin Tr'ëdëk.
"We had a vision in the fall, last year, of building an outdoor classroom at Robert Service School," Hän Language teacher Melissa Hawkins explained to the assembly of several hundred students, teachers, parents, and community members on a sunny Thursday, September 6.
Everyone was gathered around the antler-crowned arbour-style entrance to ?enähjin Tr'ëdëk, or the Gathering Place, the realization of that vision, during the last period in the school day, to celebrate the official opening of the outdoor classroom.
The purpose behind the creation of to ?enähjin Tr'ëdëk was to help bridge the gap between the traditional methods of classroom teaching and the traditional educational practices of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in people, practices that were based on the land and experience.
While RSS has been incorporating an increasing amount of outdoor and cross-cultural education over the last decade, field trips are not always convenient or easy to organize. Community Education Liasion Coordinator Jill Delany recalls Hawkins saying, "Wouldn't it be great to have an outdoor learning setting right here on the school grounds?"
With some encouragement from Joe Karmel, who was the principal at RSS at that time, the two began the process of planning and applying for grant finding to realize their vision.
"Miss Delaney and I had the vision to do this, but there is a massive list of thank-yous to people who contributed to this to actually make it happen," Hawkins said. "It was naïve of myself to think that it would be a few shovels and some trees to be transplanted into here. It ended up snowballing into this wonderful site that you see now."
Initial funding of $5000 came from the World Wildlife Federation. As the project grew in scope, an additional $3000 came from the Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds to purchase native trees and shrubs for the area.
A lot of people were involved in the planning, but some of the core ideas came from the RSS Grade 3 class and were refined by RSS graduate Miranda Adam's Little Lady Landscaping, as well as Gammie Trucking, Mike Crelli's CND Landscape, John Lenart's Klondike Valley Nursery, the RSS Grade 9/10 shop class, and the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in.
At that point, the plan included a sculpted hillside with a scattering of local trees and shrubs, a simulated shoreline with a beached canoe, a fire pit surrounded by benches, and the arbour entry.
In the spring of the last school year, many of the school's classes came out to inspect the site and contribute further ideas, including a wall tent (purchased with the TH/RSS cultural inclusion fund). The tent can be heated for use in the winter.
At that time, Delany and Hawkins reported that the Chief and Council of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in were very supportive.
"They have donated a lovely sign, to be made by BC artist Warren Langley, who made the sign for the Dänojà Zho [Cultural Centre]. The sign will be in both Hän and English, and the design will represent the breathtaking traditional territory of the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in. Mähsi Cho to Chief and Council, and to Elders Percy Henry and Angie Joseph-Rear for assistance with the Hän language component."
In both languages, the sign quotes Percy Henry: "We need to teach out children today, so our way of life will live on."
At the opening ceremony, new principal Ann Moore joined with Victor Henry to cut the ribbon. When everyone was inside, Angie Joseph-Rear led with a prayer, followed by the Hän Singers with the "Welcome Song". Hawkins spoke about the project and named most of the people and organizations that had helped it come to life.
"A sincere Mähsi Cho for the help and donations from WWF Green Schools Grant, Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, Little Lady Landscape Design + Drafting, Klondike Valley Nursery, Lisa Ewasko, Mike Crelli and CND landscape, Florian Boulais, Peter Menzies and the Grade 9/10 shop class, Arctic Inland, Gary and Sylvie Gammie, Grenon Enterprises, Arctic Alpine Seeds, Nicky Ball, the Flynn Family, the teachers and students of Robert Service School."
It was a promising beginning.
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.