Most teachers prepare for class with chalkboards, hour-by-hour lesson plans, and neatly aligned desks. Stan Njootli, Sr.’s preparation involves jerry cans, tarps and well-maintained boat motors. Njootli and his colleague Frances Ross are teachers at the new Chief Zzeh Gittlit High School in Old Crow.
For many decades, students from Old Crow would fly to Whitehorse to graduate. This year, in partnership with Department of Education, Yukon College and the Vuntut Gwitchen Government, these students will stay put, utilize their strengths and work towards graduating in Old Crow. The high school program includes on-the-land experience and traditional knowledge, coupled with job training and the required academic courses.
Taking their classroom to the land, seven students and two teachers traveled 10 miles (16 km) up river, set up camp, made a fire and waited for the crossing caribou.
Along the banks of the Porcupine River, this fresh air classroom gave the students credit for Science 10 and Sustainable Resources 12, but it taught them much more.
Over the course of two days, teachers and students harvested six caribou, took blood and tissue samples for Environment Yukon and preserved the organs for science.
Under the watchful eye of Njootli, the students patiently and expertly worked on the caribou. They skinned, quartered and butchered the animals, helping each other and focusing on their respective strengths. Njootli was pleased at how clean they kept the meat, using tarps to keep the sand out.
“I was really impressed, says Njootli. “They watched me do the first one and then they all jumped in, helping each other the entire time.”
Student Ashlynne Frost states, “This was a great learning opportunity because it’s what our people have been doing for years. My favourite part was seeing the biggest eagle I’ve ever seen and getting to skin and cut the caribou. When we came back home we froze much of the meat for our hot lunch program. A few weeks later we used the back straps to make dry meat up at a wall-tent camp on Crow Mountain, behind town”.
Another student and aspiring photographer, Sheila Kyikavichik, says, “Everything was so beautiful. There were so many colours, and the caribou were migrating just past where we made a fire. The sky was so blue, and it was a great day for taking photographs. I’ve even been able to get some of them published.”
For Darcy Andre-Josie the highlight was seeing caribou swimming downriver only a few minutes after starting a campfire and the great snacks of fresh caribou and fish.
This innovative program will continue providing students with relevant skills and outdoor learning opportunities. Whether it’s a trapping workshop with the local Renewable Resources Council, Wilderness First Aid training or ice-fishing, the students will continue learning close to home, knowing that the community is fully behind them.