Thursday, July 31, 2014
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Culture co-ordinator bolsters sense of achievement


Today at school is like every Monday morning for Celeste Tootoosis. She follows a plan. She hits the books.


Tootoosis is a Cree from the Poundmaker Reserve, an hour west of North Battleford. Her job is culture co-ordinator at Sakewew High School in the city. She promotes Cree culture to 250 First Nations students in the school.

On Monday mornings she takes time at school to read books and articles herself. She researches. She keeps looking for ways to help youth be proud of their heritage. Listen to elders, she tells students. Learn about some of your history. Although there are dark chapters in the past, she tells students to look forward, don't be rooted in yesterday's problems.

"Having gone through an integrated school system, I have been exposed to prejudice, labelling and bullying," said Tootoosis, who has a university degree. "This is an opportunity to embrace who we are.

"We're the teachers of the next generation."

Her daughter is part of the new wave.

Kenecia Tootoosis, 15, is in Grade 10 at Sakewew. Young at heart, she is seasoned in spirit. She quills moccasins and leggings. She paints. She is a fancy shawl dancer. She made a note she posted on a wall at home. "I will learn my language," it reads.

"My daughter inspires me to continue the things I do," Celeste said. "She is artistic, creative ... so grounded."

Kenecia's style is different than Celeste's. Their thinking is the same. Kenecia honours her culture, Celeste mirrors it.

As a child, Celeste watched her grandmother Louisa beading. She heard her grandfather John singing. If she wanted to sleep in on a weekend, she'd rise and see John sitting at the end of her bed, playing a drum, getting her active.

John boiled water on the stove to make breakfast porridge for everyone.

John was sunrise. He collected pennies in an empty coffee can, giving the can to one of the children when it was full.

"He started games," said Celeste. "He created this environment, this comfort. Everyone had their own house, but people were attracted to our home. Entertainment came to us."

By her early teens, Celeste took the lead. Her high school asked her to organize basketball and volleyball tournaments. Adults recognized her commitment, her sense of direction.

She credits her grandparents. They are gone. Their presence stays.

"What would I say to them?" she said. "Thank you for teaching me my language. Thank you for guiding me.

"Thank you for being with me even today."

Today she teaches youth. Celeste talks with students about trust and confidence, opportunity and achievement.

More than the work she does, this job is about the person she is.

Sakewew opened in 2003.

A year later the school looked for a culture co-ordinator. At the time Celeste was working at Thunderchild Reserve northwest of North Battleford. Her friend Audrey Sokowaypanace saw the Sakewew job advertised in a newspaper.

"This is you," Sokowaypanace said.

Celeste applied. Interviews for the job were held one morning. She received a call in the afternoon that same day, telling her she was hired.

"It would be so awesome for parents to see what we do here," Celeste said. "For anyone. Come with open hearts and open minds. We're unique, complex, interesting.

"Every day I come here I see the smiling faces. (The students) drop in and see me. They wave. You wouldn't believe how fortunate I am. Their happiness is a reflection of me."

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