Meet the Indigenous elder creating space for learning through art in Burnaby

“When I’m talking, I’m not talking just about art or how to carve or how to draw, but I’m also talking about the need for reconciliation."

By Simran Singh | September 29, 2021 |5:00 am

Skwxú7mesh Nation elder Latash-Maurice Nahanee wears many hats.

Aside from being a business owner, former journalist, and artist, he is also a teacher. Nahanee has been working with schools across the Lower Mainland for over 25 years to share and support Indigenous teachings and reconciliation. He has spent about five years working directly with schools in Burnaby and collaborating with students across the district.

Nahanee’s teaching method veers away from traditional lectures or writing things on a whiteboard. Instead, he teaches through art.

Last year, Nahanee worked on a virtual wood carving project with classes from Alpha and Burnaby North Secondary. Students designed and carved their own eagles. Nahanee also worked with students at North to lead them in drumming and song.

His next project in Burnaby will be at Byrne Creek Secondary to complete a mural project sometime during the school year.

Nahanee told the Beacon that his artistry allows him to connect with students on a deeper level and “share an Indigenous worldview.”

“When I’m talking, I’m not talking just about art or how to carve or how to draw, but I’m also talking about the need for reconciliation,” he said. “Colonial policy has harmed Aboriginal people. So it gives people a better understanding.”

While Nahanee wants to facilitate an open dialogue with students he acknowledged the emotional labour that often goes unnoticed with this kind of work in schools, particularly when speaking about the residential “school” system and the discovery of the hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at these sites.

He said he hopes to see more educators facilitate discussions around the continued impacts and implications of Canada’s colonial history.

“I think one of the problems in our education system is having the Indigenous people doing the heavy lifting,” he said.

“I think the teachers should be doing their research on this and talking about these harder issues, rather than put it on people like myself because it’s so personal.”

Nahanee’s family attended St Paul’s Indian Residential “School” in North Vancouver.

In August, the Skwxú7mesh Nation announced it was embarking on an Indigenous-led initiative with the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ Nations to investigate and find answers regarding the children who attended the former St. Paul’s Indian Residential “School” but did not return home.

“There are gravestones around that school—unmarked graves—and it’s very difficult for me to talk about,” he said.

“I think the teachers and the administration, they need to be the ones talking about it. They can be more compassionate about it. We have to admit that people did wrong things.”

Nahanee also facilitates workshops for teachers and school staff throughout the year to “make them more aware of reconciliation issues.” He added that there are resources and books also recommended to them to continue their learning so “they have a better understanding of the student that’s sitting right in front of their desk, and they appreciate them as a human being rather than a number.”

When it comes to his work with students, Nahanee’s goal is simple: he wants to safe space so youth are able to ask the “difficult questions.”

“I don’t mind that. I like the question-and-answer period of classes more so than actually just giving a lecture. The Q&A is really effective because people ask what’s on their mind, what they’ve heard,” he said.

“A lot of children will really only learn from their parents at home, so that’s the type of attitudes they may reflect. And I want them to feel safe and hard questions are not going to harm me or hurt me.”

Simran Singh

Managing Editor at Burnaby Beacon

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