It took her a few moments, but after staring at the Colin Range from a meadow somewhere near the Palisades Centre, 13-year-old Chevy Beaverbones finally saw the face in the mountain.
“The elder teachers showed us,” she said.
Chevy, a Grade 8 student from the O’Chiese First Nation School northwest of Rocky Mountain House, had never spent time in Jasper before this fall. Her ancestors, however, used to live here.
“Some [kids] don’t care about the past and what we’ve been through,” she said. “The elders want us to be able to understand.”
In late September, Chevy and 43 of her peers from the O’Chiese, Sunchild, Alexis and Alexander First Nations came together to deepen that understanding. Each community has historical ties to Jasper National Park and by learning from elders whose parents were alive when the Canadian government annexed treaty lands for the purposes of building a national park, the students were reminded about their roots. They were taught that sweetgrass, for example, was transplanted for the purposes of traditional ceremonies. The groups visited, and harvested, the leafy descendants of those original seeds at sites now preserved as “culturally significant” by Parks Canada. First Peoples used sweetgrass in prayer, smudging or purifying ceremonies and consider it a sacred plant.
“A sweat is when a healer or elder gives an offering...and will start praying,” Chevy explained.
The First Nations students also participated in modern activities. They canoed on Lake Edith and mountain biked on area trails. But what stuck with Chevy were her ancestors’ beliefs about the big dipper and how hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, members of her lineage used buffalo sage to give thanks to the Creator.
“I really liked going to pick the sage,” she said. “[I liked] seeing faces in the mountain.”
Besides being taught about the magic of the landscape, the students learned about the realities on the ground.
“In 1907 First Nations were outlawed,” said Tracey Poitras-Collins, project manager at the Yellowhead Tribal College, based out of Edmonton. “They were literally picked up and moved out of the park.”
A century later, Jasper National Park officials have worked to reconcile that dispossession. Parks Canada has collaborated with First Nations groups so that native communities can offer input into park management decisions. And in 2013, a special site between Maligne Canyon’s Fifth and Sixth Bridges was designated for traditional activities, such as sweat lodges, camps and teachings. Jasper National Park’s Aboriginal liaison, Sherrill Meropoulis, said that the Jasper Aboriginal Cultural Area was created to honour both the native groups and the national park.
“It’s about reconnecting and sharing stories,” she said.
But similar to First Nations languages that threaten to be silenced forever if students don’t learn to speak them, a lasting connection to traditional lands requires the engagement of young people. Heather Petelo, a staff member at O’Chiese First Nation School, said coming to Jasper was a chance for the students to run on, paddle through and harvest from the places they had only heard about in school.
“Being on-site made it so much more relevant to them,” Petelo said.
For Chevy Beaverbones, her favourite part of the three-day visit to Jasper was learning about traditional ceremonies and speaking in her Ojibway language. Recognizing the face of an ancient chief in the mountains, she realized there is a lot more to learn about her past.
“The elders have lots of knowledge. It’s good to be in touch with people that can pass it on,” she said.