The Piikani Nation in Southern Alberta, concerned they were in danger of losing their Blackfoot culture and traditions, sought out an innovative way to share it with younger generations. Elders and school officials in Piikani focused on how they could use technology to engage youth and preserve their knowledge and history. As a result, the Piikani First Nation, University of Alberta, First Nations Technical Service Advisory Group, and Piikani Board of Education created a youth-based project, the Piikani Cultural and Digital Literacy Camp Program, that combines digital technology and cultural and language studies for grade 9 students.
From the beginning, Piikani Elder Herman Many Guns and University of Alberta Assistant Professor Dr. Rob McMahon knew it was crucial to combine traditional Blackfoot and digital teaching styles in the program. To accomplish this, Herman reached out to community ceremonial Elders with transferred rights who could ensure the project followed traditional protocol. The partners decided to host a summer camp that would teach students about their culture, as well as gain digital skills, such as video production, editing, and data stewardship. Students apply these new digital skills to the preservation of the ancestral knowledge shared by the Elders at an outdoor camp, called ii na kaa sii na ku pi tsi nii kii in Blackfoot.
In the camp’s inaugural year, students spent the first half of the program in a classroom working through a workbook and learning digital skills and the second half in a three-day outdoor camp. Next year, the program will increase the classroom activities to include sessions before and after the camp. This will allow students to spend more time learning about how to create a story board, write narratives for their video projects, refine their videography skills, and edit the footage they capture during the camp.
During the outdoor camp, students set up tripods to record lessons from community Elders who hold transferred rights to the knowledge they share. They are taught how to assemble tipis, cook, drum, make fires, and play traditional games and sports. They learn the creation story, the community’s history, and traditional songs, all of which are preserved in their video footage. This footage is provided to Piikani Traditional Knowledge Services, a local organization focused on archiving community knowledge. Students also learned about supports and barriers to sharing their stories, such as limited and expensive Internet connectivity in their community.
This experience serves as a learning opportunity, not just for the students attending camp, but for all those who will later watch their videos and learn about the Blackfoot people and its culture. It also trains young Piikani students how to use and be creative with digital tools – skills that will continue to serve both them and their community after camp.
In addition to these technical skills, students have reported significant personal development. They have learned pride for their community and their culture, and a deeper appreciation for their history. They have gained confidence and a broader sense of community within the Piikani Nation. This, just as much as an understanding of their culture and tradition, will ensure that the Blackfoot community continues to thrive.
The Internet Society Beyond the Net Funding Programme, as well as an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, have allowed for several advantageous changes to take place at the Piikani Cultural and Digital Literacy Camp Program. With these funds, the team hired a documentary producer to teach in-depth technical knowledge to students, which will help develop their filmmaking skills. The grant also allowed the program to hire a student to interview Blackfoot digital innovators and media producers prior to the camp, and use their stories and experiences in the next iteration of the workbook. The goal is to highlight local talent and digital innovation. Using this kind of localized content and highlighting members of the community will allow the program to further preserve Piikani knowledge and stories, while also pointing to the many exciting projects taking place at home. The team will also discuss connectivity – and specially how the stories can illustrate ways that communities can manage and share their knowledge and data.
In addition to expanding the pre- and post-camp activities this summer to give students more in-depth technical training, the camp will also include more Blackfoot cultural knowledge held by ceremonial Elders. This will include sessions on the role of horses in Piikani culture, and a traditional sweat lodge.
Student mentorships are an important aspect of the project, and one that will continue to be developed in the coming year. The program leads hope that after each session some of the students will return to help facilitate the camp for the next group of students. In time, this will allow the project to become entirely sustained by the community. After the third year of the project, it will be turned over to Piikani Nation Secondary School.
The Piikani Cultural and Digital Literacy Camp Program looks forward to continuing to build its project, teaching digital skills to Piikani youths, and preserving the Blackfoot culture and traditions. The program leads hope that this program will serve as a model for other Indigenous Nations to ensure their knowledge is preserved, protected, and shared.
I wish to acknowledge Elder Herman Many Guns and Dr. Rob McMahon who provided insight and expertise that greatly assisted to write this article.