By Brent Chudiak, Salmon Arm teacher
“You have been given the title of 'Knowledge Keeper.' What does that mean to you, and what duty do you feel with the responsibility of being a Knowledge Keeper? How has the role of Knowledge Keeper changed over the last few generations?” These are just a few of the questions senior photography students in my class asked Indigenous Knowledge Keepers last year when we collectively embarked on the Knowledge Keepers Project.
Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, my students and I organized a special tea at our school. Working collaboratively with the Indigenous Education Department, we gathered Knowledge Keepers from the local area to an information tea at our school, to show respect for the values and traditional knowledge held by Indigenous peoples and to show that our school was a safe and inviting place that welcomed and valued them.
At the tea, the students proposed the Knowledge Keepers Project-an initiative that combined Knowledge Keepers sharing their wisdom with students receiving that knowledge, while learning to take professional portraits. Our Indigenous guests cautiously agreed to the portraits, but were enthusiastic in their desire to share their knowledge. As a result, Knowledge Keepers from the Neskonlith, Splatsin, Little Shuswap Lake, Adams Lake, Lillooet bands, and off-reserve Knowledge Keepers along with the Métis Association joined the Knowledge Keepers Project.
In conjunction with the Indigenous Education staff, students were provided with background information to develop cultural understanding and appreciation of Indigenous wisdom and traditional knowledge. We learned that “Knowledge Keeper” was a title bestowed on some and completely distinct from the title of “Elder” in their Bands. These Knowledge Keepers are recognized for the specific gifts, talents, and knowledge they possess. They are living libraries that pass on valuable knowledge from generation to generation. They not only keep knowledge but more importantly they share that knowledge.
Students prepared for their interviews with the Knowledge Keepers by creating a list of interview questions. Then, over the next two months, students interviewed the Knowledge Keepers, participated in discussions about Indigenous issues, and learned about some of the specific gifts, talents, and traditional knowledge each of the Knowledge Keepers offered.
What my students didn't see was the amazing behind-the-scenes logistic efforts of the Indigenous staff, in particular Irene Laboucane, District Principal-Aboriginal Education, and Diyame Derrick, Salmon Arm Secondary Indigenous Support Worker. We worked together organizing schedules and provided whatever support was required to ensure the Knowledge Keepers' comfort and confidence in this heartwarming project. Understandably, many of the Knowledge Keepers were somewhat uncomfortable in the school environment because of the history of residential schools.
Caitlyn O'Brien, a senior photography student, described her experience as “eye-opening…it made me so much more aware of the terrible experiences they faced in residential schools. It really altered my view of Canadian history.” Lawrence Moren, a senior photography student and Filipino permanent resident of Canada, reflected on his culture's colonization/assimilation by the Spaniards after learning more about the Indigenous peoples of Canada. “Wow, I really started to see similarities in their experiences and ours. I also appreciated their views on love, perseverance, compassion, and importance of life itself.”
As a photographer, I admire the work of master Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, and encourage my students to study his unique lighting style. I want my students to become aware of his strong lighting techniques that show high contrast and reveal sharp detail. A familiar saying is that the “eyes are windows to the soul.” While I don't dispute that claim, I would argue that in Karsh's work, the hands are windows to the soul. Whenever possible we included the Knowledge Keeper's hands in their portraits.
The large 24x30 inch portraits were printed on Dibond metal plates with funds received through an Indigenous school-based project grant from School District 83, and were unveiled at the 2016-17 Indigenous Students Graduation Ceremony at the Splatsin Centre in Enderby, BC. Each portrait was accompanied with the Knowledge Keepers' advice to the graduates. The display was a resounding success with great pride taken by the Knowledge Keepers and their respective communities.
The same summer the portraits were the premiere show at the opening of the newly built Haney Heritage Museum and Art Gallery, before the show moved to Victoria. There, the Knowledge Keepers Project was shown in the Art in Public Places Gallery, supported by the BC Art Teachers' Association at the Ministry of Education and in the Minister of Education's office at the Legislature. The success of this project was described by one gallery viewer, who said, “The portraits fill the gallery with soulful compassion and joy!”
Again, a special thank you to the Indigenous Education Department staff of School District No. 83. This project would not have been as successful were it not for their generous and tireless efforts to not only support and educate the students at Salmon Arm Secondary, but also to serve the Indigenous community they are part of. Finally, a thank you to every one of the wonderful Knowledge Keepers. As Lawrence Moren so aptly put, to feel the “love, perseverance, compassion, and the importance of life itself,” exemplified by the Knowledge Keepers was, by far, the most important and rewarding part of this project.