“We Still Have Much to Learn”: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Elsipogtog First Nation

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“We Still Have Much to Learn”: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Elsipogtog First Nation

Larry Matthews on behalf of Sistema New Brunswick


George Paul, artist, elder, and cultural ambassador for the Mi’ kmaq Nation, performs “Honor Song” with the Sistema NB Children’s Orchestra. Photo: Ben Champoux.

When anchoring your children in their ancient Mi’kmaq culture is critical to your future, as it is in Elsipogtog First Nation in eastern New Brunswick (Canada), how do violin or cello lessons fit into their education? This question has been at the forefront for both Sistema New Brunswick and Elsipogtog community leaders for the past five years. Thankfully, through the wisdom and generosity of those community leaders, an answer has begun to emerge.

Opening in 2016 at a local elementary school, Sistema New Brunswick’s Elsipogtog Centre teaches as many as 40 children at a time in violin, viola, and cello. All instruction is in English, raising questions about the best way to authentically merge orchestral performance with students’ Mi’kmaq heritage.

Fortunately, teaching Mi’kmaq culture is a high priority at Elsipogtog Elementary School, where culture teacher Lenore Augustine and Vice Principal Marina Milliea take the lead.

“We’re really pushing language, learning Mi’kmaq. But cultural teaching can be about anything, including what’s coming out of residential schools today,” says Lenore. “We also teach medicines, traditions, and ceremony—which includes drumming, singing, dancing, and praying.”

Now, local Elsipogtog educators are helping equip the Sistema NB music program with the tools to reinforce the bond between children and their culture.

Sistema NB teaching artists pose with their Mi’kmaq cultural gifts. From L to R: Dulce Alarcon, Swan Serna, Olive Bestvater, and Dylan Hunter.

“We were always interested in learning about Mi’kmaq culture and values,” says Swan Serna, director of the Sistema NB Elsipogtog Centre. “We incorporated some Mi’kmaq words in our vocabulary and always consulted the community leaders. But we always felt that we needed to go more in depth. So, we asked if the school could provide a question-and-answer session for the Sistema NB teaching artist team.”

The orientation provided for the Centre’s four teaching artists went far beyond their expectations. Marina and Lenore walked the Sistema NB team through the custom of offering tobacco when asking for guidance; the significance of the circle; the meaning of the leader or Elder facing east; the emphasis on the sun; and the importance of cleansing and purifying through smudging.

“To our surprise, we received many gifts during the meeting,” says Swan, such as a drum and rattle integral to traditional ceremonies. Gifts also included a shell for smudging and the smudging herbs (cedar, sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco) and a rabbit skin used to wrap up and protect the implements. Smudging is the ceremonial burning of sacred herbs or resins for purifying or cleansing the soul of negative thoughts, a common practice among North American Indigenous Peoples.

But the biggest surprise of all was when the Sistema NB team was encouraged to incorporate smudging into their classroom routine.

“In sharing our culture, sharing our knowledge, we welcome everyone. If you’re welcomed and invited, then you’re allowed to use our culture,” says Marina.

According to Swan, it was soon clear that smudging’s impact was more than symbolic. Upon seeing it brought into Sistema NB for the first time, “[students] were super happy… they were like, ‘Oh, medicine! Yay!’”

Lenore explains it a bit more: “I teach children that we bring the smoke up over ourselves to cleanse ourselves. We ask the spirits to let us only see good things. Let us hear the good things that people have to say. Let us only speak good kind words. Let our hearts feel only love for a person and not hatred. That’s how we teach the children, and that’s exactly how I’ve taught Swan.

“Smudging puts the kids more at ease. It brings together the Westernized and cultural parts of their lives.”

Swan confirms that there’s a positive effect for the teachers as well. “When we are doing [smudging]” says Swan, “we feel that from somewhere, we are having this guidance. It’s beyond what we are thinking. I cannot explain it, but I can feel it. That moment is a prayer.”

Swan has also incorporated the “Honor Song” into the Sistema NB repertoire. Composed in the 1980s by George Paul, a Mi’kmaq singer-songwriter, the song is in a traditional style and is widely used and loved throughout Mi’kmaq communities. Swan asked for and received permission to arrange the song for the children’s string instruments.

“I love that Sistema NB is doing the ‘Honor Song.’ That just melts my heart,” says Marina.

“When the children are playing the ‘Honor Song,’” adds Swan, “they are at their most engaged.”

And when the children are engaged, “It’s going to come from their heart,” explains Lenore. “We’re a very emotional type of people.”

Lenore also notes that Sistema NB is welcomed in the community, “because music is very important in our culture—and lots of children learn from music.”

“Students learn through music, just like our ancestors used to,” says Marina. “You can feel that welcome when we have a concert for the parents. They’re so happy and proud of their children. They’re a part of it. So, there’s that connection with the community and with the parents and their children playing the instruments.  I feel that warmth as well.”

In the arts, as in any arena, each discussion is a step towards greater opportunity. As Swan says, “The community has honored us immensely and we know that we still have so much to learn. We feel very grateful for the trust, friendship, and generosity of Elsipogtog First Nation and for the way they share with us their knowledge.”


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