Travis Deer stands before the greenhouse the Community Involvement class built over the winter. (Daniel J. Rowe, The Eastern Door)
The six students in Tiio Hemlock’s Community Involvement class work the ground behind the First Nations Regional Adult Education Centre.
Atsitsaks Lahache, 24, works a shovel into the ground, while Tehatsitsahkwa Lahache breaks the soil around the root of a Burdock plant.
The other students nearby are watching and learning about the plant, and getting ready to prepare the root to make tea. It is part of the Community Involvement class taught by Tiio Hemlock.
“We take on projects we’ve never done before and figure it out,” said Atsitsaks. “I’m learning new things and when I go home, I can try this stuff out on my own.”
Jordanna Bomberry holds a hen inside a coop the students constructed over the winter, while speaking about the learning experience of raising fowl.
“It’s my first time, and it was a good experience working with chickens,” said Bomberry, 17. “It’s a natural thing. When we collect our eggs out of chickens, and we care for them, it’s a new experience for us.”
The students have also learned over the year how to wash corn and make mush, split, build a picnic table, plant, forage and make poles for pole beans, in addition to other tasks.
For the teacher, the experience has been positive.
“It feels good to get out,” said Hemlock. “A lot of this stuff is a learning experience. We really didn’t know how to make a chicken coop, so we made up some plans and learned as we went.”
Atsitsaks started a garden at home already, as he is working on obtaining his high school diploma at the FNRAEC.
“There’s not much of a future going around the world if you have no education,” said Atsitsaks. “That’s key in this type of society nowadays.”
Having a course where students can plow the earth, build a table or raise chickens is a welcome supplement to more academic courses such as math and science at the centre.
“It helps my cultural awareness, what we used to do before,” said Atsitsaks. “Instead of relying on Super C or the outside farmers to provide me with food, I can learn it on my own and help my family and myself grow.”
Students are always encouraged to share what they grow or collect. For example, after they split wood, they loaded it into a truck, drove around, and donated it to those with fireplaces in the community.
“It’s to teach them that you do it because it’s the right thing to do, because it needs to be done,” said Hemlock. “If you don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it. It’s giving back.”
The same goes for the community garden along Highway 30 the students have worked in. Corn, sunflowers, and potatoes have been planted already, and crews will be out Saturday to plant pole beans, strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb. Next week, squash, pumpkin and melon seeds will go in the ground.
The class is also awaiting the arrival of bees the students will learn to raise and harvest honey from.
“They built all this,” said Hemlock pointing to the chicken coop, greenhouse, several garden boxes and picnic table in the back of the education centre building.
For the students, learning the skills connects them to traditional practices not as common in Kahnawake as they once were.
“We used to farm, but now we don’t have the land resources anymore,” said Atsitsaks.
He added that he’s happy the land along Highway 30 is being used to plant rather than a truck stop, casino or hotel, as has been suggested by many in the community.
“While they’re all bickering over it, we might as well use it for something right,” said Atsitsaks. “If it got bigger, it could be a source of income. More jobs instead of just cigarette stores and stuff like that. We can have our own food too. We don’t have to go to IGC or Super C to purchase food.”
Planting in the community, gathering and sharing, proves that for Hemlock, traditional practices can thrive in a modern Kahnawake.
“I think so,” he said. “The other thing is I think it’s empowering. Do it for yourself. You do it. If you need it to get done, you can do it for yourself, and it works a lot easier when everyone’s working together.”