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‘We are all one heartbeat’

Pit cook at Signal Hill Elementary School teaches important message of unity

Signal Hill Elementary’s pit cook was once again a roaring success this year. The now annual event was held on the Pemberton school’s grounds on Fri, Oct. 27 under a full moon.

The cook uses vegetables grown by the students in the school garden, a concept dreamed up by teacher Tami Jazic in partnership with the school’s Indigenous support worker Lakál’t (Tanina Williams) back in 2019.

It was paid for with funds from the provincial Civil Forfeiture Grant Program, after a successful grant application from the Parent Advisory Council’s Claire Fuller.

The garden was built in 2020 with hands-on support from the Rotary Club of Pemberton, Pemberton Men’s Shed, the parent body and the school community, and the pit cook became part of the school calendar in 2021. The garden allows the kids to be part of the pit cook process from the very beginning, when they put their seeds in the ground.

Lisa Vertefeuille helps the kids plant their own vegetables and nurture them until it’s time for the pit cook.

“The kids sometimes would ask if they could eat something or bring it home when we were working in the garden,” she said. “It was eventually understood then that we were all working together towards this common goal, this pit cook.”

Lakál’t said the pit cook is a valuable learning process for the students.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” she said. “I always tell the kids, Lil’wat people did this type of cooking and all people all over the world did this type of cooking. It was beautiful that my dream was coming to fruition. We keep growing and learning through it, experiencing it and making lots of hilarious mistakes. We just keep trying. I had only ever really done small pit cooks where I cooked rainbow trout or cinnamon buns.”

The Indigenous support worker said bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is her job.

“By explaining that all people all over the world have done pit cooks, it’s one way to bridge the gap,” she said. “It’s a way of saying that we are all the same. We have all learned how to survive in this world. We break down those barriers and the systemic belief that Canada created, that Indigenous people are lesser than everyone else. It’s an important way of showing that we are all the same. We are all smart and all intelligent. We all have ways of creating something this cool!”

Fuller believes the event has given her family an opportunity to learn more about ancient traditions.

“The pit cook has just been such a wonderful opportunity for me as a parent and for my kids as newcomers to Canada to have a chance to look at life through Lil‘wat principles,” she said. “The leadership that Tanina has shown in sharing this knowledge has given such meaning to sharing, to eating food that has been produced in the garden. I just feel like I have really benefited from learning about Indigenous cultural practices. Everything is rooted back to creation, to the world and to nature. There is this holistic approach to gathering and sourcing our food.”  

Signal Hill principal Krista Brynjolfson stressed the pit cook is now one of the most important dates on the school calendar, and something officials are constantly adding to.

“The big thing with the kids is that they were a part of it from the start of the garden,” she said. “They saw it from garden to pit cook. With the pit cook experience, they were really hands-on. They were really seeing the connections. They couldn’t wait to see it happen. The real beauty of it is the conversation that happens around the fire that whole day.”

Brynjolfson said the respect her students give the event directly demonstrates its importance.

“We have had elders, our bus driver and maintenance workers onsite,” she said. “The kids feel super comfortable to ask questions. Having that dialogue has been more powerful than they even really know. The Lil’wat principles are really important to us in our school learning plan. We make mistakes, absolutely, but that’s what learning is all about. For me as an educator here, we look at Truth and Reconciliation. Part of this means we have to move forward together through this whole learning experience.”

Lakál’t made sure the children were involved in all aspects of the process, and reflected on their experience.

“I talked to as many of the kids that I could to unpack it,” she said. “They all loved the t’áqsa7 (salmon on a stick), but hands down, bannock wins every time!”

The students get to learn from an early age that change is desperately needed in order for both communities to look to the future.

“I am very explicit,” said Lakál’t. “I explain that we are doing it because we need to start seeing Indigenous people as equals. In this country, we have learned that we are not. Even myself as an Indigenous person, I didn’t even see myself in this way. I’m always upfront and outspoken with the kids about how Indigenous people have been crushed so much that they even start believing it. We need to change it.”

The pit cook is a small step that can make a big difference.

“I ask them if they see their Indigenous students hurting, and they say yes,” said Lakál’t. “This is one way of showing that we are all the same. I explain that getting excited about this helps Indigenous students to feel uplifted.”

Lakál’t led hand drumming during the event, something that continued throughout the afternoon.

“The closest thing I can compare it to is a concert where all the fans are there and are jumping to their favourite song,” said Fuller. “All the kids had their eyes on Tanina. They were drumming and singing. It was like this wave. It was incredible. Everyone was connected.”

At Signal Hill Elementary, children and teachers often learn together.

“At our school, we are really fortunate to have an Ucwalmícwts teacher,” said Lakál’t. “I am the cultural teacher, but I also introduce words. We get to learn Ucwalmícwts words and we learn how to drum together. In our culture, we all naturally drum together when there is a gathering of people. To teach that to people where this isn’t part of their culture and to really see it happen is super cool. I reinforce that this is what it’s meant to be like. We are all one heartbeat.”