Peyton Straker was a five-time high-school dropout when she took a job as an Indigenous support worker at the public school board in Yellowknife. Straker, 23 and Anishinaabe, knew from experience many of the ways the education system failed her. As a youth she felt displaced in schools where she couldn’t see herself reflected in the curriculum, and often instead of feeling supported, Straker got the message in school that she was somehow a problem.
When the job first came up online, Straker thought, “That sounds terrible, and I also am really under-qualified for that,” she says. She applied anyway, hoping to make a positive change. “Two weeks later I was starting the job.”
Straker began reading and learning about land-based education when she was 17. She completed an intensive immersion course at the Northwest Territory’s Dechinta Bush University, where she camped in a small isolated group, studying decolonization and experienced her first moose hunt. “Seeing the way that being on the land informs your decolonization process and your identity was what made me decide that that was what I wanted to do,” she says.
When the new position required bringing absent students back to school, Straker decided instead to go about creating something new. But it wasn’t easy. In her first days on the job she inquired about her budget. The response: “You don’t have one.” As the only person in a job that no one had ever done, Straker turned her focus toward getting what she wanted: money to improve cultural education for youth. Though she had never filled out a funding application before, she raised enough to buy a snowmobile and other supplies, and gave birth to the Traditional Mentorships Program.
The program’s purpose was to connect youth more deeply with land-based ways of life, and nurture cultural resilience. Run by and for Indigenous people, Straker saw it as an opportunity to create something she didn’t have when she was young. At first, she wrestled with questions about the school system: “Is a conventional colonial space really a space for decolonization?” she asked. “But whether or not I think that it’s the appropriate place, it’s where the kids are.”
Most teachers and parents were supportive. The students in the program would leave class from half a day to overnight to take part. “The teachers were not worried about them missing their book work,” Straker says. “It didn’t mean they got extra homework. It was just part of their week, and it was valued just as much as their science class.”
Although most of her students had some traditional knowledge, Straker noticed it was patchy. She wanted the program to give youth tangible skills they could use into adulthood. “The whole point of our knowledge systems is to pass them on,” she says. From trapping and fishing to Inuit games, the students immersed themselves in opportunities, including a week-long moose-hide tanning camp. “We also wanted to give the students the opportunity to see that the land isn’t far off, it’s not way out there somewhere,” she adds. “We live in Yellowknife. You walk across the street and you’re on one of the biggest lakes in the world.”
Straker was able to grow the program and hire one of her own former instructors, Kyle Enzoe, to teach. “It was an opportunity for us to also create jobs within the community for people who have knowledge that you can’t put a number on,” says Straker. “It’s very hard to get paid to share your traditional knowledge.”
Enzoe’s involvement gave the kids in grades 6 to 8 an opportunity to connect with someone not much older— Enzoe was 33—who was both deeply traditional and modern at once. Enzoe holds the most knowledge of anyone she knows when it comes to the land and trapping. At the same time, “He has Facebook,” Straker says.
Since its inception, the Traditional Mentorships Program has had a far reach. Straker often presents about land-based education at conferences. After seeing the positive changes this type of education had in her own life, she wants to do the same for others. “I’ve seen my life completely transform and change the more that I’ve fostered my reciprocal relationship with the land,” she says.
Although land-based education can seem trivial to some, without it Straker says she wouldn’t have ever understood why land matters. “I didn’t see myself within the land, and I didn’t see the land within myself,” she says.
She has seen similar transformations in others. “All of our collective issues within the Indigenous community—none of them exist without the land, and without land disputes.” Any conversation meant to further reconcilitation or create spaces for Indigenous youth must involve a land base, she says. Still, there is a lack of funding for such education.
If the government wants to make more money, Straker says, educating people puts them in a higher tax bracket, and that’s what land-based education has the capacity to do. “It can change our economy and our knowledge economy in the North,” she says.“Funding is really, really necessary, and it’s hard to get our hands on.”
Aside from her work at the school board, Straker also spends time making jewelry from animals she and Enzoe have harvested using traditional protocol. She’s also part of a collective called ReMatriate that works to interrupt culturally appropriative fashion and take back control over Indigenous women’s visual identities. Straker’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of the land and its place in people’s lives—another reason for greater education.