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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 7, May/June 2006

A living treasure

by Pamela Hachey

Watching Nellie work with a child you get a glimpse of the treasure that has been in our midst for the past generation. Nellie Dionne is the Carrier Language teacher in two schools in Fort St. James and is retiring this year. She is an example of wisdom, grace, and respect. Within her classes Nellie offers these virtues to her students.

Listening to her tell of early settlers sharing harvests with the native peoples of the area, Nellie tells about how everyone needs to work together to get along and build their world. It is the same message she gives to a new student, just placed in a foster home and struggling with relationships and school rules. Her message to him is: "We don’t know each other but we don’t have to fight. I want to work with you but you have to meet me halfway, and tell me what I can do to help." The boy is won over as so many others have been in over 20 years with the schools.

On another occasion, Nellie was overheard responding to a young girl’s question as to whether there were Indians and Whites in her school today? Nellie ignored the snickers of older students and responded that, yes, there were, and children from other cultures too. But that when they come to her class she does not see the colours of her students, she only sees an opportunity to teach and make connections with people.

Nellie first approached the school district for a job almost 30 years ago. She had been a custodian when she applied for a position as an assistant in a home economics class. She was a young First Nations woman and completely intimidated by the experience of being interviewed by five white men in a small room. She was not successful. There is a fierce pride as she tells how her determination to be someone who makes a difference withstood this and many other challenges. She volunteered as a helper in schools and assisted in her own children’s classes. She eventually became the home school co-ordinator. That determination helped her to teach herself to read and write the Carrier language from the dictionary along with the help of Catherine Bird, the original teacher of the Carrier language. Nellie already spoke Carrier. She pursued the certification necessary and became a teacher 25 years ago. With the demands of a young family and school work, it was not easy.

Her lesson plans include the Carrier language on subjects such as weather, dates and seasons, animals, birds, beading, hunting, fishing, smoking and tanning, foods and of course bannock making—a favourite for the whole school. But, Nellie’s instruction gives us so much more. Her links with families and traditions open doors that fear and misunderstanding have held closed. She is an elder and a grandmother to all in the school. In Japan, people such as Nellie are known as Living Treasures. Fort St. James and School District 91 have been blessed, for Nellie Dionne is surely our own living treasure.

Letter from a student
I was going to go in your class but I got [cote] up with French. I still have the sheet on making bannock; when me and my Nan get some [roobarb], we will give you some jam. I hope I can see you when you leave. My Nan will miss you too. I loved it when we made bannock. Thanks for letting me eat in your class when I don’t take Carrier. You’ve taught me a lot about fishing. My Dad is going to miss you too. Please come back soon. Love, Melissa

Pamela Hachey is an elementary counselor, SD 91 and a member of the Teacher Newsmagazine Advisory Board.

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