Episode 2 - Elders on Campus

March 14, 2019 | 21:56 | 31.6MB | Download audio file

In this story, we look at Yukon College’s Elders on Campus program through the stories of three elders: Leonard Sheldon, Roger Ellis, and Shirley Adamson.


Welcome to Walking our Path Together, a series of audio stories exploring Yukon College’s reconciliation journey.

Over the course of the series, we’ll hear from people who are connected with the College, and from people throughout the Yukon – Elders, educators, community leaders, and youth.

This is Episode 2: Elders on Campus.

In this story, we look at Yukon College’s Elders on Campus program through the stories of three elders: Leonard Sheldon, Roger Ellis, and Shirley Adamson.


Yes, good morning. My name is Leonard Sheldon. I’m a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, Elder Councillor, and I belong to the Deisheetaan Clan.

The name of the song is “Teslin, the Beauty You Hold for Me in All of Your Surrounded”. If you ever approach or been down to Teslin, you’ll see the four gray mountains ... There are four mountains standing there.


I entertain. I play the guitar, and I sing, and sometimes I make up words while I sing and whatnot. My audience thoroughly enjoys it. They sing along and whatnot.

I was sitting home, minding my own business one afternoon, drinking coffee, watching the program on TV and the phone rang, so I answered it, "Hello?" And a lady at the end was talking to me, telling me who she was.

And I won’t mention names to protect the innocent, But anyways, I said, "Why are you approaching me? What do you want?" And she said, "We’d like to know if you can fulfill this empty space at the College?" So, they asked me, they told me to come up, so I came up at the College in Whitehorse.

I talk to students, and they ask a lot of different questions. Like, some of the students from where they come from, their country, how they want to know about the lifestyles up here in the Yukon, I guess, first nation. And how we make our living, and what do we do throughout the year.

I am Debra-Leigh Reti. I am the First Nation Culture Coordinator here at Yukon College. I’m the cultural coordinator, so I’m coordinating cultural activities, the Elders on Campus program, and I set up interviews with students and Elders.

A lot of students have assignments requiring them to interview an elder or someone.

In 2016 the Elder in Residence Randall Tetlichi, he retired. And at that point, the College realized that we needed another elder or elders. We needed some form of program with elders on campus. And at the same time, we also had elders within the community asking us, "What are you guys doing? Randall’s gone. Those students need elders, right now."

I was then working with First Nations Initiatives over there, and they approached me and asked if I wanted to run this pilot project of Elders on Campus program. So, I said, "Yes, sure. Let’s give it a shot." And it has been just life changing and just amazing.

We found a mandate, and that was to bring elders on campus from as many of the 14 First Nations as possible and surrounding First Nations. And not all at once, but to have group of about four or five, five or six that can represent different First Nations within the Yukon and outside, in order to connect with the students. For the students to see an elder from their home. And also, we’re an educational institution, and it’s also a good way to educate the public, staff, students that we’re not all the same.

One First Nation is not all the same here in the Yukon. Within each of the 14 First Nations, there’s also different clans, moieties, beliefs, customs, and everyone’s grown up a little different. So, we really wanted to educate everyone on that, that we’re not all the same. Don’t clump us together. So, we ran this pilot project for 2016 and 2017, and it just took off, it was amazing. First group of elders that I brought in—it was sure fun. Bringing them in and figuring out what we can get them doing.

And if I was ever stumped at what to do, or how to set this up, the elders led, and it was really amazing, really. "Well, the students need this. The students need that. I just talked to a student, and they’d like to see us do this." And it was great. So that’s how it got started, and it’s just been growing since. From a handful of students asking to interview elders, and a handful of staff saying, "Can we have an elder come into class?" To this point, this year I don’t have enough elders to accommodate all the requests.

At the time that I was asked if I wanted to try this, to lead this pilot project, was actually a time in my life that I just needed to do something more. It’s really important to me, because as I’ve grown over the years here, just working at Yukon College, elders have played a big part. I didn’t get to grow up with my grandmothers, as I was a military brat. And so, I only gotten pieces of them, and I craved to be around elders. It was just like a perfect ... It was a perfect fit. And for me, it’s so important to share with everyone that we’re not all the same, and that elders are not just old people sitting there. They are a wealth of knowledge. I want people to come up and talk to them.

I want people to ask them. I want people not to be uncomfortable around old people, and talk to them, because they want to talk. They want to tell you their stories. So that’s really important for me that, this whole aspect is shared within the College with students and staff in public. And it’s also a way for us not to lose our culture. Because through oral history these stories are passed on, these teachings are passed on. And I’m learning, and I’m teaching my grandchildren. So, this whole concept is working, because that’s what’s going on. The traditional knowledge that they are sharing with us and passing on is just outstanding between, some have their language, their culture, their upbringing. Whether it was residential school or not. Whether they were brought up mostly in their non-First Nation culture or not, everyone ends up coming back home and learning their culture.

And passing on just their path, what they learned along their path. But they have expertise in areas that you couldn’t even go to school for. You can’t. So, it’s exciting, and the students are enriched. The staff are enriched too. Just that, "Wow, look what we have in our classroom and what they’re sharing," and you can only learn from them. You can’t always read these things in a book, you know. Bringing elders on campus, and students come in to ask about interviewing an elder, or staff requesting elders to come speak in their classrooms is a huge opportunity for staff and students to learn what the process and protocol is around interviewing elders, and around working with elders and speaking with them.

We’re used to a very fast society, and very fast day, and just get what you need and take it. And working with elders teaches you to slow down, teaches you to think about what you’re going to say, and teaches you to think about thanking them for what they’re sharing. Yes, they’re getting paid, but they’re sharing every day their personal life, the way they were raised, whether it was good or bad experience. Traditional teachings and knowledge, and it really just helps you to appreciate, slow down and appreciate what’s around us where we live here in the Yukon, and the elders bring that to the students and staff. And to me, that’s really important.

Okay, I’m Roger Ellis, here. I work as an elder support to the students here at the College. I talk to the students. They come up to me and ask for interviews for me, to ask me questions about our religions, our teachings, different cultures that we do. Residential school and the effects on it, everything. It’s really interesting what the questions they come up with, but I seem to have all the answer for them, and they seem quite happy with it. They come up with their own questions. And some of them they, "I’m sorry to ask you this question." And I says, "Don’t be sorry about it." I said, "Because how are you going to learn if you don’t ask?" So they, "Oh, okay. That’s good to know." I said, "That’s how you learn, is by asking questions, so it’s good."

It’s passing on knowledge to make other people aware of the effects and stuff that residential school has done to survivors. And to understand, it’s something they can be more sensitive to. And I would call it, don’t label them. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everybody. Don’t label them, or don’t judge them. Go with an open mind in on this. That’s what I’ve been trying to pass on.

I says, "If you have personal problems, then ..." I said, "Nobody’s really knows what you’ve been through until they’ve heard your story." And I says, "And that’s what people need to do is get it out, and tell their story." I said, "You can’t carry that garbage around with you." And I says, "That’s why I do this, because ..." I said, "I try to get others to speak out, and get aware of it." And I said, "That’s the kind of work I do, because I’ve been there and I’ve done it." So I said, "Now I’m passing it on."

My name is Shirley Adamson. I’m a Yukon resident, always have been, and probably always will be. I was born here in White Horse, and lived in the Whitehorse, Lake Laberge region and around Fox Lake as well my entire life. Every time I leave, I think that I need to get back, because this is the best place for me.

I became involved with the College, because after my retirement I was doing small contracts here and there as a speaker. I would talk about my experiences in land-claim negotiations in aboriginal politics. I spoke at every opportunity that was presented to me about the importance of revitalizing and encouraging the use of all of our languages, and to also revitalize our cultural practices. And I also spoke about land-based medicines, everything that I was taught as a child, that I learned from aboriginal elders. Whether they were family, or other elders that influenced my life, especially during my formative years. And I would share that as much I could. And I found myself here at the College co-facilitating, a two-day workshop on negotiating the Yukon land-claims along with Kirk Cameron.

And one of the participants was a young woman named Debra-Leigh Reti. And a few days after that experience I received a phone call from her saying, "I’m putting together a group of elders to be elders on campus. Are you interested?" And I said, "Well, that sounds interesting, but I don’t know what that means." And she said, "It could mean anything you want it to mean. You could come in and tells stories. Some of the elders are here to be advisors to the students, if they wish. And either in education or a life experiences, whatever the students needed from the elders. Some of the elders come in, make bannock and tea, and cook for students out at Roddy’s Camp. Others go into the classrooms and lecture."

And I said, "Sure, I could do that. That would be really great." Three of my daughters attended Yukon College, so I’ve always had a high regard for this institution. I also sat for a brief period of time on the board of governors. I think of this place as a really undervalued resource. "Yes," I said, "I’d love to." And she was like, "Good. Right after this month is ended, we’ll start you in November."

But I really appreciated that. And I found, since then, the experience to be really fulfilling for me. It provides me opportunities to go into classrooms and talk about those things that are important, I think, for indigenous healing, and language and cultural revitalization. And I try to speak, always, from my own personal experience. Because that’s really what I was taught as a child by elders. And tried not to deviate from the telling, especially, of the original stories. I try to match the stories about creation and what shapes us as a society and as a people to the traditional stories to science.

I share stories that I heard as a child about the documented creation, how light was brought to this world. How land was created, the earth was created during the floods. I match those stories to the stories of creation in the Bible, to help people who never grew up with that kind of learning, through story telling. To be able to grasp the teachings and that. I use the traditional stories I heard as a child to bring recognition to the knowledge held by traditional people about the natural phenomena that shaped our lives. And I tell the story of The Daughters of the Sun to explain to people how we know where the volcanic ash comes from that covers this land that we live on.

And how science uses that now to determine age of artifacts, the first testing of age of artifacts found in this area. I use the traditional stories told to me by ... The first time I heard this story, I heard it from my grandmother. But I remember, clearly, Mrs. Angela Sidney telling me this story when I was a young reporter and reporting the elders about how flint was brought to the animals and the people. And I matched that to the discovery of flint caches in the area that Mrs. Angela Sidney described to me where flint was taken from the bear who kept that flint. And how it was flung out for anybody to use. And now, I look at the discovery of those flint caches and I think how amazing it is to learn in that way, because those stories are just ingrained in me.

I use the cultural teaching like how we inherit our clan names, our clan status, and our authorities and jurisdictions through our mothers, and compare that to the scientific findings of the mitochondrial DNA, and how a person can track their own ancestry using their mother’s line. And I help students to see, and I hope see and understand that we had that knowledge. And I know we’ve had that knowledge for a long time.

We’re humbled and grateful to the knowledgeable Yukoners who took their time to be a part of this project, and to help tell this story.

This audio story was produced by Leighann Chalykoff for Yukon College.

Original music is by Jona Barr.

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