For the people I’ve known in my life who are teachers, I’ve been told that it is a profession they pursue because of the purpose it gives them. What could be more meaningful than knowing that you are helping to shape the students that you encounter? For Lance Nelson, Nuxalk Language and Culture teacher at Acwsalcta School, this is of particular significance; his work involves passing on to his students the traditions and teachings of the Nuxalk.
This revitalization of Nuxalk culture began taking place in the 1980s when elders in the community recognized the need for a place where people could reclaim their customs, particularly following the effects of the residential schooling system.
“The elders wanted to control our own education because they didn’t like how we were treated by the government”, Nelson said. “They wanted to build, not only core courses, but courses about language, stories, songs, dances, and West Coast native art.”
Out of these efforts, Acwsalcta came to be in 1987. In Grade Three at the time, Nelson began attending the school that would come to have great importance in his life. With the support of his twin brother Chris, they graduated from Acwsalcta as a product of what the elders had been hoping for when they opened the school. They were given the opportunity to learn parts of the Nuxalk culture that had not been available to them previously.
“It was rich for us because we were learning from elders who today are no longer with us. My mom never made me feel like we had to come here, she said we could go to Prince George or Abbotsford, but I committed myself to Acwsalcta because of the way the elders talked about it.”
The year Nelson graduated, a Mask Dance and Song Instructor position became available at Acwsalcta, but it would be nine years of teaching in School District 49 and a few applications later that he would finally get a contract at the school that shaped him.
“I had a difficult time leaving the district”, Nelson said, “Because I had grown attached to the kids there. But I was happy to be going to Acwsalcta. I saw it as an opportunity to offer to Acwsalcta school what Acwsalcta school had offered me years ago.” With the knowledge he gained from his past Nuxalk language teachers, Nelson was able to become a Certified Nuxalk Language Teacher, the only certification of its kind to be given by the B.C College of Teachers.
Nelson has now been teaching at Acwsalcta for the past five years, facing every new day with the knowledge that passing on the Nuxalk culture to his students in order to keep it alive is a big responsibility. When asked why teaching culture is so important, Nelson explained that the kids he encounters are facing different obstacles today than people did in the past, but that at the root of it all, culture is what is being put in jeopardy.
“We almost lost our ways with the small pox epidemic that almost killed the Nuxalk, and with residential schools that kept us from speaking our language, from holding potlatches. Today the challenge is cell phones, computers, television, Facebook, drugs and alcohol. For example, here we can teach kids to catch and smoke fish. We can do things that no other school can do and that’s what makes Acwsalcta unique.”
Even as Nelson enriches the lives of his students through passing on Nuxalk songs, stories and language, he remains modest and reminds us that he cannot do this work alone. “I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough, but this position chose me. Those who work behind the scenes are the unsung heroes. We need to hold our hands up to them because they often go underappreciated. If it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be as easy.”
Nelson also gave special mention to his wife, Tara. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They say behind every good man is a strong woman and she is my backbone. I am very thankful for what we have together.”
As far as incorporating Nuxalk into everyday life at Acwsalcta, Nelson remains determined. “The future of our nation lies in the kids. I need to pass my knowledge on to them so their kids can have the hope of having a culture and language”.