Carihi student Dakota Nelson receives a certificate of completion from Verna Kirkness at the close of the weeklong Verna J. Kirkness science and engineering program at the University of Saskatchewan in late May.

Aboriginal student shares culture on prairies

Carihi's Dakota Nelson selected for prestigious weeklong science and engineering program at University of Saskatchewan

Dakota Nelson, a Grade 11 student at Carihi, was supposed to be learning engineering when she was selected to attend the prestigious Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program at the University of Saskatchewan in May.

As it turned out, she did a little educating as well.

The Kirkness program was founded in 2009 to increase the number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students graduating from science and engineering programs in Canada.

As the only student from B.C. among her prairie-raised counterparts in Saskatchewan, Nelson proved to be something of a celebrity. Especially when she was chosen to give an address at the welcome feast — in Kwakwala and English — and present a gift to university president Dr. Gordon Barnhart. For the event, covered by CBC and other local media, she dressed in full Kwakwaka’wakw regalia.

“They didn’t know what a button blanket was,” she said. “They’re like, regalia? A button blanket?”

As part of its mission to increase the number of aboriginal students graduating from science and engineering programs, the Kirkness program provides one-week scholarships to selected Grade 11 students that covers the full cost of the trip.

“You can pick from different science and engineering classes,” Nelson said. “You get to be in the labs with the professors for the week. You stay in the residence hall, they provide meals and stuff, and you get to see what it’s like to live on campus. It’s really fun.”

Nelson, who for years has had a strong interest in her culture and Kwakwala language revitalization, has long planned to attend the University of Victoria to study anthropology following her graduation from Carihi.

But she jumped at the chance to tackle an engineering project with her professor and a student partner in Saskatoon.

“I picked engineering, because I like thinking about and coming up with designs,” she said. I was interested in designing something and building it.”

Dakota Nelson of Carihi, centre, stands with fellow engineering students and their professors while showing off projects they created in the Verna J. Kirkness program at the University of Saskatchewan in May. — Photo submitted

The project devised by her mechanical engineering professor, Dr. Sean Maw, turned out to be completely unexpected, however. While students in an adjacent lab were building a working game controller and a “soccer locker”, Nelson and her partner were tasked with creating a piece of furniture entirely from cardboard.

“It was to make something to help people in North African refugee camps specifically,” Nelson said. “We had to consider what we’re making with the materials they have and how easy you can make it and how much easier that one little thing can make it for them.”

The duo succeeded, with one of the professors sitting in the scale-model version of the chair during the program’s closing ceremony. When he saw a photo of the creation, Nelson’s little brother, Jackson, thought it was a car.

“Jackson was impressed,” said Bev Nelson, Dakota’s mother. “He wanted one.”

Dakota Nelson applied for the program in November, writing an essay and getting a letter of recommendation from her Kwakwala teacher at Carihi, Sheryl Thompson.

“Dakota is self-motivated, her work is always completed in a timely manner and in good order,” Thompson wrote. “I love and have a lot of respect for her. I hope she gets this opportunity.”

Nelson was selected from among nearly 150 applicants for one of 10 spots at the U of S campus in Saskatoon. An additional 40 students from across the country were selected for spots at the University of Manitoba, where the Kirkness program was founded, but Nelson chose Saskatchewan for its engineering lab option.

Her other loves are soccer — she plays for both the Carihi program and for the Kingcome Inlet women’s team — and languages.

Having attended École Willow Point and École Phoenix Middle School before entering Carihi, Nelson is fluent in both French and English. She is also gaining an increasing fluency in Kwakwala, which she began studying in Grade 7.

“The language is dying,” said Nelson, who heritage is through the Musgamagw-Tsawataineuk Nations of Kingcome Inlet. “You’ve got to keep learning to try to keep it alive.”

In Saskatchewan, Nelson was introduced to a completely different aboriginal culture. Among the highlights was a visit to a Cree pow-wow, held to celebrate Aboriginal graduates of the university and of local high schools, and a smudging and piping ceremony.

Throughout the week, though, she was peppered with questions about her coastal home. Particularly when students saw a photo her mother took of the scenery on her commute to work, which was printed and mounted for Dakota to present to her professors and Kirkness.

“They didn’t know what a big house was,” Nelson said. “When I started talking about the big house, they started laughing. ‘You mean, like the jail?’ I’m like, ‘No.’

“And they say, ‘You really see whales?’ Yeah, I see whales. It’s normal. I keep hearing it’s not normal for them.”