Making a present of the past

U of M Cree instructor turned childhood struggles with school into teaching career that thrives on conversations


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At 78 years old, Ken Paupanekis could easily be retired, but he continues to teach Cree because there’s nobody else to do it.

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At 78 years old, Ken Paupanekis could easily be retired, but he continues to teach Cree because there’s nobody else to do it.

“I’m only part time; I only teach on Tuesdays,” Paupanekis says from his quaint office in the Isbister building on the University of Manitoba campus.

A teacher by trade, though long retired from the day-to-day-gig, Paupanekis is a seasonal Cree language instructor at the university.

He is a fountain of knowledge, especially when it comes to the history of his home community of Norway House in northern Manitoba. He’s also the author of Pocket Cree: A Phrasebook for Nearly All Occasions.

A language keeper who revels in sharing his knowledge and piecing together the fragments of the past that he’s learned by reading old journals and reciting family lore, he is an in-depth and detailed storyteller.

“A lot of history can be very exciting and very fun to share,” he says. “But the way they teach Canadian history these days is so boring.”

His words are hugged by an accent that is a mixture of Cree and Scottish. It’s called the Red River Bungee accent, he says. Both his great-grandfathers were Scottish men who married Cree women, and both spoke fluent Cree.

“I started teaching in 1967, out of high school. I taught on a permit for three years and then went up North, which is home to me, and then I went back to university and got certified,” he explains. While working in the North full time, he continued to pursue his education, including getting his master’s degree.

It was through his studies that Paupanekis discovered the rich and vibrant history of his community.

Education is important to Paupanekis. His parents were very independent and wanted their children to get as much education as they could. They saw it as the key to getting a good job and making a living.

“All the teachers I had in elementary school up north, you know, they weren’t local people, and kids like us struggled with the English language,” he says.

He remembers one time when he was in Grade 7 or 8, sitting in his classroom of students ranging from grades 1 to 8, a typical classroom setting for students in Norway House. A boy in Grade 1 put up his hand to alert the teacher that another classmate had wet their pants.

“He was trying to be helpful. He put up his hand, ‘Teacher’ — it’s the only English he knew — he said, ‘Teacher, Johnny pissed his pants.’ Well, the teacher just reamed him out and said ‘Don’t ever say that’,” Paupanekis recalls.

“Well, that’s the only English this kid knew — and I used to see frustrated teachers talking to these kids, but those kids didn’t know what the teachers were asking.

“Maybe the odd kid would understand what the teacher said, but people didn’t have training in immersion of other languages. They don’t teach that in teacher training. They teach it in ideal conditions, but it doesn’t work that way.”

That incident sparked something inside the young Paupanekis. “If I was a teacher, I could at least say, ‘Tell me in Cree what you need.’”

As quickly as the thought came, it was overshadowed with doubt. He said he was so used to being told he was too stupid and that he’d never amount to anything. Becoming a teacher seemed impossible, especially since school only went up to Grade 8 in Norway House, and many of the students started late because they needed to be old enough to be able to walk — and row — for miles on the often-treacherous journey to and from school.

Paupanekis was eight when he started school.

“Me and my sisters, and brothers and cousins all got into a boat, rowed for about a mile-and-a-half and then we walked the rest of the way, which was about three-quarters, maybe a mile. And that’s how we went to school every day,” he says.

In the fall when the lake would freeze over, the kids would miss school and get scolded for it.

“People just didn’t see beyond the realities, you know?”

Located on the northern tip of Lake Winnipeg and the eastern channel of the Nelson River on Treaty 5, Norway House Cree Nation is one of the largest First Nation communities in Manitoba with nearly 8,000 members.

The community, located 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg, has a rich historical association as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s principal inland depot for the fur trade. The community was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in May 1932.

Growing up in the north in the 1950s, the middle of eight kids, Paupanekis says he could only ever dream of living in a home with electricity and running water, in a community with paved roads and traffic lights.

The family of 10 lived in a log cabin they built themselves that couldn’t have been more than 16 by 20 feet, he recalls. The homes in the community were modelled after ones in Scotland. There was a partition on the main floor separating the kitchen from a living area, and a loft where everyone slept.

The Paupanekis family had a cow for dairy, and they lived off the land and water in what he describes as genuine poverty. His father, a trapper and fisherman, was a proud man who would sure rather starve to death than take assistance from anyone.

There was always a net in the river in the warm months, giving the family access to plenty of fresh fish.

“In those days everybody had a garden; if you didn’t, you didn’t have any potatoes for the winter,” he says. “We’d dig the garden in the fall and there was always enough potatoes for the winter. We’d put them in the cellar under the floor of the house.”

The Paupanekis family would order a supply of sugar, flour, baking powder and other basics from a store in Selkirk to last through the winter. When the river froze over, the family’s source of protein was fish, rabbit, wild chickens and ptarmigan.

“In winter two, three days a week, that was our supper,” he says. “There were lots of these birds (ptarmigan) in the winter and people lived on them. That’s how important they were.”

When he finished Grade 8, he continued with his education through correspondence.

He looks back at that year as a wasted year. His books didn’t arrive in the mail until mid-November, leaving not enough time to get through his lessons before having to take his Christmas exams.

He describes the experience of trying to navigate his own education as a disaster.

“One thing is, when you teach yourself, you remember it,” he says. “Instead of someone explaining it to you and you don’t always get it. But, when you’re doing it yourself to understand it, you never forget it.”

After that trying experience, with the help of a local minister he convinced his father to let him attend school in Teulon. He lived in residence with the minister’s son and repeated Grade 9.

“Actually, I did quite well academically, except for English. I’d always struggled with English, but I did quite well because I did a lot of it on my own already,” he says.

“But the horrible part was that nobody could advise me, ‘Ken, don’t be surprised when you get into your classroom and you’re sitting with a bunch of 14-year-olds’ — I was 18 at the time — and that was hard… I should have been finishing high school, but I was just starting high school.”

Paupanekis hated living in residence. He eventually left the Teulon school and found his way to Winnipeg, moving in with a cousin and her husband. He enrolled himself at the closest school, Garden City Collegiate. He was in Grade 11, and even though he was over 18, he looked young and nobody realized it.

The school soon discovered that he didn’t have the same name as his cousin and her husband. When they discovered he was Indigenous, he was deemed a non-resident and was required to pay tuition. In the end, Indian Affairs ended up paying, gave him a bus pass and $8 a month for spending money. It was upped to $15 after he traded in his bus pass, since the line didn’t go far enough north.

“The funny thing was the following year they started putting kids (from up north) in private homes to go to school. I often wonder if I started the whole thing by doing what I did.”

After leaving high school just a few credits short, Paupanekis began teaching in Garden Hill, then in Oxford House, before getting married. He returned to the North to teach, and became a school principal at Norway House School.

He often taught in English and the students would respond in Cree, an approach that is called second-language acquisition.

“If they didn’t understand me right away, they’d tell me in Cree… and they were asking questions, you know, and there’s nothing that pleases me more than students who ask questions.

“When we were doing that in high school we were told to shut up and stop being dumb, but when a student asks questions, that tells me they’re interested.”

His classrooms were usually filled with noise, “necessary noise,” he called it. He won praise from his superintendents for being so engaged with his students, and that’s because there was no barrier. They could understand each other.

When he teaches now, he does it by engaging in conversations with his students, rather than just teaching words. He uses Standard Roman Orthography, a spelling system that uses the letters of English alphabet to represent Cree language sounds. He teaches Intro to Cree and Intermediate Cree, and tries to accommodate anybody who wants to learn.

He often offers up his weekends and his spare time to help students who want and are willing to learn. If they’re going to bend backwards, so is he.

He has always tried to be the teacher he needed when he was young.

“I try and make things meaningful to people,” he says. “I think once you find something out and you’re teaching, you like to always not just teach facts, but try to relate to them.”

Twitter @ShelleyACook

Shelley Cook

Shelley Cook
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project

Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.

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