By Judy Bird

When Erin Goodpipe was a Grade 9 student attending Standing Buffalo Dakota Nation School, she took part in some arts-based workshops that changed her life.

Goodpipe excelled at academics, and naturally, her fellow students looked to her to lead them in the theatre games during the workshops. One game, ‘Follow the Leader’ surprised her. “I was put on the spot and I couldn’t do it, and I realized that leadership isn’t exactly what you think it is. Ever since then, my whole perception of facilitation and being a leader has changed because of that one exercise.”

The workshops are part of the program Acting Out! But in a Good Way, facilitated by the Indigenous Peoples Health Research Centre at the University of Regina in partnership with the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council (FHQTC). Researchers and assistants use theatre games, visual arts, music, creative writing and other art forms to promote leadership, holistic health, wellness and suicide prevention with Indigenous youth in Carry the Kettle, Little Black Bear, Muscowpetung, Nekaneet, Okanese, Pasqua, Peepeekisis, Piapot, Standing Buffalo, Star Blanket and Wood Mountain First Nations.

Now a student at the U of R in the Faculty of Arts, and a member of the IPHRC research team, Goodpipe recognizes how the experience from the theatre games continue to affect her. “The workshops impacted my choices for areas of study, and deeply affected me.”

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The impact on youth was apparent right from the start.

“We had kids with big teary eyes saying ‘this is the best week of my life’ and then people saying ‘what have you done to my son? He’s talking in class now, he was always too shy and withdrawn’, and teachers seeing a difference in behaviour,” said Dr. Jo-Ann Episkenew, Director of IPHRC.

Community research associate Dustin Brass and research assistant Ben Ironstand recently conducted weekly cultural arts workshops on Carry the Kettle First Nation with students in grades 10 through 12. They let the students guide the activities.

“We are showing them different mediums of expression, talking to them and teaching them to convey story through those art pieces. Through those art pieces and through story, we find that we are looking at how we can reduce the risk of suicide by promoting that well-being,” said Brass.

Research associate David Benjoe spent one summer reviewing curriculum to relate the workshops to school studies. “Some people don’t relate the math to the arts, but for me it’s automatic. When I think of gradation of colour, the way physics works with colour pigment and objects reflecting light.  I think it has a First Nations value too. It’s a holistic thought, it’s just within us,” explained Benjoe, who is also a visual arts and native studies teacher..

“We do research to offer youth a different view of the world. Arts can be leading into the connection to what First Nations youth find valuable,” he said.

“We want to start showing that the arts are not just fluff. They’re the last thing funded, the first thing let go. If we can find evidence to show that they actually have a benefit, then I think we can make a pretty good recommendation to policy makers about this. Arts programming isn’t expensive, and it’s effective,” said Dr. Episkenew.

“Education for Aboriginal people should not just focus on skills and training. Residential schools were about skills and training with a goal of creating an underclass of farm labourers and domestic servants. Now it’s oil sands workers. What kind of society will we have if we don’t have the artists? The residential school system really did suppress the imagination. We need a community with a vibrant imagination if we want to address all of these historical issues that are still affecting people,” she added.

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