The kids who need the most love will often ask for it in the most unloving ways.
That’s a quote Taylor Baptiste always tries to remember as she teaches indigenous youth at Southern Okanagan Secondary School.
The young woman shares the important role of indigenous education advocate with colleague Jeremy Crow. And after talking to her, it certainly appears to be her calling in life.
“I love it because you get to see the kids grow into who they are going to be, watching them attain their goals, and helping them along the way is a really good feeling.”
The former Oliver Ambassador has always enjoyed working with youth on the reserve.
After graduating from high school in 2014, she attended the En’owkin Centre in Penticton and took a year of language immersion classes. She also spent time as a youth worker.
When the job posting came up at SOSS, she jumped at it. Her role sees her tracking the progress of indigenous students, their grades, attendance, schedules, counselling and tutoring.
The other part of her job is bringing indigenous content into the classroom, such as teaching the history of residential schools, storytelling, socials and drama.
She also teaches students how to cook salmon and deer meat in foods class. In fact, one of their favourite activities is digging for bitterroot and using it in recipes, such as brownies with Saskatoon berries.
“I love it because every week is different and every season brings different activities,” Baptiste said. “Being Okanagan is such a big part of who I am, so having my job, being in a position where I can share that with my students (is very satisfying).”
She noted that about 20-25 per cent of the school is made up of indigenous students (approximately 100).
Baptiste said having this role in schools across Canada is critical, especially for indigenous students.
“It’s one thing to read about indigenous history or learn about different nations from a textbook. But when you can actually bring the students out onto the land and meet with the elders, it makes it more personable.”
Besides, students will always remember how they feel more than what they’ve read, she pointed out. “When you can provide that authentic experience for them, they’ll remember it more.”
Baptiste said by teaching more Okanagan history across all classrooms in the school, you really see how the students develop a sense of pride.
“It creates a good atmosphere among the students. It’s important for non-Okanagan members to know about the Okanagan nation because they still live within this territory.”
According to Baptiste, creating this sense of pride has resulted in a boost in student and staff morale. And it’s also affecting graduation rates, she stated.
She recalled that SOSS had an indigenous advocate when she attended, but she didn’t really feel connected until she was a senior.
“I kind of regret not being a part of it (earlier) because you get to do so many important things.”
Baptiste said their gathering room is open to all students. They have a fish tank where students get to raise baby salmon that are released back into the river every year.
“Sometimes non-indigenous students might feel intimidated or don’t want to ask the wrong questions, or accidentally be disrespectful. We’ve always made it clear to ask anything.”
Baptiste said racism today is not the kind of problem that it was in the past, noting the current generation is quite accepting.
“From what I’ve seen, whenever there is any comments like that, the other students all shut it down pretty quick. They don’t tolerate that among each other anymore.”
Baptiste said the biggest challenge with the students today is making sure their transition to high school is not too overwhelming. That’s why making that connection early is important.
• Read more: Board working to improve aboriginal education
The teacher loves blending life on the reserve with school studies. For example, she takes her family studies class to the parenting group on the reserve where the students learn about motherhood and fatherhood. They even make moccasins for the babies.
The other passion in Baptiste’s life is her artwork, inspired by her late grandfather Francis Jim Baptiste.
He attended the Nk-Mip Day School on the reserve in the 1930s and 40s and later became renowned for his paintings on buckskin, which are now displayed in several countries.
As a teen, Taylor started recreating her grandfather’s drawings by painting on hand drums. She recently built an exhibit by painting four large drums to complement her grandfather’s work at the Kelowna Art Gallery.
“That’s a really special thing because I’ve grown up looking at his artwork my whole life, so to have it in the same exhibit as him is surreal.”
Baptiste said painting hand drums is her strongest connection to the land and her family history.
Her other passion is archery. She started that sport with the Twisted Arrows club on the reserve and fell in love with the competitive aspect.
“I’ve played basketball and field hockey but there’s something about archery. It’s more than just shooting an arrow, it’s a huge mental game, almost like yoga where you have to focus on breathing, technique and form.”
Baptiste placed third in the 2014 North American Indigenous Games, and placed second at the nationals.
In next year’s Indigenous Games she will be an assistant archery coach for Team BC. She finds this “really cool” because she will be working with her old coach Ron Ostermeier.
As she continues teaching indigenous studies, her goal is to instill in her students a strong sense of who they are and what they have to offer the world.
And you know what? That Okanagan pride is steadily growing.