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“Ruler of the Forest” Creates Community Collaboration & Connection

“Ruler of the Forest” Creates Community Collaboration & Connection

November 15, 2015

The AHA! moment came for Dan Norman, now in the position of Curriculum Coordinator for Aboriginal Education, SD79, Cowichan, when he heard Florence James Cultural Teaching Assistant speaking Hul’q’umi’num. “I thought to myself, ‘How could I have grown up in this area and taught in our schools for 14 years and never heard this?'” explains Norman.

Although there are many dialects spoken in the Coast Salish territory, one of the main dialects is Hul’q’umi’num and historically it was an oral language only. Since it wasn’t a written language, there was an even greater need to preserve it and that’s where Dan Norman’s ten year journey began.

“Our goal as a district is to provide high quality, culturally relevant and authentic resources,” notes Norman. “But we found we were not able to meet this mandate without working closely with the nations we serve.”

To address this, the district first started to take English stories and convert them into Hul’q’umi’num. They soon found that because it had such a different structure, the translation didn’t work and the phrasing was never correct. This started a different process. Instead of converting from English to Hul’q’umi’num, they would do the opposite and take a Hul’q’umi’num story and convert it to English.

“This became a huge collaboration and we approached our local Elders about doing this project, asking them for guidance and help in selecting a story,” explains Norman. “The committee of Elders selected an excellent place-based story that showed the relationship between the language, the people and the land.”

The place-based book is called ” Ruler of the Forest” and is an ancient story of the land. It fits beautifully with the local settings in a forest in the Somenos Marsh by the Cowichan River and Bay, and is offered in hard copy as a Flipbook, reading in Hulq’umi’num’ language one way, and then flipped to read the English version.

The book was just published this summer and can also be found in SOLR (the Shareable Online Learning Resources) as well as on the SD79 Aboriginal Education site. The story is rich in information and values as it has traditional teachings of leadership, honesty and working together. But the book itself wasn’t the true accomplishment. The partnerships created in the community became the true achievement of the project.

“When we initially reached out to OPDF (Online Program Development Fund) for funding, we were required to build the community and we wrote the application as a collective,” notes Norman. “We met with Elders, our language authorities, various local Universities as well as other school districts, and that was just the beginning.”

The challenge was co-creating the vision and coming to a collective goal. However, the belief in the importance of preserving and sharing the language was so strong that it was easy to get deep commitment from all partners.

Funding was received and used to hire professionals and to create high quality audio recordings (which can be heard through the online version). It was also challenging to find a Coast Salish artist who could provide kids book illustrations since most of that art was not illustrative, although beautiful. There was a tremendous amount of translation work needed as well, and the written parts were done by Ruby Peter working in partnership with Donna Gerdts, Simon Fraser University linguists. Overall, there was assistance needed on many different levels and support was also provided by Denise Augustine, Principal for Aboriginal Education. She had a gift for bringing people together and the project quickly evolved.

“Shared ownership is an important principle in our Aboriginal community,” stresses Norman. “They’ve always had a deep understanding of that but we’ve had to learn it and apply it.”

Now, various community partners are ‘owning it’ and sharing this resource around the area. It is also being used in the schools as a language teaching tool.

“Ten years ago, you only heard Hul’q’umi’num in 3 or 4 schools,” notes Norman. “I doubt if there is any school now in our district that hasn’t heard this rich language.”

The relationships built within the community from this project, are by far the most powerful result. The richness, diversity and strength of the Aboriginal community should be celebrated and this helps to break down barriers that might exist within the area.

“I’m just one member of a diverse professional community,” explains Norman. “I’m like the mechanic, helping to make things work, but I definitely wasn’t the creative or driving force behind it all.”

The many partners, supporters and collaborators on this project can all be found on theAbEdSd79 site under the Ruler of the Forest resource.

One final bit of advice Norman shares is to remember it’s about building a community. Not coming with a solution, but creating one together.

“Don’t go to your community with pre-determined outcomes but instead work in partnership with the community to create your outcome together,” advises Norman. “Share what’s possible and then listen to your community members’ s feedback. The ideas generated and solutions initiated often create a more cohesive and high functioning partnership within your district. These relationships are powerful”.

If you have something interesting happening in your school or district, or want to share how you overcame challenges so that other districts can also benefit from your knowledge, then contact our Communications Manager, Cathy Yeomans at to share your story!