The Learning Circle: Classroom Activities on First Nations in Canada - Ages 4 to 7

Author: Harvey McCue and Associates
Date: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-100-17178-4
QS: 6127-000-EE-A4

PDF Format (4.39 Mb, 50 pages)

Acknowledgements and Credits

The Learning Circle: Classroom Activities on First Nations in Canada – ages 4 to 7

Researched and written by Harvey McCue and Associates for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Special thanks to:
The First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres
The National Association of Friendship Centres

Illustration credit:
Laura Budgell

Published under the authority of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, 2010
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Catalogue No: R72-278/1-2010E-PDF
ISBN: 978-1-100-17178-4

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The Learning Circle has been produced to help meet Canadian educators' growing need for elementary-level learning exercises on First Nations. It is the first in a series of four classroom guides on First Nations in Canada. Because First Nations are culturally diverse, the information in this activity book does not necessarily apply to all groups. To learn more about a particular First Nation and to get help with learning activities, teachers are encouraged to consult local Elders, cultural education centres or friendship centres. Also visit the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Kids' Stop website for additional information.

The Learning Circle is organized in thematic units, each with its own teaching activities. Units are designed to give teachers and students simple but effective exercises, projects and activities that will encourage students to learn more about First Nations. Educators can follow some of the exercises as stand-alone units on First Nations topics, or integrate them with existing curricula on Aboriginal peoples.

Most exercises in The Learning Circle can be completed in one period. Certain others will take several periods, days or weeks.

General Information

The term First Nation came into common usage in the 1970s to replace the word "Indian." Although the term First Nation is widely used, no legal definition of it exists, unlike "Indian." The word "Indian" is still used to describe one of three groups of people recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution Act, 1982. The other two groups are the Métis and Inuit.

There are six major cultural regions of First Nations in Canada. From east to west, these are the Woodland First Nations, the Iroquois First Nations of southeastern Ontario, the Plains First Nations, the Plateau First Nations, the First Nations of the Pacific Coast and the First Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River basins.

Each Nation possesses its own unique culture, language and history. Their collective presence in North America does not diminish their distinctiveness any more than the collective presence of nations in Europe lessens the distinctions between the cultures of Poland and Italy, for example. The practice of identifying all First Nations as a homogeneous group obscures the unique and rich traditions that each First Nation has developed and nurtured.

First Nations today retain their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. As with other cultures throughout the world, the cultural identity of many contemporary First Nations reflect a long history of influences, some peaceful and some arising out of conflict. Some First Nations merged with others. Some were simply absorbed over time by larger Nations, and some disappeared altogether. The cultures and languages evident today are the products of complicated, centuries-old processes that shaped the evolution of most, if not all, cultures everywhere.

Although there are many differences between First Nations, there are commonalities as well. For example, all First Nations were dependent on the land for survival and prosperity. All First Nations were hunters and gatherers. Some were also farmers. Without the skills and knowledge to hunt and fish and to gather food and medicines, First Nations would not exist today.

Another commonality is that all First Nations lived in organized societies. Individuals, families and larger groups of people, such as clans, tribes and Nations, behaved according to a broad range of agreed-upon social, political and economic values.

A third commonality was trade. Expansive trading practices contributed to the growth and development of First Nations cultures. These practices also enabled many First Nations to respond to the fur trade as competitive, efficient trading partners with Europeans.

Unit 1 – Storytelling

Cree story: The granddaughter who was eaten by a big fish

Main Idea

Stories are not only entertaining, they help us learn. Stories were the primary teaching aid of many First Nations people, and storytelling is still very important today. For every event, natural feature or animal, there was a story.


  1. to encourage children's natural storytelling skills
  2. to use stories to teach values and encourage introspection
  3. to have children understand the importance of storytelling to First Nations oral traditions

Teacher Information

First Nations societies regularly tell stories – about adventures, ancestors, or different aspects of the land. Through stories and songs, First Nations keep their history alive and pass it on to subsequent generations.

First Nations storytelling has always been a communal experience. Stories brought people together to share a past, to explain the seemingly inexplicable in creation or to instruct. A powerful story might also make children see the consequences their actions might have.

First Nations people use stories for entertainment, recording history and education. As a teaching tool, stories are a valuable way to educate young people about the values and beliefs that First Nations consider important for their members. Teaching stories fall into different categories. Some are similar to fables, with explicit morals. Another popular kind of teaching story is the open-ended story. Here the lesson is subtle, possibly even obscure, and is left to the students or listeners to discover. The discovery story educates listeners gradually. The goals or morals of the story reveal themselves to the listener, as his or her maturity and life experiences develop.

Traditionally, winter, with its longer nights, was the main storytelling season. Historical stories ensure the recording and transmission of important events for families and for Nations. However, stories used primarily as teaching tools for the young can be told at any time by anyone. The education of First Nations children is not left strictly to the children's family or parents. A wide range of individuals, including members of the extended family, older siblings, friends, Elders and leaders, also occasionally instruct the young. In addition, stories are a useful method for teaching and retaining First Nations languages.

"The Lily Root" is a discovery story. Listeners are expected to draw their own conclusion, without the story specifying an explicit lesson or instruction. The maturity and age of the students will determine the particular lessons they derive from the story. The character of "Old John" reinforces the First Nations way of enabling non-family members to act as instructors, in this case, an elderly man in the community. In some First Nations, the principal disciplinarians were not the children's parents but rather an aunt or uncle, or a grandmother as illustrated in the story, "The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish." In the story, "The Lily Root," a grandfather offers philosophical and plant knowledge to his grandson.

This unit is designed to encourage storytelling within the classroom. The stories in this unit focus on traditional and life experience stories.

How to use stories in your classroom

  • Non-Aboriginal people often recorded First Nations legends as fairy tales or myths, adding convenient morals to sum up the story. However, the stories of Elders and accomplished storytellers often have no such ready explanation. The listener was expected to take time to think about the story and its meanings. Students need to be made familiar with this format, if your stories follow this method.
  • Repetition is an important element of First Nations storytelling. Stories need to be told and "felt" over and over again.
  • Storytelling is not just a creative activity for the highly accomplished. Because stories are essential to the oral tradition of First Nations, they can become an important part of the classroom. Storytelling helps children with their memory skills, reading, oral communication, writing and imagination.
  • Stories based on memories and anecdotes can be just as effective as traditional legends. Above all, it is important that as the narrator, you rehearse the story and identify its critical elements. If you practice, the story will come alive for students and ensure they pay attention and participate.


1. Cree Story — The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish

Listen to this story (6:16')

The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish

Download this story (MP3, 5.8 Mb)

To download the file for use on a portable device, (e.g. iPod, BlackBerry), right click on the link above and select "Save Target As".

You may read the story to students, play the audio version, or tell it from memory. Should you decide to tell the story, read it over a few times to get a general sense of the plot. Try a practice run of telling it out loud. The actual words of the story are not as important as the general concepts and characters.

The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish
Cree story granddaughter and grandmother

This is a story about Gookum (Cree word for "grandmother") and her mischievous granddaughter, Beulah. Beulah was a very curious little girl. She was always wandering off from the camp, looking for adventures. Gookum was always telling her to listen. One day, Gookum asked Beulah to get some water from the lake so she could make soup.

"Whatever you do, don't go swimming in the lake alone," said Gookum.

"Why not?" asked Beulah.

"Because there is a giant fish in that lake, and he will catch you and swallow you up if you swim too far."

"Eeeeeya, Gookum. I'm not afraid of a big fish."

So, Beulah went off to collect the water. Oh, it was a nice warm day. The sun shone brightly.

A squirrel chattered as she walked along the path.

"Go away, silly squirrel. I am busy."

A butterfly flew around the girl. She ran around in circles trying to catch the butterfly until it flew away. "I am really hot now," Beulah said to herself.

Granddaughter, butterfly and squirrel
Blue Jay

Finally, Beulah came to the lake. She went to the big rock where Gookum had showed her to stand to get water. She dipped her buckets in the lake. They filled up quickly. Those buckets were heavy now. She had to be very careful when she carried them to the shore, they were so heavy. With a cup, she scooped out the little sticks and leaves that floated on the top. She was ready to carry them back now.

Carrying the buckets made Beulah tired. She lay down next to the water, in a nice spot on a large flat rock. The sun shone on her. She was very hot, so she took off her shirt.

A blue jay landed in a tree next to the path.

The blue jay squawked at her.

"You noisy old bird. Stop disturbing me." The blue jay flew away.

Beulah decided to have a quick swim, just to cool off before she took the water back for Gookum. She removed all of her clothes and dived in.

The water was nice and cool. Beulah was a good swimmer. She decided she would swim out as far as she could. As she swam out, Beulah saw a huge silver flash in the water. It was a great big fish, and with one gulp, it swallowed her whole! Beulah found she was trapped in the stomach of the huge fish Gookum had warned her about.

"Oh no," she cried. "I should have listened to Gookum!"

Granddaughter inside big fish

Beulah had been gone a long time. Gookum thought that she had found an adventure and forgotten to get water. There was no point in worrying about her — there were chores to be done around camp. She cut wood and made dinner. When Beulah wasn't home by night, Gookum was worried, but she knew the little girl was able to take care of herself in the woods.

The next day, Beulah still was not back. Gookum needed food, so she gathered the fishing net and went down to the lake. She caught six fish. One was a huge creature that stretched as long as her arms and more. That big fish would feed a whole family for a week.

She started cutting up all the fish. When she finally got to the big fish, she slid the knife into the belly. Beulah jumped out, very much alive.

At first, Gookum was startled, but she quickly realized it was Beulah, who was covered head to toe in slimy, sticky fish innards.

She shook her head at Beulah, and began to laugh at her. "I told you, I told you not to swim in the lake." Beulah bowed her head and said nothing. She just went to the lake to clean off all the smelly fish slime.

Granddaughter and grandmother with fish

2. Discussion — The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish

After telling the students "The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish," ask them to talk about some of the themes of the story. Some questions you may want to ask them are:

  • Why didn't Gookum want her granddaughter to swim in the lake?
  • What was Beulah's reaction when she was told not to swim in the lake? Do you think that was the right way to act?
  • Why did Beulah disobey Gookum? Do you think there may have been other ways for her to cool off without swimming in the lake?
  • How did Gookum react when she discovered Beulah in the big fish? How do you think she felt?
  • Do you think Beulah learned something? What did she learn?
  • What did you learn?

3. Role Playing — The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish

Cree story granddaughter and grandmother

In the story "The Granddaughter who was Eaten by a Big Fish," which you have shared with the class, Beulah is visited by three animals on her trip to the lake: a squirrel, a butterfly and a blue jay. Remind the class about Beulah's encounters with these three animals, and how she treated them. Now have the class imagine that the animals were trying to remind the girl of what Gookum had said.

What would the animals be trying to tell Beulah? For example, the blue jay may say, "Squawwwk... Gookum told you not to swim." Choose four members of the class to act out the four roles:

  • Granddaughter
  • Squirrel
  • Butterfly
  • Blue Jay

After the class has discussed what the animals might have been saying to Beulah, ask the students playing the animals to act out a skit exploring these encounters. Encourage the actors to take on characteristics of the animals they are portraying.

4. Winter — A Time for Storytelling

Among many First Nations, winter was the time for storytelling. As well as teaching the young, storytelling was a way for adults to enliven the long, cold winter nights.

Squirrel and Blue Jay

Often, certain men and women in the community would have a greater gift for storytelling than others. In some First Nations, these individuals acted as "professional" storytellers and travelled from camp to camp during the storytelling seasons. They carried with them a bag filled with items they used as teaching devices. For example, the storyteller might reach into her bag and pull out a doll made of corn husks, or a crow feather. She would look at it, show it to everyone, and then begin a tale.

In the autumn, help the students to make a storyteller's bag.

You may wish to gather items from the natural world, such as feathers, shells or stones, or make dolls. When winter arrives, pass the bag around the classroom each day and ask the students to tell a story based on what he or she takes out.

5. The Ojibway Story — The Lily Root

Listen to this story (8:42')

The Ojibway Story — The Lily Root

Download this story (MP3, 8.1 Mb)

To download the file for use on a portable device, (e.g. iPod, BlackBerry), right click on the link above and select "Save Target As".

The Lily Root
Ojibway story: The Lily Root

Emily Muskrat was ten years old. She lived with her family on a reserve in Manitoba, north of Lake Winnipeg. Emily had a younger sister named Hattie whom she often looked after.

Emily's father worked for a First Nations organization as a community health worker. He visited First Nations communities to help develop local health programs. Emily's mother was a teacher's aide at the local school. Emily took care of Hattie on Saturday afternoons when her parents went to town to shop for food.

One Saturday, Emily was playing cat's cradle. Hattie watched her weave the tiny string between her two hands. As Emily continued to create designs, Hattie said, "Show me how to do that." Hattie pointed to the cradle between her sister's hands.

Emily replied, "Spread your hands and fingers." Emily wrapped the string around Hattie's thumbs. "Move your fingers like this," she said as she showed Hattie how to wind the string between her fingers and hands. It was not easy for Hattie to make a cat's cradle.

While Hattie struggled to make a cradle, Peter Crane rode his old bicycle past the girls. Emily made a face at Hattie when they saw Peter because Peter often wore old and worn-out jeans when he played and rode his bicycle. Neither girl spoke to Peter as he went by.

As the two sisters were playing, Old John walked along the path by their home. He saw the two girls playing cat's cradle. Hattie showed Old John her first cat's cradle. Old John smiled and waved the girls over to him. Old John spoke softly to the girls. "I'm going to tell you a story," he said. "It is about the lily root." He motioned to the two girls to sit beside him on the small bench.

Old John began his story. "One day, Shomis (used in certain Ojibway-speaking communities to mean 'old man' or 'grandfather') and his grandson were walking in the bush. They came upon a small river with a big pond. Shomis saw some water lilies in the pond. He asked his grandson to get him a lily root. Lily roots were important to Shomis. When he dried the root and ground it into powder, it became medicine. Shomis would use this medicine to keep healthy.

His grandson removed his boots and socks. Then, he rolled up his pant legs. When he stepped into the pond, he felt the mud ooze between his toes. Shomis stood on shore and pointed to the lily plant he wanted.

Big John tells The Lily Root story
Grandson digs for the lily root

When the boy reached the lily plant, his pants and legs were wet and muddy. The oozing muck from the bottom of the pond was smelly and dirty. He reached into the water quickly to pull out the root.

"Be careful," Shomis told him. "You must not break the root when you pull it up. The medicine will be spoiled if it is taken from a broken root."

When his fingers were around the root, his grandson gave a hard yank. Nothing happened. He put his other hand around it.

"Be careful, now," instructed Shomis.

When he yanked the second time, the boy's shirt became wet with the muddy water. But the root still did not move. The boy could hear his grandfather on the shore. "Reach deeper with both hands," said Shomis.

End of the story

Very slowly, the boy bent over the beautiful white lily flower. He reached with both hands for a better grip around the root. His shirt sleeves were soaked. He pulled hard. The root refused to budge.

Finally, he realized he would have to get all wet with the muddy water. It still smelled. He held his breath. Quickly, his face went under water. He bent right over the plant with both hands deep around the stubborn root. He pulled and pulled. When the root came free he almost fell over in the water.

He walked back to shore to Shomis. He was wet from head to toe. His skin was itchy. Mud covered his feet, his pants, and his shirt. He carried the lily in his muddied hands. At one end of the plant was the beautiful white flower. At the other end was the muddy root.

As Shomis cleaned the mud from the lily root, he hummed softly. Then he cut off the flower.

He looked at his grandson who stood beside him. He was wet and muddy. His clothes smelled like the muddy pond. His toes and feet were still slippery with mud. Shomis laughed at the sight of his grandson.

Shomis held the lily root very gently. "This will make me feel strong and healthy," he said to the boy. Next to Shomis, the beautiful white flower lay discarded on the ground. "The root is more important than the flower," he said. "Many people are interested only in the pretty flower," he said. "Remember the lily root."

Hattie and Emily sat quietly next to Old John. They listened carefully to everything Old John told them. The story was over. Old John stood up. He patted Hattie on the head and walked away. Emily and Hattie walked to their house. They, too, would remember the lily root.

6. Discussion — The Lily Root

Boy on bike

After telling the students the story "The Lily Root," ask the students to identify some of the themes of the story. Questions you may want to ask the students are:

  • Why did Shomis ask his grandson to get the lily root?
  • What was the grandson's reaction when he had to go into the muddy water?
  • Shomis told him that the root was more important than the flower. Can you think of any time that you found something important in a dirty or unpleasant place?
  • Do you think Hattie and Emily learned something? What did they learn? Why do you think Old John told the girls the story?

Unit 2 – The Seasons

Main Idea

The seasons are part of the natural, dynamic process of change and the circle of life. We are all affected by the change of seasons.


  1. to have students recognize the changes that go along with the seasons
  2. to ensure students understand the effect of seasonal changes on their environment
  3. to teach students how First Nations dealt with the changing seasons

Teacher Information

For First Nations, seasons embodied the cyclical nature of life: birth, youth, adulthood and death. Seasons meant changes in lifestyle, food, social activities, religious and spiritual practices and economic pursuits. Many First Nations noted the changes in their lives that were influenced by the seasons by naming the months of the year after major events occurring during these periods. It was important for their survival that they observe and keep track of these changes.

The primary focus of this unit is to encourage children to take note of the seasonal changes going on around them. Children should have an opportunity to examine the natural world closely and better understand how they are affected by the change in seasons. These activities are intended to introduce the children to Earth science.

The seasons


For First Nations, spring was a time of birth and renewal. The land was freed from winter, snow disappeared, and river, lake and sea ice gradually melted. In spring, various First Nations communities were able to hunt birds like geese and ducks, and large game animals, such as caribou, that migrated from southern locations to more northern environments to bear their young. These annual animal and fowl migrations provided vital food supplies. As plants, trees and herbs began to renew themselves after the winter cold, many First Nations harvested and gathered roots, new leaves, plants and bark for food and medicine. Many First Nations still do so today.


Summer was an important season for hunting and gathering food. First Nations harvested wild grasses, along with various berries, edible roots and herbs.

For First Nations, the summer was a time of considerable activity. Many communities hunted large game animals for food, and as important sources of domestic and economic products. Hides produced clothing and footwear, ropes and babiche (lacing) for snowshoes. Animal horns were made into spoons and hand tools. Hair from animal skin served as stuffing in dolls, and balls for games. Sinew was used to make strings and thongs. First Nations used bones for scrapers, knives, spoons and ladles. They used hooves for ceremonies and dances.

Many communities had a variety of techniques to catch large quantities of freshwater fish during the summer. Using nets, elaborate weirs and spears, First Nations caught quantities of fish that they usually dried in the sun for future consumption. One technique was to use a torch suspended from the bow of a canoe to attract fish and then spear them.

Summer was also a time for collecting and harvesting. First Nations gathered and stored tree bark, tree roots, wild berries, nuts, fruit, edible plants and roots, herbs, mosses, shells, feathers and down. They also collected fungi and some ingredients for medicines and cures. Summer was also the time for games, entertainment and social gatherings.

Many of these activities continue today.


Economic pursuits continued into the fall. Many First Nations moved to traditional sites and constructed dwellings to withstand the increasingly cold winds. They also still collected foodstuffs at this time. As days grew shorter, hunting and fishing activities waned and caches of dried meat and fish became more and more important. Many First Nations stored food in earth cellars that were either deep enough to resist freezing or sufficiently insulated to protect the food from the freezing cold.


Winter activities

Snow is and was an integral part of life for First Nations. First Nations people developed techniques for travelling on snow and using snow in many different ways.

Snowshoes, toboggans and sleds were effective methods for snow travel invented and developed by First Nations and Inuit. Some First Nations constructed temporary Quinzees by piling snow into a large mound, allowing it to set and then scooping out a chamber big enough for one or several people. These structures provided insulation against extreme outdoor temperatures.

Cold temperatures, heavy snowfalls and blizzards in the East, the Prairies and in the North, and long periods of uninterrupted heavy rains on the West Coast, threatened the survival of many First Nations families and communities. Long periods of darkness confined people to their dwellings, and increased the need for heating fuel. High-calorie foods were vital to ensure people produced enough body heat to withstand the cold winter temperatures. Despite winter's hardships, this was also the time for some forms of socializing and entertainment. This was the time for stories.

Of course, fresh food could still be found during the winter months. Some First Nations hunters used snowshoes to hunt large game animals such as caribou, deer and moose. Certain First Nations caught fish using nets or artificial lures that were lowered into the water through holes in the ice. In some parts of the country First Nations hunted winter birds such as ptarmigan, grouse and large owls, and smaller animals such as rabbits, beaver and lynx.


1. A Tree's Feelings

Ask students to dramatize how a tree would "feel," using large and small muscle movements to move like a tree under the following conditions:

  • a gentle spring breeze
  • a violent autumn windstorm
  • pelting rain
  • a summer forest fire
  • having bare limbs in the winter
  • a squirrel running up its trunk
  • a bird nesting in its branches
  • a person climbing it
  • someone cutting it down
Activity: A tree's feelings

2. Food Gathering

During the spring and summer, people gathered food including berries, plants and edible roots to preserve for the winter. First Nations gathered berries such as strawberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, blackberries, raspberries, saskatoon berries and blueberries.

Discuss with the students some of their favourite foods. Ask them to list their favourite foods by the season in which they appear. Put a list of these foods on the board.

3. Favourite Season

For First Nations, each season brought different joys, difficulties and work. Although winter was often challenging, for example, it was also a good time for storytelling because families were confined to their dwellings. However, among certain Nations, family and community members spent winters apart, on different hunting territories. Summer was often a time of reunion, when a community would gather at traditional sites where fish or other foods, such as berries or edible roots and plants, were abundant. These sites also included areas that were near traditional trails or grasslands where large game animals were found. On the Prairies, some First Nations engaged in summer buffalo hunts.

Ask the students to identify their favourite season. Why is it their favourite season? For example, "I like winter because I can build a snowman," or "I like summer because I can go swimming."

Ask the students to draw their favourite season. Encourage them to draw themselves performing their favourite seasonal activity (jumping in leaves, sledding, running through puddles).

4. Clothing — What We Wear in Different Seasons

Many different kinds of animals were used to make the clothing worn by First Nations people: moose, deer, buffalo, elk, caribou and bear were often used. Rabbit fur, goose and duck down often provided insulation for clothing. Some First Nations used beaver hair and wolf hair as fringes for parkas and gloves to prevent freezing caused by moisture evaporation in extreme temperatures. In most cases, animal skins or hides used for clothing were scraped clean of hair and then tanned. Once tanned, the skins were transformed into leather from which clothing was produced. For winter outer wear, skins were not tanned but were treated and made into garments with the fur side turned in, for additional warmth and insulation.

For this activity, you will need:

  • butcher paper or large paper shopping bags
  • scissors
  • paint or crayons
  • heavy needle and thread
Activity: Clothing

Ask the children what types of clothes they wear during the different seasons; for example, raincoat in the spring, shorts in the summer, parka in the winter. Now get the children to explore what their clothes are made of and why they need them. Ask them where they get their clothes. Most will say, "at the store." Some may say, "as a gift" or "someone made them for me."

Divide the children into groups (if you have enough paper, each student can make his or her own coat). Have each group design a simple coat from the paper (for example, a poncho with an opening for the head in the middle). Cut the pattern out of the paper, and the children can colour and paint it to resemble any type of coat they wish (fur coat, a parka or raincoat). You may wish to help them sew the design together.

Have a fashion show and display your coats to the rest of the classroom. Have each child announce what season their coat would be appropriate for and why.

As a final discussion, ask children how First Nations people obtained the materials to make their clothing. An extension activity could include taking the children to the library to show them books on the different types of animals First Nations used for clothing.

5. Spring — How Does Life Change

Spring is the season of new beginnings and growth. When spring arrives, ask the children what the season means to them. Have them describe all the new things that are happening to the Earth.

Take the children out to the schoolground, a nearby park or on a field trip. Ask them to look closely for the changes brought by spring. For example: trees budding, new flowers and grass, creeks overflowing, robins and other birds arriving, frogs and tadpoles, etc.

When you get back to the classroom, have them draw one of the objects they observed.

While they are drawing, ask them if they think that change is a good thing, and why. Ask them if they think it is good when people change.

Activity: How does life change

6. Survival in the Winter

For many First Nations, summer and fall meant labour. Starvation during long, cold winters was a serious threat to many people. Men, women and children had to labour hard to store enough food to last the long, cold season.

Gather the children together and ask them some of the things that their family has to do to make it through the winter. For example: "burn lots of wood," "turn up the heat," "wear warmer clothing," or "keep the driveway shovelled." Have the children look through catalogues and magazines for pictures of people in the winter. Cut them out and arrange them on a bulletin board called "How We Make It Through The Winter."

7. Autumn Leaves

First Nations could not afford to take nature for granted. Ignoring the signs of seasonal change would surely lead to sickness and death. In this activity, students preserve autumn leaves, helping to preserve their memory of that season.

You will need:

  • large sealable plastic bags
  • cardboard and contact paper
  • newspaper for pressing leaves
  • white glue
  • binder rings
Activity: Autumn leaves

Take the children out to the schoolground, or an area nearby where there are several deciduous trees. Help the children collect the fallen leaves which they find the most attractive.

To dry the leaves, you will need to place each specimen carefully between two pieces of newspaper. Many leaves may be dried in one pile, as long as each leaf is covered on two sides by newspaper. Place a weight such as a heavy book on the pile and set it in a dry place. Each day, add another piece of newspaper above and below the specimen. Complete drying may take as long as two weeks.

To construct a book, give each child four pieces of pre-cut tagboard (bristol board or plain cardboard will also do). Have them lightly glue their dried leaves on each page, and then carefully place the contact paper over the tagboard. Smooth the contact paper from the centre to the edges, then wrap the contact paper around the edges of the tagboard. When all four pages are finished, the teacher can help the children punch holes in eachpage and connect them with binder rings.

You may wish to have the student identify the colour of the leaf they are pressing (orange, red, yellow, green), then write it on the bottom of the page.

8. What's Happening?

First Nations people were acutely aware that nature's life cycles must adjust to many variables. In this activity, students will have an opportunity to observe changes in nature by examining a portion of their playground. It will allow students to draw in a habitat over a period of time.

The following materials will be needed:

  • camera
  • fencing/rope
  • waterproof sign (laminated cardboard or wood and paint)
  • rain gauge
Activity: What's happening

Get permission from the school to fence off a small grassy or wooded area in the playground (approximately 10 square metres) for an entire school year. This may be done by the students. Assist the children in preparing a sign that says "Please do not disturb. Scientific experiment in progress. Do not water, mow or fertilize this area."

Designate a day and time each week to collect data. Depending on how sophisticated you wish to make the activity, students may record the following:

  • a photograph of the plot, taken from the same place. Date each picture, so that changes can be seen over time.
  • temperature and other weather conditions
  • amount of water in the rain gauge. This may be done after every rain or snow instead of once a week.
  • number and kinds of plants and insects in the plot

You might also have the children draw a weekly journal entry. Each drawing should include observations on plant growth, colour changes, and insect and animal activity. At the end of the year, the children can make a display of their charts and photographs to share with other people.

9. Which Way the Wind Blows

First Nations knew that wind patterns vary according to the seasons. Noting the pattern helped them make predictions about hunting and travelling. Teaching the children to observe the wind will help them understand the seasonal changes.

You will need:

  • a weather vane and a fixed spot (it may be outside the classroom window)
  • paper, coloured pencils and a ruler

Ask the students some of the following questions about weather: What is wind? How does it affect the weather? How is a weather vane read? Explain to them that wind is caused when air expands and rises as it is heated by the sun. Cooler surface air rushes in to take the heated air's place (circulation). We call this circulation "wind."

Now, show the class how to make a wind direction chart. Each school day, a wind reading will be taken by the class. The wind direction will then be charted by a student on the class chart. They will draw a one-inch line from the centre of the chart in the direction of the wind. The line may be an extension of a previous line whenever the wind direction is repeated. They may draw the line segment with a colour to show what type of weather it was: yellow for sunny or blue for clear skies, gray or black for clouds.

On the last day of the observations, you should discuss the wind direction chart with the children. What were the most frequent winds? When did these blow? What types of weather did they bring?


Unit 3 – Sharing

Main Idea

Sharing is important to all people. When we share, we help others and we can also learn from those with whom we share. Many First Nations believe they share Earth with all other living things.


  1. to reinforce attitudes of sharing and fairness
  2. to understand that sharing is a vital feature of many First Nations cultures

Teacher Information

Sharing is one of the most important cultural values of many First Nations. The principle of sharing originated in ancient times when individuals were taught to take from nature only what they needed to survive and prosper. They were also taught to share their food freely with others. Survival in a challenging environment was difficult at best, and sharing of food and materials increased the chances of survival in times of need and scarcity. The practice of sharing also reduced the threat of conflict and aggression, two conditions that challenged survival.

Over many generations and thousands of years, First Nations people developed values and behaviour that encouraged sharing and discouraged unfair and exploitative practices. Group survival often depended on sharing of resources and, in general, First Nation societies frowned upon greed and envy among their members. In many cultural groups, leaders were expected to share their food, resources and other materials. In general, successful hunters were expected to share with the less fortunate. Sharing was and is a simple but vital part of many First Nations' way of life.

This unit will focus on reinforcing the value of sharing. The activities emphasize sharing with others and with nature.


1. Coast Salish Story — Crow and Little Bear

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Coast Salish Story – Crow and Little Bear

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Crow and Little Bear
Little Bear

A long time ago, there was a crow who lived by a big river. It was a very big river, with a strong rushing current and fierce rapids. The river was full of fish, but the current was too fast for Crow to attempt fishing. If she fell in the river, she would be swept downstream.

One morning, Crow awoke to find a little bear on the beach by the river. Little Bear was a stranger, and looked lost. Crow watched Little Bear curiously. Little Bear spent several days lying on the beach, watching Crow. Crow spent her time sitting in a big tree, dreaming about the fish she could catch and watching Little Bear.

One day, Little Bear was crying. Crow saw this, so she flew down to the beach to see what the problem was.

"Hello," said Crow.

"Hello," said Little Bear.

"I'm sorry I didn't introduce myself sooner. I am quite shy," said Crow.

"That's okay," said Little Bear. "I am shy, too."

"Why are you crying?" asked Crow.

"I miss my home," said Little Bear. "I'm not from this part of the woods."

Little Bear explained how he had arrived at this beach. One fine sunny day, his parents had gone fishing. Little Bear had wandered off to find an adventure. What he found was a big river. Little Bear thought he would catch a big fish and bring it home to impress his parents. But as soon as he took one step into the swirling rapids, he was swept away downstream. He would have drowned if he had not grabbed onto a log. The log carried him far down the river, for days and nights, until he came to rest on the beach.

"So, that is how I ended up here," said Little Bear. "And I miss my home because there is such good fishing there."

Ahh haa, thought Crow to herself. Good fishing! Crow was always eager to find easier ways of fishing.

"Why don't you go home?" asked Crow. It seemed like a pretty obvious question.

Little Bear shook his head vigorously. "Oh no! I will never set foot in that river again!" Little Bear sat down and began to cry again when he thought of all the good fishing at his home.

Crow sat quietly until Little Bear finished crying. "I think I can get you home," said Crow.

"How?" asked Little Bear eagerly. Little Bear was running around in circles, he was so excited.

"It would involve climbing some trees and rocks."

Little Bear fell onto his rump and started to cry again.

"What's the matter now?" asked Crow.

"My parents tried to teach me, but I was never very good at climbing trees or rocks," said Little Bear. "I don't know how."

Crow shook her head. "That's not the right attitude, friend. Let's go give it a try."

Crow and Little Bear walked toward the mountain. When they came to the first set of big rocks, Crow flew to the top and called down, "Come on up, Little Bear."

Little Bear jumped on the rock, and slid straight to the bottom. He jumped up and tried again, with the same result. Little Bear looked like he was about to cry again.

This could be harder than I thought, said Crow to herself.

Crow flew back to the beach, and filled her claws with sand. She spread the sand all over the rocks. "Try it now, Little Bear."

Little Bear shook his head. "No way," he said.

"It will be easier this time, Little Bear," said Crow. "I promise."

Bear family

Little Bear hopped onto the rock, and to his surprise, he did not slide off. Slowly, he inched his way up the rock until he had reached the top. He and Crow celebrated. They began to make their way up the mountain, with Crow spreading sand on the rocks and Little Bear climbing inch by inch. By the time they reached the top, Crow was not using any sand at all.

"Congratulations," said Crow. "You did that quite well."

"My stomach is kind of sore," said Little Bear. "But I learned how to climb rocks!"

"You should never stop learning."

"I guess that is true."

They took a rest and gazed out at the scene. "I still can't see my home," said Little Bear.

Crow hopped onto the branch of a nearby tree. "If we climb up here, you will be able to see your home."

"I can't climb trees!" said Little Bear. Crow shook her head at him.

"Oh, okay. I'll try," sighed Little Bear.

Little Bear grabbed Crow's wing and hopped onto the first branch. He started to climb, but lost his hold and nearly fell out of the tree.

This could be harder than I thought, said Crow to herself.

"Little Bear, do you see this bark on the tree? Dig your claws into the bark. That is what you have claws for."

Little Bear was very scared. He tried digging his claws into the bark. To his surprise, he got a very good grip. Slowly, he became more confident in his claws, and he began to make his way up the tree. Crow hopped from branch to branch, encouraging him along the way. Finally, after a great deal of climbing, they reached the top of the tallest tree on the mountain. Little Bear was very excited.

"Thank you, Crow. Thank you for teaching me how to climb trees! And look, over there. There is my home!"

Crow looked to the lakes in the west where Little Bear was pointing. She could almost taste the fish.

"But how are we ever going to get from this tall tree to my home?" asked Little Bear.

"Little Bear, we are going to fly," said Crow.

"Crow, my friend, you have taught me quite a lot today. But I think you're getting a little carried away."

"Little Bear, trust me!" cried Crow. "Think of your home and all those tasty fish."

Bear closed his eyes and began daydreaming about all the fish in the lakes. As soon as he closed his eyes, Crow flapped her wing in the air and pushed Little Bear from the tree.

"Yooouuu puuusshed meeeeee!" yelled Little Bear as he fell through the sky, legs flailing in the air.

Suddenly, Crow swooped below him and caught him on her back. "Wrap your arms around my neck or you'll fall off," she said.

Little Bear did as he was told. The shock wore off and he realized that he was flying. "Hey, we're flying!"

Crow and fish

Little Bear was enjoying the flight. He looked around at the trees and lakes and the big river far below.

Crow kept her wings outspread as Little Bear clutched onto her neck. They flew along the wind currents, rising and falling as they drifted to Little Bear's home. "Flying is pretty neat," said Little Bear.

"Yes, I guess I take it for granted," said Crow.

As they got closer to Little Bear's home, Crow was getting quite tired. "Little Bear, you are getting very heavy. I think we should land."

"Good idea, Crow. Take us by that lake. It is good fishing there."

Crow and Little Bear landed by the lake. Now that their long journey was over, they were hungry. Fish began jumping from the water in great numbers right in front of them.

"Look at all those fish!" exclaimed Crow. She grew so excited that she dove into the lake and began flapping around, trying to snap up fish in her beak. She splashed and spluttered, and did not catch one fish.

Little Bear began to laugh at his friend. "No wonder you are hungry all the time. Come here and dry off."

As Crow shook all her feathers, Little Bear crept to the shore of the lake. He knelt down and slipped his paw into the water. Little Bear began quietly to sing a song.

Crow watched Little Bear. He is taking an awfully long time, thought Crow to herself. Why is he just sitting there? I am getting hungry.

Suddenly, Little Bear scooped his paw and a large fish came flying out of the lake. Minutes later he repeated the action, and another fish landed on the shore. Little Bear turned to Crow and smiled. "That should be enough for dinner. We don't need any more."

The two friends had a meal of fish. "My father taught me that it is important to sing that song when I go fishing. It makes the fish sleepy," said Little Bear.

"Well, it is a much better way of fishing than my method," laughed Crow.

They ate most of the fish, and wrapped the rest as a gift for Little Bear's people. The pair travelled to Little Bear's home. Little Bear's people were overjoyed to see him again and they threw a huge feast for Crow. Crow was happy with Little Bear's people and the good fishing in the lake, so she decided to stay. She never went back to the big river again.

Little Bear and Crow

2. Discussion — Crow and Little Bear

After telling the students the story of "Crow and Little Bear," ask them to talk about some of the themes of the story. Questions you may want to ask the students are:

  • Would Little Bear have been able to make it home on his own? Why did he need Crow's help?
  • What did Little Bear and Crow learn from each other?
  • How did Little Bear and Crow benefit from each other's teachings?
  • How did Little Bear feel when he first slipped off the rocks? How did Crow respond? Do you think this was a good way to respond?
  • What did you learn from this story?

3. Sharing With Animals and Nature

Discussion: Crow and Little Bear

It should be clear to students that sharing with other people is important. It is also important for them to understand that they are sharing the Earth with plants, animals and other wildlife. This activity should get students to think about behaviour that is harmful to wildlife and the environment and behaviour that is beneficial.

Ask students to make a list of actions that are harmful to wildlife and a list of activities that are good for the environment. Some of the harmful things could be:

  • picking up baby wild animals in the environment (birds, raccoons, etc.)
  • carving initials in trees
  • driving cars or motorcycles over fragile land
  • unnecessarily digging up plants from the earth
  • destroying birds' nests
  • polluting the air with factory emissions
  • polluting lakes, rivers and oceans with garbage and sewage

Some of the positive things could be:

  • planting trees
  • walking or biking with your family instead of driving
  • composting garbage
  • turning off the tap when brushing your teeth – filling up a cup instead
  • using both sides of paper before taking it to be recycled
  • repairing and recycling toys instead of throwing them out
  • turning off lights and appliances when they are not needed

Ask students to draw pictures of things they know about or have seen happen that would hurt or help wild plants or animals. Ask them to describe what is happening in their drawing.

Ask the students how they think animals react when people treat the environment badly or well.

Unit 4 – Colours

Main Idea

Through an examination and discussion of how First Nations use colours, students will gain insight on how colours can be given symbolic meaning.


  1. to provide students with an understanding of how some First Nations use colours and that colours can have meaning
  2. students will learn how some colours are produced

Teacher Information

Colours are significant to many First Nations. For example, red, black, yellow and white are the colours of the Medicine Wheel, a vital teaching tool among many First Nations. The interpretations of the colours vary from community to community. For some, white is associated with the North, black with the West, red with the South and yellow with the East. The origin of the Medicine Wheel is unclear but there is considerable evidence that it is an ancient symbol that existed among many people in North and South America. Today, it has become an important element in many contemporary First Nations cultures.

Many First Nations decorate their clothing, hunting implements and other objects with natural colours through embroidery using dyed moose or caribou hair, beads made from coloured shells or dyed porcupine quills.


1. Dyes

This activity will help students understand how some colours are extracted from nature to be used as dyes. With the following materials, students can create natural dyes in the classroom:

  • Spinach or moss – green
  • Sunflowers or onion skins – yellow
  • Beets and wild berriesFootnote 1 – red, purple, blue

Ask students to bring these items to class. Have them soak the items in water and then press them to produce coloured dyes to use in their artwork. Use the resulting dyes to paint on rocks or paper.

Activity: Dyes

2. Beadwork

Invite a First Nations artisan to the class to demonstrate beadwork. Ask students to note the different colours that are used in the beads. After the instructions, have students draw some designs and colour them in. Pictures of floral beadwork designs may be located in encyclopedias or on the Internet. Students can study designs to discover the different colours used by First Nations in beadwork. Teachers can encourage students to develop their own designs and motifs from beadwork illustrations.

First Nations beadwork originated with the First Nations art of porcupine quill, dried grass and moose hair embroidery. In many communities, these objects were dyed and sewed or embroidered into tanned animal-hide clothing, footwear, belts, gloves or items such as birchbark containers. Delicate wampum beads that were painstakingly fashioned from white and purple Atlantic coast seashells predated the introduction of European glass trade beads. Many First Nations in eastern Canada used the wampum beads to fashion wampum belts. Wampum belts served as ornaments and currency, and as devices for recording events and history.

When European glass beads were introduced during the fur trade, they joined the earlier natural materials as important resources in the decorative culture of many First Nations. Beadwork designs are as numerous as the people who do beadwork.

3. Colour on Clothing

Show students pictures or illustrations of First Nations traditional clothing. Many pieces of clothing are decorated extensively with brightly coloured beads and moose hair embroidery. Ask students why they think traditional First Nations clothing is decorated with colours. Ask students if the clothes they wear – running shoes, caps, sport jackets and other apparel – are decorated in any way with bright colours.

Ask students the importance of these colours to the decorations.


Unit 5 – Games

Main Idea

Games were a vital part of many First Nations cultures. Games gave children opportunities to develop and strengthen physical skills such as hand-eye coordination and endurance that they would require as adults. Knowing more about various First Nations games will provide children with a better understanding of First Nations cultures.


  1. to provide students with a knowledge of certain First Nations children's games
  2. to provide opportunities for students to play a number of First Nations games
  3. to assist students in understanding the connection between games and the development of abilities

Teacher Information

To many First Nations, games were, of necessity, a prelude to adult activities. For example, as soon as their motor skill development allowed, many young people played at hunting games, using small-scale bows and arrows and spears that were directed at stationary targets. Games where stones were thrown at targets developed the hand-eye coordination that marked successful hunters. Small wooden spears helped children practise the difficult task of spearing fish. All of these games (and many other similar ones) were critical to youths' development as hunters. Other games, such as the cup and ball or its variations (e.g. pin and ball), also aided hand-eye coordination for both boys and girls. Playing with dolls and playing house or pretending to cook helped young girls to prepare for their roles as adult women. First Nations cultures provided many kinds of dolls for children. Some were made from tree bark and others from corn husks. Many others were a combination of wood carvings and animal hide, stuffed with animal hair, down feathers, grass or moss.

A variety of other games served as amusement and recreation, including string games (cat's cradle), hand shadow games, guessing games and games of strength. Many First Nations children's games emphasized visual acuity, creativity and physical dexterity, features common to children's games in many other cultures.


1. Hand Shadow Games

Hand shadow games

Hand shadow games were a source of diversion and enjoyment in many First Nations communities. Children could be amused, or amuse themselves at length, trying to create different shadows with their hands. Skilled hand shadow-makers helped children begin the important process of identifying animal and bird shapes and silhouettes. Knowledge of these shapes and silhouettes was an important asset for hunters.

Have students experiment using their hands to create different shapes on a wall or screen. Have a class discussion about the importance of animal shapes in hand shadow games for some First Nations.

2. String Games (Cat's Cradle)

String games increase children's creativity and dexterity and are a fun activity. To accomplish the numerous variations of designs, a player needs nimble hands and fingers and a creative mind. First Nations string games usually consisted of strings made from animal sinew. String games are usually played one player at a time. Some string games require several players who create new shapes or patterns in the string by deftly lifting the existing string pattern from another player's hands. This team or group version of the game continues until one player is unable to create a new shape or pattern from an existing one.

3. Puppets

Finger puppets

Some First Nations children played with puppets that they wore on their hands or fingers. These puppets were made by stuffing animal hair into hides that formed the shape of the puppet.

Simple finger puppets can be created with paper and glue. Have students cut out figures from construction paper. Glue two pieces of the same figure together to make a finger puppet. Ask students to perform a small play with the puppets.

4. Cup and Ball (Pin and Ball)

This popular game was enjoyed by many First Nations children and adults. It was a diverting activity that helped children develop as hunters and care-givers. For young boys, this game honed hand-eye skills essential for hunting. For young girls, the game also sharpened hand-eye skills that were essential for many physical tasks for which women were normally responsible: tanning animal hides (scraping hair from the exterior of the skin and excess meat and fat from the inside of the skin without puncturing the hide with the sharp bone scraper) and the many domestic and cooking activities that involved sharp and potentially dangerous bones. Good hand-eye coordination was also important to beadwork and moose hair embroidery.

Students can make a simple cup and ball game by attaching a short piece of string to a small ball and to a cup. The object of the game is to flip the ball into the air and catch it in the cup. The game is made easier or more difficult by the size of the cup relative to the ball. If the receptacle is small, the game becomes more difficult. If the cup is much larger than the ball, it is much easier to catch the ball.

A variation of the cup and ball is referred to as the pin and ball, although numerous variations and names exist. This is a more difficult version of the basic game. The player holds in his or her hand a needle or small pointed stick attached by a short string to a small round object, a wooden ball, for example, with a hole drilled through it. The object of the game is to impale the ball (or bone, usually a small vertebrae) on the needle after flicking the ball into the air.

5. Games of Strength

Many First Nations had different games based on strength, such as arm and leg wrestling, sprints and endurance races. For some First Nations, tug-of-war games did not involve opposing teams pulling on a rope or some other object. Two opposing players would lock hands. The second team member put his or her arms around the waist of the lead player, the third player round the fourth's waist, and so on. At a given signal, the teams pulled until one of the lead players unlocked his hands and let go. Students can easily attempt this variation. Have them try it in the snow. Try this variation and the other which involves a rope. Ask students which variation they prefer and why.

6. Juggling

Several First Nations enjoyed juggling as a form of recreation. Children usually juggled small balls made of animal skins stuffed with animal hair or moss, although almost any easily handled object could be juggled. This game contributed to hand-eye skills and manual dexterity.

Discuss with students why juggling would help hand-eye coordination. Several students may wish to juggle some small balls. Juggling may be difficult for most students to master in a short time. An alternative activity emphasizing the same skills as juggling involves students lining up in two rows opposite each other, about two or three metres apart. Ask the students to catch and pass a small ball (a softball, for example) to the person opposite them. The object of the game is to pass the ball continuously up and down the line without pausing, or dropping it.

Ask the students how juggling or the game of passing the ball are related to adult activities in a culture where hunting is essential for survival. What skills are being developed in these games? Ask students if they play any games that are conditioning or practice for adult activities.

Unit 6 – National Aboriginal Day

Main Idea

Throughout history, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people have made many outstanding contributions to Canada. In 1996 the Government of Canada designated June 21 as National Aboriginal Day, a national day of recognition to celebrate the many Aboriginal cultures and their contributions to Canada.


  1. to introduce National Aboriginal Day to children and encourage them to celebrate it every year
  2. to introduce some of the unique contributions of First Nations people to Canada
  3. to look at specific ways in which Aboriginal people, including First Nations, Métis and Inuit, have helped to improve life in Canada through their various inventions and contributions

Teacher Information

In l996, the Governor General of Canada proclaimed that National Aboriginal Day would be celebrated June 21 of each year. This day was chosen because many Aboriginal people have traditionally celebrated their culture and heritage around this time. It is also the summer solstice — the longest day of the year.

National Aboriginal Day is an opportunity for all Canadians to join their Aboriginal neighbours in planning events to celebrate the day and gain an understanding and appreciation of the culture of the earliest inhabitants of this country.

Throughout Canada, in virtually every region, regional planning committees work on events to mark National Aboriginal Day on June 21. These events include large music festivals, traditional dance performances, day-long activities for the whole family in a park and potluck lunches in a local community centre.

Teachers may wish to encourage their students to participate in planning events for National Aboriginal Day in their classes.


  • Research the contributions of Aboriginal people to Canada. Read stories, invite guest speakers, hold discussion groups on various inventions of First Nations people specifically.
  • Hold a First Nations music and dance day — contact your local Native friendship centre or cultural education centre or Aboriginal organization to invite a singer and dance group in to perform for students.
  • Organize a First Nations food week, with a feast on June 21. Teach children about some of their favourite foods that originated with First Nations. Highlight methods of planting, harvesting, cooking and storing food in the past. For example, corn crops were moved to a new location every spring to allow the ground to recover from the previous year's growth (crop rotation). The Iroquois learned to grow many varieties of corn such as hominy corn, sweet corn and field corn, to name a few. Corn is now eaten in many different ways: corn soup, corn syrup, corn meal, corn oil, popcorn. Teachers can show children corn seeds and corn on the cob; explain how it can be turned into syrup, meal, and oil and how the kernels were popped over an open pit fire.
  • Hold a First Nations stories and legends day — find Aboriginal legends common to the First Nations in your area and read them to the children or invite an Aboriginal storyteller.
  • Celebrate First Nations inventions. In the weeks leading up to June 21, you can discuss with students the various inventions that originated with First Nations in Canada. (The "Jolly Jumper," cradle boards, moccasins, rattles, snowshoes, toboggans, dream catchers and more.) On June 21, have the children create a large poster, drawing their favourite First Nations invention on a "Reasons to Celebrate National Aboriginal Day" poster.


Please visit Kids' Stop on the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website for more information about First Nations in Canada, including books, learning guides, activities and links to websites for all ages.

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