Language and Culture at the Forefront of New Stein Valley Nlakapamux School

By: Miranda Post

For the students, staff and school board of the new Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, the building symbolizes the unique culture and tradition of six local First Nations – the Nlakapmux people.

A view of the new school and the Stein Valley
A view of the new school and the Stein Valley, a sacred place for the Nlakapamux people.

British Columbia's newest culturally-driven Band-operated school opened in September 2009, after years of hard work and collaboration between the Lytton First Nation, a volunteer school board, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and David Nairne & Associates.

What sets this school apart can be felt as soon you open the doors. The display cases that line the entryway showcase traditional cedar and birch baskets and photos of ancient pictographs alongside past academic and sporting triumphs. Nlakapamux (also spelled Nlah.kAPmhh) culture is evident throughout the building, and exploring the school is like a lesson in history. Every classroom is labelled in both English and Nlakapamuxcheen, offering a brief orientation to the traditional language.

“It's been a long journey to get to where we are today. Our Chiefs envisioned our own school to meet the needs of our children,” said Chief Janet Webster of the Lytton First Nation.

Stein Valley Nlakapamux kindergarten students
Stein Valley Nlakapamux kindergarten students share their lessons about black bears. Deer, bear and other wildlife often cut through school grounds on their way to the Fraser River, behind the school.

Chief Webster and other community members strived to build a school that balanced Nlakapamux culture and language with conventional school topics such as Math, English and Science. They also wanted a school that was vibrant and bright, offering a healthy place for their kids to grow and learn.

Before the Stein Valley School (as locals call it) was built, almost 300 students from Lytton, Siska, Kanaka, Skuppah, Nicomen and Cook's Ferry First Nations were going to class in a series of portables (erected in the mid-1990s and replaced in 2005/06). Now that the new school is complete, every classroom in the cedar-planked school faces west with sweeping views of the Fraser Canyon and the Stein Valley. Students can also enjoy playing on the outdoor basketball court, dancing in a full sized gymnasium and catering large community events in an industrial kitchen.

Located on the east side of the Fraser River near Lytton in south western BC, on the site of the former St. George's Indian Residential School, the new school serves Kindergarten to Grade12 students. The 3824 square metre facility is open to all children in the area – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

“We laughed, we cried as a board. Watching the school come together…it gives me butterflies,” explains Chief Webster, also a long-time volunteer member of the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School Board. “But the reward of seeing our children happy wipes out all the hardships we have encountered in the past.”

When the $13.5 million dollar school celebrated its grand opening on September 11, 2009, perseverance, commitment and the importance of education were themes woven throughout the speeches of gratitude and congratulations.

“What a sense of pride and accomplishment,” noted Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, speaking to a packed gymnasium the day of the grand opening. “I'm sure there's a sense of: ‘Finally!' Finally, it's here. What a great reflection on the community for all your effort, and a reflection on the importance you all place on education.”

Photo Gallery

The sliding, garage-style doors in the elementary and industrial arts wing Marilyn Lytton
School board member Rita McKay Local school board members and INAC staff

While the Stein Valley Nlakapamux school project officially began in 2002, the vision for the school began long before that, driven by the leadership of community members, school staff and the school board itself. The process began with an Addition-to-Reserve application, transferring the land from the St. George's Anglican Church to the Lytton First Nation.

Collaborating with architects from David Nairne & Associates, the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School Board worked to ensure the design of the school celebrated not only the oral history of the Nlakapamux, but also the geography they have inhabited for centuries. The Fraser Canyon and Stein Valley is an area viewed as sacred by the Lytton First Nation.

“Culture is a priority. We've always told our staff – remember who we are: we are Nlakapamux people. And that's what we wanted to see in the school,” school board president Ruby Dunstan explains. Dunstan also noted that the classroom signs displayed in English and Nlakapamuxcheen, and having a dedicated language classroom and teacher, go a long way to preserve her community's culture.

Signs throughout the school
Signs throughout the school display the English and Nlakapamuxcheen names for various classrooms.

When asked what their favourite feature of the new school is, many students agree that it's the gym (the previous school did not have one). The new school also has lockers, which is important to students such as grade eight Jaguar Isaac.

“It's pretty awesome. We like the lockers and the change rooms. Before we just had hooks on the wall,” says Isaac, with a big smile.

Comments like this make the long wait and all the hard work of building a new school worthwhile, explains Dunstan, a residential school survivor. “All the stuff we went through was nothing compared to the children's smiles the first day the school opened.”

Lessons in Sustainability

Besides stunning vistas, the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School also features many green attributes that help keep it cool and sustainable. Known as “Canada's Hot Spot”, temperatures in Lytton often soar over 40 degrees Celsius during the summer months. Meanwhile, winters see temperatures around zero degrees Celsius with plenty of snow and wind. The geothermal and radiant heating and cooling system helps the school keep cool in the summer and produces sustainable heat in the winter, using little energy. The school's roof is made of solar reflecting material and all windows have an overhang so that the sun doesn't shine directly into the classroom.