Knowledge Keepers of the Northern Rockies: Canada’s Tribal Colleges, Part 2

Nov 8th, 2015 | By | Category: Online features, Web Exclusive
By Leif Gregersen


 (Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a four-part, web-exclusive series on First Nations colleges and universities in Canada.)

Part 1: Indigenous Learning in the Pacific Province
Part 2: Knowledge Keepers of the Northern Rockies
Part 3: North Stars of the Prairie Provinces

Alberta is a place of wonder to those who live there. The province has a rich history of Native culture, although much of what we have learned has been filtered through the eyes of the European settlers who arrived there just a whisper of time ago. But there are numerous Indigenous learning centers in Alberta that offer a different narrative, stressing the importance of being knowledge keepers and educators to the many First Nations communities of Alberta. Under the shadows of the tragedies and injustices of residential schools, these institutions seek healing from those dark times and preservation of the languages and cultures of Alberta’s Indigenous peoples.

In the heart of Southern Alberta, there is a college with a rich history that is embracing our modern digital age, and prospering. This institution is Old Sun College and it is part of the Siksika Nation, which in 1877 became a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy with the signing of Treaty 7. Located approximately 60 miles east of Calgary, Old Sun College takes its name from a legendary warrior, medicine man, and spiritual leader named Na To Sa Pi, or “Old Sun.” He lived from 1819 to 1897, and was the leader of one of the largest of the Blackfoot Confederacy bands.


Old Sun College was founded in 1971, making it one of the oldest tribal colleges in North America.

Established in 1971, Old Sun College’s vision and mission is to develop and offer quality courses and services tailored to meet the needs of the Siksika Nation while preserving the Siksika way of life. The college has numerous programs, including an adult high school program, which has 150 students; an adult literacy program, which has over 20 students; and a Siksika language instruction course, which has over 60 students. Many students at Old Sun are enrolled in shorter, two- or three-year diploma programs (or associate programs) for Indigenous business, educational assistant training, and museum and tourism studies.


Old Sun offers a variety of programs, including Indigenous social work. Pictured here is the graduating cohort from 2014.

Old Sun College currently has its main campus in a former residential school. Amelia Clark, president of the college, explains, “So many of our people come and ask to walk around the school, experience it, as a form of closure and healing for what they went through in schools like this, even from far away.”

Years ago, Old Sun College joined a number of other institutions that had similar goals, needs, and funding issues, forming the First Nations Adult and Higher Education Consortium to lobby the Canadian government on educational matters affecting Native people. It was soon decided that the consortium schools would bring together their own “knowledge keepers” to form their own accreditation board.

The consortium also seeks to share knowledge with Indigenous peoples all over the world. Each year, Old Sun College sends a representative to the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. “All of our member nations go through difficult times, and all of them seem to recover,” Clark says. “One year a group is hurting and the next year they have healed. When we started out we had very little funding and conferences could only be run every three years. The first conference came out of a need for Maori peoples to preserve their language and we all came together to share ideas and knowledge and help each other.”

Old Sun’s effort to connect with global Indigenous peoples is an extension of a greater goal to share “knowledge that used to be common knowledge among all Siksika people.” One way the college pursues this goal is through a software app for Apple devices. Created by Kent Ayoungman, a software developer and knowledge keeper at Old Sun, the app preserves Siksika language through translation. The app is part of a larger preservation effort that has its roots in the flood of 2013, which devastated the Siksika Nation and destroyed many of their material possessions, artifacts, and written documents. Since then, Old Sun College has supported the development of Ayoungman’s app and has sought to restore, digitize, and archive photographs on a grand scale.


Like Old Sun College, Blue Quills is one of Canada’s oldest First Nations colleges.

Clark stresses that Old Sun College is “putting the word ‘college’ into the vocabulary of young Native people.” It’s all part of a greater effort to offer higher education to the Siksika people.

About 300 miles to the north is another of Alberta’s tribal colleges: University nuhelot’įne thaiyots’į nistameyimâkanak Blue Quills, formerly known simply as Blue Quills First Nations College. Located northeast of Edmonton in the town of St. Paul, the college sits on 240 acres of reserve land. The main building which the university now occupies was built in the 1930s as a church-run residential school.


The main building at Blue Quills was once a residential school. As part of an effort to promote truth and reconciliation, the college offers tours of the building to visitors.

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