Gifts of learning

Fine Arts, Education

- Suzanne Ahearne

“Without art, I would never have discovered I was a teacher.”

At first, she thought she was being punished when her father sent her up into the mountains. Robyn Kruger was a mouthy 12-year-old, and her dad didn’t really know what to do with her. 

When Kruger looks back on it now, she sees what neither she nor her dad recognized at the time—those days on the mountains were a gift, one that would inspire the course of her life.  

“I’d hike to the highest mountain overlooking Skaha Lake and Okanagan Lake and spend all day there sometimes. I’d pray and ask questions about who I was and what I was going to do with this life,” she says. 

Kruger—who graduates this month with a master’s of education in curriculum and instruction—is a member of the Penticton Indian Band, but she wasn’t raised with any ceremonial practices or speaking the Syilx language of the Okanagan Nation. Neither were her parents, being students of residential and day schools back in the days when, she says, “we didn’t celebrate being Native people.” 

So it wasn’t until she started talking to one of her grandmothers about her dreams of seeing Sasquatches and of transforming into a sea creature with gills that she started seeing those trips to the mountains for what they were: a vision quest.  

“Those walks helped form my identity. I had the determination back then to climb those mountains,” says Kruger, 38. “It’s a kind of metaphor for what I decided to do for my life.”

When still a teenager, she took ballet and modern dance and steeped herself in multi-disciplinary cultural training at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton. 

After obtaining her certificate at En’owkin, Kruger found her credits were fully transferable to the visual arts program at UVic—so, with her young son, she left her job to make a different life for them both. “I didn’t want a fake life when I knew I was an artist,” she says. In 2011 she graduated with a BFA, with a focus on media arts. 

“Art led my identity, it helped drive me to be who I am. Without art, I would never have discovered I was a teacher. I thought it was art for so long. But it was both,” Kruger says. Following her art degree, she got her bachelor of education.

When she walks across the stage in her regalia to receive her degree, she will have spent a total of six years on campus.

“I’ve done a lot of growing up here and even though I’ve had some discouraging moments, I feel that I wasn’t alone and that I had a purpose—to represent the Okanagan Nation in a university setting. That’s how much I love where I come from,” she says. Her son is now almost grown up too and will be graduating from an Esquimalt high school this year. 

c’ac’awet—a name given to her at 19 meaning “misty sunbeams shining through the clouds”—came to UVic in 2009, the year First Peoples House opened. It made a big difference for her—mostly, she says, because it gave her a place to sit down and connect with people. “They replace your family for a time,” she says. 

“My hands are up to the efforts they’re making with regards to educational student success while at UVic,” she adds of the support she received through Indigenous Education. Over the years, she received financial support from Indspire and the New Relationship Trust Foundation as well as several UVic-based bursaries. 

Eventually, she learned to sing the Okanagan Nation song, and to speak and teach some of the Syilx language. She still wanted to better frame her Indigenous art practices with child-centred teaching methodologies. 

Kruger’s master's work in curriculum and instruction was to create a set of culturally inclusive guides to “decolonize and Indigenize curriculum.” She called her thesis project Gifts of Learning—a title chosen in gratitude for the gifts she received on the mountain and from the many special people in her life.

She’s user-tested the story-based lessons in classrooms in Victoria and has received calls from teachers in several schools, asking her to come into their classrooms to share Indigenous culture but not in a “mascot-Indian way.” Kruger designed the curriculum guides to help teachers support kids’ transformation and identity growth, both inside and outside the classroom.

“I feel that this is a really good time to be a curriculum designer,” she says, “especially in tribal schools.” 

“These schools are really young and people are just starting to figure out this educational movement. I’d like to be there to support and contribute and figure out what it’s all going to mean to the new generation.”

Kruger’s thesis project online:


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Keywords: convocation, Indigenous, alumni, curriculum and instruction

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