Sask. First Nation high school students learn about bison herd through synchrotron

Students at Carry the Kettle Nakoda Nation in Saskatchewan got an opportunity to learn about the nutrition of a bison herd in their community using a synchrotron — a light machine that looks at materials at a molecular level.

The Nakoda Oyade Education Center teamed up with the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan on the project called Paskwâwimostos, the Cree word for bison, also called the Bison Project. It is run by the light source and incorporates both mainstream science principles and traditional knowledge.

Bernie Petit, education coordinator for the Indigenous programs at the light source, said it was a learning experience for the students and the science team.

“Many First Nations have started to restore the bison [but] there is a disconnect between the students and knowledge about the herd and where they come from,” she said.

Students learned how to prepare the samples in order for them to be analyzed using a synchrotron. (Submitted by Sherry Bellegarde-Cooke)

Petit said the students got to see that the traditional knowledge they have learned through their lifetimes is a legitimate Indigenous science.

“On the other hand, the scientists that they interacted with got to see how that traditional knowledge, that Indigenous science, relates to the work they do.”

Petit added that the significant role that Indigenous women played in saving the bison from extinction was incorporated into the teachings of the project. Information on restoration efforts of the animal was incorporated as well.

Samples of food, bison hair and soil were taken from where the herd roams in order to be analyzed by a synchrotron. (Submitted by Sherry Bellegarde-Cooke)

Sherry Bellegarde-Cooke, a teacher at the Nakoda Oyade Education Center who worked with the students on the project, said it included the students going into the field where the bison were kept and collecting hair, food and soil samples.

“They were able to find berries, they found goldenrod, they found hay,” she said.

“We kept [the samples] together and took them up to Saskatoon.”

Once in Saskatoon, the students were able to look at the samples through the synchrotron.

The Canadian Light Source website says the synchrotron was used to determine if what the bison are eating is healthy enough or if there needs to be changes to their diet.

The synchrotron produces different types of light in order to study the structural and chemical properties of materials at a molecular level. The elemental differences between free-grazing and supplemental fed diets for the bison herd were looked at.

Autumn Delorme-Kay, a Grade 11 student, said she didn’t even realize bison roamed so close to the education center.

“We were right in the field where they were, we were sitting in the truck,” she said.

“They were no threat or anything.”

Bernie Petit says the scientists and the students learned from one another during the experience which fused traditional Indigenous knowledge and mainstream scientific practices. (Submitted by Sherry Bellegarde-Cooke)

Delorme-Kay said she was close enough to the herd to take pictures of the bison.

“It was pretty cool just seeing them there, like they’re big,” she said.

“They’re really big in person.”

She said she wants to make sure the bison are healthy.

Bellegarde-Cooke said the students were excited to learn about the bison from their home community.

“I think [with] all of the support from everyone they met in Saskatoon they felt really confident in being in a space they wouldn’t normally be in,” Bellegarde-Cooke said.

Bellegarde-Cooke said she believes there needs to be more First Nations students going into science to share their traditional knowledge.

According to the Canadian Light Source, once the analysis of the data is done from the project, the students will share their findings with the chief and council in hopes of preserving and growing the bison herd.