Flight of the Thunderbird: Coating Children with Indigenous Teachings

© 2020 IICRD - web design by Virtual Wave Media

Primary tabs

“Standing on a cliff, overlooking the ocean, constantly feeling the wind move through your body and soul. As you fly, bracing yourself with the winds from the ocean. It’s as if you are coating yourself with their teachings.” - Elder Xelimulw/Kasalid (Bill White)

Harnessing this power to fly was the focus of a YouLEAD course called The Old Peoples’ Voices Speak of the Thunderbirds' Flight: Traditional Indigenous Values, a Holistic Framework for Child, Youth, and Family Programming and Accountability. The 3-day course, held in December 2017, brought Elders/Sulsalewh, Chiefs, youth workers, teachers and young people together to explore stories (conversational paper) and images (photo presentation) from old peoples’ teachings. Participants were encouraged to explore how these teachings can be applied into their own personal and professional work.

The Thunderbird is a traditional Coast Salish supernatural being which symbolizes transformation. It is a guiding metaphor for capturing the transformative process of embracing Indigenous values in various complex and contemporary challenges, such as family and community violence. The flight of the Thunderbird is said to bring old and new energy together and is meant to protect and to surround.

The course was hosted in collaboration with the Songhees Wellness Centre. Chief George Shaugnessy and his family welcomed participants to the Songhees and Esquimalt territory. He spoke about the importance of teachings, but recognized that in order to learn them, children need both the willingness and opportunity. Peer learning gatherings with practitioners and  Sulsalewh/Elders are vital to help children learn teachings and to create meaningful community change.

Facilitators Bill White/Xelimulw/Kasalid and Dr. Philip Cook asked the 15 participants to consider:

  • What does it take to effectively collaborate across cultural differences?
  • How can traditional teachings & values be integrated to assess and monitor community child, youth and family service programs and other community interventions?
  • How can we apply traditional Indigenous values and what is their role in sustaining healthy, holistic human development?

In a circle format, participants shared stories and emotion, created a safe place to discuss challenges, and received suggestions and support. Participant Sarah Sandy reflected on her experience highlighting that:

“The key strategy I think was to build relationships with the knowledge holders and healers in our communities. It’s important to create space in programming and organizations for them to come and share; learn community and cultural protocols; and to invite key people into the circle.

I think it was highlighted - the importance of balance in our work and the importance to take time and space for your own healing, which will help with work and our ability to build the necessary relationships with youth, parents, Elders and other community members.”

Elders were invited to discuss the role of values, what they look like in community, and how they can be integrated into programs for children, youth and families. Chief Kwaksistalla/Adam Dick and Ogwilogwa/Kim Recalma-Clutesi shared their award-winning film Smoke from his Fire. Two of the most culturally significant people in British Columbia, these Elders shared inspiring stories of strength and resilience.

“You can’t be the beacon unless you can do the work for yourself. You can’t walk forward with your head turned. Don’t make people’s identity about victimization. Make it about resilience. We want to celebrate the strength when we work with young people.” - Kim Recalma-Clutesi/Ogwilogwa

After healer Willie Pierre’s powerful drumming song, Leonita Rose Gray explored opportunities for involving Indigenous leaders to create a sense of belonging with young people in schools and community, involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.  

  • Mock traditional naming ceremonies
  • Blanketing
  • Making a drum

“All we have to do is try differently instead of harder. We need to build up kids, build up their confidence.” - Rose Gray

Their sharing and talk also demonstrated the importance of collaboration, respect and love for one another.

Xelimulh/Kasalid (Bill White) reflected that our old people/Sulsalewh believed that words especially prayers were powerful and helped frame our hearts and souls for good work. It is through listening to the echo of their teachings where “you will find strength and will walk with balance and love.”


YouLEAD is a transformational leadership program that aims to support the well-being of children & youth, by building the capacity of the people in their lives. YouLEAD contributes to the resilience of communities and practitioners facing systemic barriers in Canada and around the world.

“Thank you for this course. This has been pivotal for my life going forward.” - Course Participant

Stepping boldly into leading with children and youth to create a better future for us all.


Contact Info

logo iicrd

A Canadian non-profit charity working locally, nationally, and internationally.


PO Box 35039 Hillside Victoria, British Columbia Canada V8T 5G2