CREE CULTURE CAMP: UNCP American Indian Studies group traveled to northern Canada


A group of students and faculty from UNC Pembroke’s American Indian Studies (AIS) Department immersed themselves in Opaskwayak Cree life and culture in northern Canada for six days in May.

 Cree camp

At camp – From left: Marsha Earles, Lawrence Locklear, Sunshine Costanza, Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs, Anastasia Chavis and Dr. Jane Haladay

It was the first half of a student exchange between UNCP and its sister school, the University College of the North (UCN). The Cree culture camp has ties to UCN, which is located in The Pas, Manitoba, 2,100 miles from Pembroke and at the 54th parallel.

It was a week of firsts for the UNCP group of four students – Sunshine Costanzo, Anastasia Chavis, Marsha Earles and Lawrence Locklear - and two faculty members – AIS Department Chair Dr. Mary Ann Jacobs and Dr. Jane Haladay.

Only one in the UNCP group had experienced rugged outdoor camp life.

“I’ve never been on a plane before or in the woods,” Chavis said. “They taught us many things including how to make bannock, their native bread, which is thick, dense bread.

“We ate moose grease too,” she said laughing. “Everybody ate some.”

“They said it was a treat,” Costanzo said. “It was part of a ceremony to honor the ancestors.”

The camp is in a very remote location, and a teepee served as sleeping quarters. The nights were very cold.

“The teepee was great,” Costanzo said. “But if you woke up, you waited till morning to go to the wash room.”

“We got soaked our first night in the teepee,” Earles said. “We didn’t know you have to keep the fire going to stay dry.” That was one of the lessons learned during the camp.

None of the group had experience with campfires, but they learned quickly. They cooked, gathered fire wood and built a sweat lodge. Each gender had certain responsibilities during camp. Women cooked and gathered sweet grass while Locklear gathered firewood and helped build two sweat lodges with the men.

“There were no requirements, but the more we did, the more we learned,” said Locklear, who tended the nightly fire inside the group’s teepee.

“The more we participated, the more the Cree shared with us,” Dr. Haladay said. “It was a very different kind of learning experience.”

“Everybody had a job, and everybody worked together and pulled their own weight,” Costanza said of the seamless organization of camp life.

“There was a constant flow of learning,” Chavis said.

“It was an immersion,” Locklear said. “The Cree were speaking their language and practicing their ancient customs.

“As we joined in, we were taken completely out of our environment, yet we were welcome and at home,” he said.


There were many ceremonies: the sweat lodge, pipes, blessings and fasts. The UNCP group said the entire experience was deeply spiritual.


Cree beadwork in a local museum in The Pas, Manitoba

“Everything was a ceremony,” Costanzo said. “If you build a fire, you blessed the spirit of the wood by offering tobacco.”

The group kept written journals, but no cameras were allowed in camp. Pictures were not allowed after the pipes were joined and only allowed after pipes were taken apart again.

“We took no pictures because the spirits were called into the camp, and it’s disrespectful to photograph them,” Dr. Haladay said.

The UNCP contingent said the atmosphere was like a Southern “revival.”   “For the Cree, the camp is a revival,” Dr. Jacobs said.

“It maintains and revitalizes their culture,” Dr. Haladay said.

“Like a revival, some are there for spiritual healing, and they got up and testified,” Dr. Jacobs said. “It was a feeling of being in a truly holy place.”

While the UNCP group was engaged in the Cree experience, the Canadian tribe was very interested in their counterparts from the south.

“They asked a lot of questions about Lumbees and Lumbee culture,” Locklear said.

“They did not know us tribally, but they embraced us,” Costanzo said.

“I think we made an impression on them too,” Dr. Haladay said. “Coming from so far away, they were very excited to have us, and we felt honored to be with them.”

The camp and the college are located in a very remote area.

“It is 400 miles from Winnipeg on a two-lane road,” Costanzo said. “Only one road turned off the entire way.”


A one-time grant from UCN paid for most of the group’s expenses. A key piece of the journey was a visit to the university to learn about its programs.

 Cree camp

A lake of serenity – Northern Canada at its best is reflected off the waters as evening falls.

With fewer than 3,000 students, the enrollment is more than two-thirds aboriginal with a large academic program in Native studies.

“It’s a small school with a really nice campus,” Costanzo said.

“I am impressed with their programs,” Dr. Haladay said. “It’s not a tribal college, but about 70 percent of the students are natives.”

The UNCP ambassadors toured campus and met with faculty and President Denise Henning. They got a feeling for how UCN’s Aboriginal and Northern Studies (ANS) programs are integrated into the campus and community.

“I was impressed with their involvement with the community,” Dr. Jacobs said. “They have a Cree word for it called Kenanow, which means all of us who are here.”

“Kenanow drives their education program model, and their faculty go to culture camp,” Costanza added.

“That idea infuses their education curriculum with Aboriginal values,” Dr. Haladay said. “Dr. Henning has been very successful in going into communities to gather feedback.

 “It matters to them what the community says,” Dr. Jacobs said.

The UNCP-UCN partnership will continue, and the personal relationships will certainly persevere. Dr. Henning, a Cherokee, is the mother of Symphony Oxendine, who works at UNCP and is married to a Lumbee.

“It is through personal relationships that good things happen in Native studies,” Dr. Haladay said. “The camp brings this about because it is personal rather than institutional.”

Look for continued exchanges between UNCP and UCN.