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Mature student translates ancient Nakoda calendar

Morley’s Vernon Twoyoungmen proud of move from residential school dropout to university graduate

Vernon Twoyoungmen, graduating with his BA in religious studies this week, holds a blessed stone representing the mythology of the ancient Nakoda calendar. Photo by Dymphny Dronyk

By Heath McCoy

When Vernon Twoyoungmen dropped out of high school in the late 1960s, he was disillusioned and bitter with a residential school system that set out to destroy his cultural identity.

The Nakoda teen from Morley, Alta. bristled at not being allowed to speak his native language, and at having to sit in a church every Sunday while his traditional religious values were denigrated and devalued. Like so many of his friends on the reserve, Twoyoungmen made his exit as soon as he was able.

“I know it damaged a lot of kids,” says Twoyoungmen. “They lost their culture. I know I had a bad experience in the residential schools.”

He knew his days in a classroom were not over

But unlike his friends, he always knew he’d be back. Not back to the hell of the residential schools, mind you, but he knew his days in a classroom were not over. The great value he placed on education never subsided. “I knew I wasn’t finished my studies,” he says. “Seeking knowledge has always kept me going.”

One can only imagine the enormous feeling of gratification Twoyoungmen will experience then, when he crosses the stage to collect his BA in Religious Studies on Wednesday.

“It’s like that old saying about mountains that must be climbed,” he says. “I’m on top of that mountain now and I made it with my cultural identity intact. There’s definitely something special about it.”

Greater awareness of the world's religions

The religious turmoil placed on Twoyoungmen at a young age has been a motivating factor for him, pushing him toward the study of comparative religion at the University of Calgary. In today’s global age, Twoyoungmen feels there needs to be greater awareness of the world’s religions.

After a long career as a locksmith and security expert, Twoyoungmen first returned to school in 2001 where he studied anthropology and archaeology at Mount Royal University. There, he began seriously translating the ancient Nakoda calendar, which he has been researching independently since 1979.

It was that pursuit and passion that led him to the University of Calgary where he enrolled in the religious studies program in 2011.

“The Nakoda calendar is a complicated thing,” says Twoyoungmen. “Most people can’t read it and they can’t understand it. But with my background in the Nakoda language, and my religious studies and archaeology training, I’m able to provide a decent translation of the calendar.”

Fascination with calendars and preserving Nakoda culture

Twoyoungmen plans to pursue his MA in religious studies and continue his study of the tribal Alliance calendars, which he hopes to one day publish. “This is important because it will help preserve Nakoda culture,” he says.

Indeed, he sees this as another mountain which must be climbed. “I’ve accomplished a lot, but I’m not finished,” he says. “I want to go a little bit higher.”

The mature student adds: “The learning experience is a lifelong process. It never stops.”