Research chairs focus on First Nations

January 26, 2006, vol. 35, no. 2
By Howard Fluxgold

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When new Canada Research Chair Mary-Ellen Kelm spoke to Simon Fraser University about taking a position in its history department, she learned the university was intent on creating a greater presence on campus for First Nations studies.

Within the last 12 months two Canada Research Chairs have been hired who specialise in First Nations issues. Kelm, an associate professor, started teaching in January while John Welch, an associate professor in both the department of archaeology and the school of resource and environmental management, started in the fall.

Kelm focuses on medical research in First Nations communities in the 20th century. She says that in the early part of the century several disease surveys were done by doctors in the field, ethnographers, or anthropologists. “The focus was on disease because it was thought that aboriginals were vectors for disease. If that was the focus, then how does it affect the result?” she asks. “And how were aboriginal views on the causes of disease treated by researchers?”

After the Second World War the federal government commissioned several studies from medical faculties that sent doctors onto the reserves. The result was “a huge storehouse of knowledge, but very few positive health outcomes,” Kelm notes. “I am trying to find out why. What is the missing piece? I want to find out if the research was returned to aboriginal communities, and if so what was the impact?”

Kelm, who comes to SFU after 12 years at the University of Northern British Columbia, is no stranger to the campus. She earned her MA here before moving to the University of Toronto for her doctorate. Kelm has published one book, Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia 1900-1950, and is the editor of two more books currently being prepared for publication.

Welch comes to SFU from eastern Arizona where he was working with the White Mountain Apache tribe. “I was helping the tribe set up a heritage program. It involved a museum and a cultural preservation and repatriation program of ceremonial objects that had been removed by non-Apaches to museums off the reserve,” he says.

His research focuses on the conservation of First Nations heritage.Welch plans to collaborate with First Nations communities in B.C. in researching the correlation between cultural and natural resource management practices and issues of culture, world view, sovereignty and long-term sustainability. He also plans to offer technical assistance to First Nations resource managers as well as help initiate field projects.

Welch is still winding down his projects in Arizona - including a book on the community history of iconic Fort Apache - while developing proposals for a variety of programs with First Nations in B.C. “Our aim is to build capacity in First Nation stewardship relating to their environmental and cultural heritage,” he explains. “We want to further empower the indigenous community to do that in their own terms and to serve their interests.”

One project being considered by Welch along with Annie Ross of the school for the contemporary arts is called Emblems of Pride. The project will decode the historical and cultural meanings embedded in the First Nations symbols such as seal and flags. “We hope it will be the basis for learning more about First Nations' cultural and environmental logic and traditions,” he says.

While the Denver native is more accustomed to the drier climate of Arizona, he is familiar with B.C. His mother was born in Prince George and family members still reside in the province.

He earned his doctorate at the University of Arizona and worked with heritage stewardship field schools there as an adjunct faculty member.

The Canada Research Chairs program, a federal government research-funding initiative, aims to help Canadian universities attract and retain the best researchers.

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