People of SFU

People of SFU: Tiara Cash on standing in complex identities

April 17, 2023
SFU psychology graduate student Tiara Cash spoke with SFU Library’s non-fiction writer in residence Angela Sterritt on what it means to be Black Indigenous. Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC.

“My history is probably very different from many of the Afro-Indigenous people in Canada,” says Tiara Cash, a graduate student in Psychology at Simon Fraser University.

Last month, Cash took part in a CBC profile spotlighting Black Indigenous women in Canada, written by SFU Library non-fiction writer in residence Angela Sterritt.

“To be completely honest, it was the first time that I think I’ve ever spoken about this part of my identity publicly­–I knew it would be enlightening for a lot of people and I knew it was something that my ancestors would be proud of and would want me to do. But being the vessel for that work was really hard, and I felt extremely vulnerable,” says Cash. “The world was seeing an identity that I was learning to grapple with, and still am.”

Cash's lineages are of mixed ancestry. “I don’t have one parent who is of African descent and one parent who would be considered an ‘enrolled’ or–and I don’t believe in blood quantums–‘full-blooded’ Indigenous person,” she says. Raised in the United States, Cash is descended from Chahta (Choctaw), Tsalagi (Cherokee) and West African peoples.

In the article, Cash discusses the US government’s historical practice of racial classification, known colloquially as the “one drop” rule. Though Cash’s family is multiracial, they were stripped of their Indigenous status through binary systems. For Cash, this erasure of identity led to exclusion. She describes experiences of being shut down by others when expressing her Indigeneity.

“It wasn’t until about a decade ago that I started reinvesting in and reconnecting in this identity,” says Cash. “It came with finding other Black Native people from my community, it came with learning the language, and being connected to community through language and through stories and through understanding the difficulties of what this history means.”    

Cash found the acknowledgement of her identities meaningful, and appreciated Sterritt’s dedication to sharing different experiences.

“It was beautiful. I told her about the history of our particular nations within the United States, what has happened to those of us who consider ourselves Black Native, how we’re reclaiming a lot of those identities now and what that means to us. I really felt honoured and appreciative to be able to speak on behalf of my ancestors.”

While Cash’s heritage might be somewhat unique, she is not alone in the experience of having a complex identity. The opportunity to provide clarity to youth facing similar struggles drives her work.

“I’m never coming into this trying to extract, or take away,” she says. “I’m doing this to give back both to my own self, through my ancestral lineages and lines, but also to the people, the relatives, the space and the lands that I have the honour of being a guest on and with.”

“If you are being called to reconnect, find other people from the community who look like you, who are represented in a way that you are, have conversations with them. There is this disconnection and this disenfranchisement that we’ve been through, but ground in the fact that this is also a part of our truth,” advises Cash. “If possible, connect with aunties and uncles and elders who are open to having conversations with you around the histories of our nations.”

While she continues working to reclaim previously erased aspects of her identity, Cash sees a lot of hope in the future and the next generation.

“We are seeing all of these ways of inviting inclusivity for people, accepting all of these different ways of being and seeing them as whole human beings. We’re inviting your whole self in,” she says. “I think that that’s what gives me the most hope, and I think that the future is going to be more of that–more of us inviting whole people into each of these spaces, and saying ‘welcome’ and ‘we accept you’.”

Cash continues to use her voice to tell underrepresented stories with work such as the Black History Project. The project shares the histories of Black community members, their achievements and their contributions at SFU. Learn more at