People of SFU: Meet Dorothy Christian, associate director of Indigenous Policy and Pedagogy, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

September 28, 2021
Dorothy Cucw-la7 Christian at a graduation ceremony for her PhD, held at the UBC First Nations House of Learning in 2017.

Dorothy Cucw-la7 Christian has spent a lifetime defying categorization.

A member of the Secwepemc and Syilx Nations from the interior of BC, Christian currently works as the associate director of Indigenous Policy and Pedagogy in SFU Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, but she is also an academic, a film/visual director and TV segment producer, an author—and above all, a storyteller.

If you ever have the privilege of sitting down with Christian, you’ll hear story after story about her life, her activism and how Indigenous cultural knowledge has informed all of her work to date. Here are three of those stories.

Telling Indigenous stories through TV and film

Before I came to SFU, I did work in film and TV production—I worked with VisionTV and brought visual stories to the national Canadian screen for eight TV seasons. During that time, I accumulated more than 100 professional production credits and travelled throughout Turtle Island and into Mexico, sharing Indigenous stories from different communities. And it was a good learning process for me because I had to engage cultural protocols with Indigenous Nations I was not familiar with.

Dorothy Cucw-la7 Christian (right) with camera man Auggie Armstrong, on set during her time working with VisionTV.

If you know anything about Indigenous communities, you know that you can’t just fly in with a camera crew and stick a mic in someone’s face and expect to get a good story. One of the basic principles of Indigenous knowledge is about relationality, so it is critical to build relationships when engaging with Indigenous peoples. So that means my pre-production process was longer. Before I arrived in the communities, I would talk to community members on the phone, ask about specific protocols for their nation, send copies of work I had done so they could see my directing style and the way I respected people in my work. 

That was important to me—my work wasn’t about me being in front of the camera. My job was to direct the camera so other people’s voices were heard. One of the things I always said was that I wanted to get as many beautiful brown faces on the screen as possible! I wanted Indigenous peoples to see themselves on the screen. And I’m proud that I managed to do that.

My work in TV and film production eventually led me to grad school, because while I was out in the field producing and directing, I realized I was doing things very differently from my peers in Toronto. I decided to go to grad school to write about Indigenous production, and I’m happy I did. In my research, I discovered there were non-Indigenous academics who were attempting to become experts on us, on Indigenous production. And I thought, no way man! If anyone’s going to be the expert, I will make myself the expert.

In my PhD, I interviewed 14 knowledge keepers from across these lands, including an Inuit from the north and a Hopi from the southwestern region of Turtle Island. I wanted to show what Indigenous knowledge was from these diverse nations. I also spoke with 14 Indigenous filmmakers who I call visual storytellers; they were all working professionally in the industry, with the exception of one young man who was just going into film school. My PhD dissertation is a result of the conversations I had with these two groups. I illustrated how our cultural knowledge informs what we do. 

It is important to know that I had a caveat at the beginning of my dissertation, in that I did not claim copyright on any of the Indigenous knowledge that was shared with me. I explained that the copyright sits with each knowledge keeper and their Nation even though the conventional university practice is that the PhD candidate is assigned copyright.

Indigenous knowledge can be incorporated in so many different ways. And that’s what I believe I bring to SFU.

Supporting Indigenous graduate students at SFU

When I started grad school, nobody really helped me. There wasn’t a lot of support. The Indigenous Student Centre was struggling to find its place in the university and their focus was undergrad students. I would go there just to see other brown Indigenous faces. I spent a year longer than I should have in my MA program because I was fumbling around, not knowing what to do in my first year. 

This is something the university really needs to pay attention to. One of the things I’ve discussed with other Indigenous faculty and staff is that there’s this huge push to have more Indigenous people at SFU, but we’re all isolated in different faculties and departments. There does not seem to be any real thought given to how we keep Indigenous peoples at SFU.  

In my new role, I will not be so isolated. I will collaborate with other Indigenous peoples at SFU and within Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS)—I’m getting to work with Indigenous masters and PhD students and I’m really excited about it. YAY! I get to see brown faces. 

Grad studies is, in my opinion, where it’s at. This is where the innovative thinking and research is going on. I’m very excited to find out about the students’ projects and support them through their programs. I just sent an e-introduction to the body of 210 Indigenous masters and PhD students saying, I’m here to help demystify the university and help you during the graduate process. 

Right now, I’m working on creating an Indigenous-focused page on the GPS website for Indigenous grad students. It’s fun because we’re bringing in some Indigenous images, so that when Indigenous students are looking towards coming to grad school, they’ll land on a page that has images they can relate to. 

Another aspect of this job is bringing together Indigenous undergrads and grad students so the grad students can share their experiences. And, undergrads can see that it is possible to go to grad school! It’s not that scary. Some people are eager to do different things but don’t see themselves in those roles. My job is to help them see themselves anywhere they want to be.

Let Indigenous people heal in our own way

Content warning: this story contains mention of residential schools.

Since I was a grad student here in 2006 there have been a huge number of changes at SFU. Now, there are pockets of people throughout the university who are doing really good work in terms of bringing the Indigenous story forward. There are some faculty that have been doing the “d” word (decolonization) long before it became the latest buzz word in academia. Some of them have been looking at colonization as a global phenomenon, beyond the Canadian scope. They have been unsettling the status quo of the colonial narrative.  

As sad as it is, I think the finding of the remains of the 215 kids on my territories has helped bring the Indigenous narrative forward. I think Canadians are finally opening their ears, their hearts and their minds to hear the story. There are so many myths out there about Indigenous people in this country, and people like to take stereotypes and emphasize them rather than looking at what caused the social problems in the first place. What causes so many levels of addiction, and why are Indigenous men and women such a large percentage of occupants in prisons? If people start to understand how the residential school system has created that kind of life for Indigenous peoples, then maybe they will learn to have some compassion and understanding and less judgement. 

When the 215 children were discovered, [SFU President] Joy Johnson, who is also chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advisory Council, reached out to the Indigenous women on the council—me, Jeannie Morgan and Lindsay Heller. And she asked for our guidance because we had a council meeting scheduled right around that time. I got in touch with the other women and we said to Joy that the most appropriate thing for her and the rest of the council to do would be to afford us a private and culturally safe space to give us room to grieve. I said, personally, I am not ready right now to share my pain publicly. I think it’s too much to ask because every Indigenous person on Turtle Island/North America is affected by the findings of those remains. 

We all have relatives who attended residential schools. One of my aunts went to the Kamloops Indian Residential School. My mom and my uncles went to another residential school. You have the intergenerational trauma, and how that has played out in our communities. I told Joy stories about why it was important for us to have privacy and cultural safety at this time.

The first story was: I was in Switzerland with my friend Victoria Freeman, a very privileged white woman. We were speaking at a UNESCO-sponsored peace conference with the theme of human security about what it was like for us to live in Canada as a colonizer and a colonized. This was way back in 2002 when people were not talking about colonization, period. Our audience was 700 people from all over the world. We had so many people come up to us after our talk saying they’d never heard that conversation before.

And part of what I said at the end of that talk was that colonization is a brutal process. There needs to be healing work done on both the colonizer and colonized side of the proverbial colonial coin. Indigenous people are very capable of doing our own healing. And settler people need to do their own healing—they don’t need us there holding their hand. They need to take responsibility for their own healing work so they can come and work with us as equal human beings, and then maybe we can work towards a true reconciliation. 

The other story was: when I was on the board of directors at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto, I was part of a team in the late 1980s who started bringing together Elders’ gatherings—spaces for Indigenous people to share Indigenous knowledge with the larger society. At those gatherings, we would have talking circles for men and women on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

As president, I insisted that one day of the three days of talking healing circles should be reserved for Indigenous women only. Of course, I was accused of being racist and all kinds of things. But it was the same premise, we needed privacy. The way I explained it was, I’m not a shy person, anyone can see that. But in a talking healing circle, the quality of what I share with Indigenous women is very different than what I share in a mixed circle. 

That’s really what is needed right now—that Indigenous people are allowed to do their own healing in their own way, without having to take care of settler people. I know people want to gush all over us and tell us how sorry they are and all that. But the respectful thing to do is to give us the space and not make it about their reaction or response to what they are learning. People need to take care of themselves in terms of their own healing.

I was grateful that Joy Johnson listened and heard us. We were not required to be at that particular meeting because the news about the 215 was still very raw. 

One of the things I insist on, and I say this too at the EDI Advisory Council, is that it’s not just about Indigenous people. I include people of color allies and white allies when deconstructing the racial divide. I don’t like us being divided into little silos; I’ve seen that happen so much in the past 30 years. When we buy into the divide and conquer, we do not serve anyone except those in power.

When I talk about relationship building, what’s important to know about the Indigenous worldview is that it’s very inter-relational. This is difficult in academia, because the Euro-Western way of doing things is to squish people into boxes. With Indigenous ways of knowing and doing, that’s very hard because we see ourselves as interrelated with all things—the universe, the cosmos, the land, all the animals on the land and the spirits of the land. It’s not just about being one little individual person. It’s about building those relationships so that we humanize each other in our communities, so that we have compassion and understanding between our communities.

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