People of SFU

People of SFU: Meet Lindsay Heller, fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue

February 04, 2022

Decolonizing traditional structures and Indigenizing systems can seem impossibly complex. Lindsay Heller suggests one possible way forward with a story:

  • A group of scientists from Ottawa were up in the arctic tundra of the Northwest Territories sampling for population growth of the Rangifer tarandus, or Porcupine Caribou. This group of scientists traveled by helicopter throughout known habitats of the herd in order to determine population estimates which ultimately dictate the number of caribou hunting tags local Gwich'in communities receive each year. These scientists were required to consult the local Indigenous people and as such had invited a local elder into their camp for the night to fulfil this requirement. Through a translator, the elder began to share some stories while drawing images associated with the stories in the snow with a long branch of lodgepole pine. When he was finished, he drew a circle around his images and said, “this is what I know about the caribou.”

    The group of scientists chuckled a bit and gestured for the elder to hand him the branch where he proceeded to draw a much larger circle next to that of the elder stating that this was what they knew about the caribou. After a long while looking at the large circle beside the smaller circle, the elder stood up and retrieved the branch.  The scientists had gone back to their conversation but noticed him pick up the branch with curiosity.  He walked around the whole area dragging the branch behind him to encircle both of the original circles and turned to the scientists and said “this what we know together about the caribou.”

Telling that story, Lindsay says, gives her goosebumps. “This story has had profound consequences for my teaching and research praxis—its impact on my work is as powerful now as it was 10 years ago, when it was first shared with me."

"This story depicts an encounter between people who have radically different ways of being, knowing and communicating. This story also depicts the power or, at least, the potential power of dialogue between Indigenous knowledge holders – in this case, an Indigenous expert on caribou – and scientists whose knowledge is primarily shaped by “western” (or, in this case, western and southern) academies. Stories are central to how I learn and teach: stories that can spark and deepen authentic dialogue amongst people with different backgrounds and lived experiences."

In her work as an educator, facilitator and consultant, Lindsay employs these values of relationship-building, collaboration and equality. Lindsay is a fellow at SFU’s Wosk Centre for Dialogue, and as a member of the Michel First Nation (Treaty 6) and survivor of the Sixties Scoop, often examines decolonizing education and non-western styles of research in her work.

Lindsay first became involved with the Centre for Dialogue when she was hired as part of the Centre’s partnership with Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s and Girls (MMIWG). She was a facilitator with the group for a year and a half, collecting stories from Indigenous women across the country to inform the final report.

“Traveling coast to coast to coast, speaking with everyone from frontline workers, to incarcerated women, to families was a responsibility and a privilege,” says Lindsay. “That year and a half was a pivotal and transformational time for me.”

Her work bridged into a fellowship, and led her to establish her own consultancy. At the Centre, Lindsay connected with Dr. Robert Daum, another fellow, and now her consulting partner. Lindsay and Daum work with a variety of organizations discussing justice, equity and decolonization. “We sit with clients in a number of different contexts and have those important and difficult conversations,” says Lindsay. “What does it mean to indigenize curriculum? What does it mean to decolonize leadership structures of an institution? How can we do this work in a good way within Eurocentric systems that are extremely resilient?”

Lindsay finds clients are often eager to do this work, but are unsure of how to approach it, or are fearful of getting it wrong. In her practice, Lindsay strives to create safe opportunities, creating a sounding board and allowing difficult conversations to come forth in a place of trust.

“It’s really about working collaboratively with clients to come up with action plans and solutions, co-creating structures that are equipped to receive the gifts of Indigenous scholars and knowledge holders.” says Lindsay.

“There’s so much value in being able to see things differently, or at least, appreciate other view points. What that’s called is two-eyed seeing,” says Lindsay, whose background also includes ten years in pharmaceutical research. “It’s the ability to use the strength of two different things. For example, using the strengths of western science, but also using the strengths of Indigenous ways of viewing, being and understanding the world.”

Lindsay cites the Cree word “wahkohtowin” for which there is no translation in English.

“Wahkohtowin is kinship law, self-governance which frames the world in connectivity. We see these other entities – the plants, the animals, the water – as relatives, and we have a responsibility to our relatives. If you see a forest as a ‘them’ rather than an ‘it’, you’re much less likely to raze it to the ground.”

Lindsay also stresses the importance of structural understanding of colonization. She recalls a quote from Audre Lorde: “’The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house’ means we can’t do decolonizing work in a colonial way.”

As a member of SFU’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advisory Council, Lindsay has advised on decolonizing practices and enacts the values of two-eyed seeing in the post-secondary context. She does this not just for herself as a graduate student, but for her children in the future.

“When my daughters come through the doors at SFU, I don’t want them to feel there’s nothing about them that’s reflected.” says Lindsay. “I want them to enter a classroom that has an Indigenous teacher, and they’re not the only Indigenous student in the class. I want them to submit assignments reflective of their culture and their experiences, and use Elders as resources, not just articles from JSTOR. I want those different worldviews to be normalized and celebrated.”

Ultimately, Lindsay says she wants her daughters to be proud of who they are. “I don’t want them to have to hide their indigeneity out of fear of violence or being seen as lesser than. I want them to feel valued.”