I believe the stories we tell determine what is possible. I am interested in telling stories that recognize and celebrate Indigenous languages, cultures, & knowledges.
We Rise: The Âhkameyihtamowin Project is mapping Indigenous Success Stories Across Turtle Island. My project investigates the role of story in creating and disrupting deficit narratives and uses GIS technologies to make visible the ongoing, dynamic presence of self-determining Indigenous peoples and nations. 

Denali is interested in how we, as Indigenous people, conceptualize success, how those narratives can benefit our communities, and how they speak to the spatial relationships that constitute Indigenous nationhood. To do this, she is gathering, mapping, and analyzing narratives of Indigenous agency, authority, and legitimacy, as expressed through community-defined success stories. Denali believes that these stories illustrate assurgent, land-based, and culturally situated practices of Indigenous nationhood.

Research Description

The ability to see oneself as an accepted and valued member of society are essential to developing a positive sense of self and cultural identity. Enhancing positive self and cultural identity has been shown to reduce suicide, child welfare apprehensions, drug addiction, and homelessness. However, as an Indigenous person, this is no easy task as representations of Indigenous people in Canadian media overwhelmingly focus on and reinforce negative narratives of victimhood, deficit, and disappearance. 

To shift the discourse on Indigeneity from deficit to abundance, I am looking for culturally relevant insights into how we, as Indigenous people, conceptualize success, how those narratives can benefit our communities, and how they speak to and shape Indigenous nationhood. 

Through an extensive literature review, focus groups, and a digital survey, I am gathering Indigenous examples and opinions for thematic analysis and GIS modelling to determine patterns in the conceptualization of success across geographical regions. My project employs machine learning models to identify emergent patterns of Indigenous persistence, resistance, and resurgence from location and semantic data. I am using these patterns to develop thematically coded GIS maps of success-narratives across the land. I am looking for common ontological underpinnings that speak to the nature of Indigenous survivance in and across individuals, families and communities, with attention to differences in measures of success across urban, rural, remote, and special access communities. I hope that the cartographies I produce will demonstrate Indigenous presence in material ways that challenge colonial renderings of space. 

By creating a nationally accessible, collaborative, interactive digital story map that showcases Indigenous role models across Canada, I am contributing a practical resource for use as a curriculum tool that celebrates the contributions of contemporary Indigenous people.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

“How does my work benefit the 7th generation?”

My research and academic goals stem from a responsibility to enhance human rights & dignity within my community. The legitimacy of Indigenous ways of knowing is axiomatic to my work. I take for granted the centering of Indigenous world views when engaging issues of identity, citizenship, and self-determination. Accordingly, being a Public Scholar means my research is a transformative praxis for action-based outcomes that empower Indigenous agendas. 

It is important to me that my work contributes to creating a better, more equitable world for the seventh generation. I hope to use my work to empower our youth, raise awareness of shared values and aspirations, and promote the alignment of Canadian policy and practice with national and international human rights conventions and declarations.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The Public Scholars Initiative strengthens the relationship between communities and academia by positioning the Ph.D. experience as action-oriented and community-focused with practical outcomes. As a UBC Public Scholar, I am cultivating relationships with those who think beyond existing configurations of power; and connect with role models engaged in acts of ‘moral imagination’ that inspire real-world change

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My Ph.D. is preparing me to work with leaders and innovators to make a difference in our communities. I am gathering the skills I need to bridge the gap from academic research to action and activism. My career goals are to raise awareness, pressure governments, develop ethical public policy, and collaborate with local grassroots organizations to address social justice issues in our lives and communities that are not being addressed through mainstream channels. 

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My work amplifies stories of cultural capacity so that my nieces and nephews and the broader Indigenous community across Turtle Island can see they are as capable and deserving of a future as non-Indigenous Canadians. I want our youth to believe they have a right to clean drinking water, safe housing, and education. I want them to know they can create a world that supports and celebrates Indigenous knowledges, cultures and identities. I am proud to be a role model to my nieces and nephews and proud to show all our nieces and nephews that we are surrounded by role models. 

Today my work focuses on understanding and addressing exclusionary policies and practices that have targeted Indigenous people, creating structural violence, poverty, and a host of adverse outcomes. My experiences have taught me to look within our culture for examples of best practices in alleviating inequities and injustices. We are surrounded by an ethic of care that manifests as social responsibility. By mapping Indigenous presence in the form of self-determining success stories, I hope to draw attention to the diverse ways we contribute to our communities and shift the dominant discourse on Indigeneity from deficit to abundance. 

It is important that I keep my research accessible and accountable to community; accordingly, I am using GIS tools to create a living, interactive story map that will be available online.  

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

In Canada one-third of all Indigenous children die by suicide. Significantly, the more control a community has over variables of cultural continuity the lower its suicide rates are. My work aims to make visible, through story mapping (geospatial technologies), narratives of Indigenous survivance that challenge dominant narratives of what it is to be Indigenous in Canada. It is my hope that community collaboration and digital storytelling will strengthening access to narratives of success and produce beneficial outcomes for Indigenous youth.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Indigenous people are the fastest growing demographic in Canada, yet we are largely under-represented and negatively represented in Canadian literature, media and public spaces. The ability to see oneself as a functioning, contributing, and accepted member of society, is necessary to the formation of a positive self-identity. I am pursuing a graduate degree because I believe exposure to stories of Indigenous survivance disrupt victim narratives and contribute to the development of strong, self-determining nations.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

As a doctoral student at UBC I am privileged to have the support of knowledge keepers from unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm territory and world class academics including my supervisor Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot, the Canada Research Chair in Global Indigenous Rights and Politics, whose work on complex sovereignties and self-determination is foundational to my research. Similarly, the work of Dr. Glen Coulthard’s on the politics of recognition and grounded normativity are core to the development of my research methodologies. UBC is also a centre of excellence in several related fields including Cultural Geography, Integrated Journalism, legal scholarship, and Transitional Justice and Global Issues. UBC actively facilitates access to a supportive community of scholars who bring a unique inter-disciplinary perspective to my doctoral research.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

My Master's research on the role of cultural continuity and kinship care in disrupting Indigenous overrepresentation in the child welfare system, as well as the support and mentorship I received from the University of Saskatchewan prepared me for the PhD program at UBC.

Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?

Pursue something that makes the world better. Be accountable to your community, whoever that is, and make sure your work benefits them as much as you.


As Public Scholars our work needs to make us accountable, and accessible to the communities we serve so that we can provide tangible results.