Across Turtle Island there are thousands of Indigenous success stories that show we are alive, thriving, and successful. Mapping those narratives makes visible the ongoing presence of self-determining Indigenous people and nations and speaks to assurgent sovereignty.

Denali is mapping Indigenous sovereignty through assurgency. Assurgency, a term adopted from the Life Sciences, describes the way plants grow towards what nurtures them, rather than simply away from what doesn't. Used in this context, Denali is looking at how Indigenous resistance and resurgence are actually part of assurgent, land-based, and culturally situated practices of Indigenous sovereignty; rather than dichotomous responses to settler colonialism.

Denali was raised Nêhiyaw with a strong sense of tradition, culture and community. She brings these values to UBC and accordingly, her work is grounded in Indigenous methodologies that honour social obligations of consent, reciprocity, respect, renewal, and relationship. She views her research as a transformative praxis for action-based outcomes and part her work includes a digital story map, co-created with communities across Turtle Island (North America) that will become a shared resource for narratives of Indigenous success, reclamation, restoration and resurgence.

Research Description

Indigenous people are the fastest growing population in Canada, yet we are under-represented and negatively represented in Canadian literature, media and public spaces. Dominant media narratives focus on stories of Indigenous despair that reinforce exclusion and marginalize success. This matters because negative representations of identity are tied to suicide, and under the Canadian state one-third of all Indigenous children die by suicide. Research indicates that Indigenous communities with control over cultural-continuity factors like education, land, health, and womxn in government, experience little or no suicide. This suggests that identify (self-efficacy) in those communities is shaped by positive, self-determining narratives. It also suggests that in communities with minimal cultural-continuity and high suicide, self-efficacy is determined largely by dominant media narratives of Indigenous deficit and victimhood.

As a survivor of the child welfare system, adopted and raised Nêhiyaw, I am acutely aware of the need to challenge dominant narratives of what it is to be Indigenous in Canada. My work addresses this narrative gap by mapping Indigenous success. My research is grounded in Indigenous decolonial methodologies, and works with Indigenous communities to identify and map community defined ‘success stories’.

I explore these success stories to better understand geospatial relationships between cultural continuity and self-determining narratives of identity, with the aim of informing community planning and policy development. The motivation for my research comes from a deep desire to help reclaim and disseminate narratives of Indigeneity that speak to assurgent, self-determining nationhood.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Being a public scholar means asking “how does my work benefit the 7th generation.”

As a Public Scholar, my research has to be meaningful and accountable to the academy as well as the broader communities I inhabit. Significantly, the UBC Public Scholar program, supports innovative and collaborative research approaches that uphold values of reciprocity, respect, renewal, relevance & responsibility.

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

Public Scholarship provides a platform for universities to recognize and support inclusive, dynamic and innovative methods and methodologies that draw from Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge systems. The Public Scholars Initiative strengthens the relationship between academia and community by positioning the PhD experience as one of meaningful engagement with the values and systems of inquiry present in the communities we live and work in.

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

As a Public Scholar, my PhD work positions me to be a change agent. Through my work on Indigenous rights, community capacity and assurgent sovereignty, I am gathering the knowledge, resources and experience I need to be a more effective academic-activist. Bridging the gap between academia and community activism strengthens and informs meaningful policy development and allows me to contribute to the global discourse on Indigenous rights while supporting local assurgent practices of sovereignty.

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

My research engages rural, remote and special access Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, as well as the urban Indigenous diaspora in order to identify, document and map examples of community defined indigenous successes.

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.