According to PSI Scholar Denali Youngwolfe, maps of Indigenous Peoples in the Canadian context are deficit-based. They are maps of who doesn't have water. They are maps of suicide rates, high mortality rates, low education rates. These maps don’t tell a complete story.

“Where are the stories that speak to our successes as lawyers, doctors, artists, architects, athletes, and entrepreneurs?” And, “What if we make those narratives available to our youth in urban, rural and remote communities across Turtle Island? What impact will that have?” These are the questions she seeks to answer with her doctoral research at UBC.

Denali is looking at mapping Indigenous sovereignty through assurgency, a term she adopted from the Life Sciences. Assurgency 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’s primary motivation is to help reduce Indigenous suicide rates, which are among the highest in the world. She believes that part of the problem is that dominant media focuses on stories of Indigenous despair that reinforce exclusion and marginalize success. “I grew up surrounded by strong, successful Indigenous womxn, and men, but the news and media stories I saw focused on murdered and missing Indigenous women, police violence and our boys going to jail.”

The resounding message, she added, is that “our lives are not valued within the Canadian state.” Challenging these narratives, she says “Survival is not an adequate measure of success. The reality is, there are thousands of stories that show we are alive, thriving, and successful.”

A survivor of the child welfare system, Denali was adopted into her Nêhiyaw family and raised 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 map, co-created with communities around Turtle Island (North America) that will become a shared resource for narratives of Indigenous success, reclamation, restoration and resurgence.

Research Description

As an Indigenous scholar and survivor of the child welfare system, adopted and raised in Nêhiyaw culture, I am acutely aware of the capacities within our communities, and the need to challenge dominant narratives that stigmatize what it is to be Indigenous in Canada. Significantly, my PhD research focuses on developing a theory of assurgent sovereignty, external to the settler-colonial dichotomy, by positing resistance, resurgence and resilience as normative, assurgent responses to social, political and environmental changes. By engaging rural, remote and special access Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, as well as the urban Indigenous diaspora my research begins the necessary process of mapping stories of community defined successes. My research explores these success stories to better understand geospatial relationships between suicide rates, and self-determining narratives of identity and cultural continuity. 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 and may, in turn, reduce suicide among our people.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

To me, being a public scholar means asking “how does my work benefit the 7th generation”, and using the resources available to guarantee it does. Public Scholarship shapes the way we perceive research questions and approach research design, and holds us to account within the academy as well as in the broader communities we inhabit.

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 and, in turn, develop a culture of hope that may lead to a reduction of suicide in our communities. It is my hope that community collaboration and digital storytelling will produce a beneficial resource 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 believe exposure to stories of Indigenous survivance disrupts deficit narratives, which in turn reduces suicide and, ultimately, contributes to the development of strong, self-determining nations. I am pursuing a graduate degree because our children have the highest suicide rates in the world and my research, any research focused on changing that is a necessary intervention that may help save lives.

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

As a second-year 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, my committee member Dr. Glen Coulthard’s work on the politics of recognition and grounded normativity is 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. Further, the UBC Public Scholar program, encourages and supports my engagement in innovate and collaborative research approaches that produce tangible community outcomes.


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