Resistance and perseverance are written in her DNA

Posted on Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Portrait of Keri Cheechoo.

Keri Cheechoo is an Iskwew (a Cree woman), a poet, a storyteller and an educator. She is a proud mom of five, a kookum (a grandmother) to two, and is daughter to Indian Residential School Survivors. She is also a trailblazer whose resistance and perseverance has led her here.

Cheechoo recently earned a PhD in Education from the University of Ottawa and received an award from the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies for her dissertation examining some of “the shadows and shades of violence” experienced by Indigenous women residing in this nation-state called Canada.

For her doctoral work, Cheechoo enacted ethical relationality as she collected the stories generously shared by Indigenous women living in Ontario and Quebec who were subjugated to reproductive violence, including forced or coerced sterilization.

“You had three or four generations of women telling each other to just go along with what the doctor says because they’re ‘the authority,’” says Cheechoo. “And these things reverberated down from one generation to the next. This research is meant to provide space for these dehumanizing narratives about reproductive violence to emerge and be heard.”

One of her future goals is to engage protocol and reciprocity with community partners, and facilitate workshops to share her research, and make space for women to find and determine their own sense of agency and power.

“I could share these stories with them, and they could see how normalized it became, how easy it is to trust a doctor in this way, but that it could potentially harm their body or cause them to lose their ability to have children, and that it’s something they can say ‘no’ to.”

Keri Cheechoo holds a notebook with the words

(Re)storying trauma through poetic inquiry

Cheechoo transformed the stories she collected and her research findings into lyrical poetry. It’s the form of expression that she feels most comfortable with, for many reasons.

“My ancestral aptitude is for writing,” she says. “I have strength within that space. I like poetry because it provides a different way for a voice to be heard, and it’s a good medium for getting across material that is harmful or violent to read. If I were to share a story in dialogue, for example, it would be taken in differently than if you were reading a piece of poetry.”

In fact, if you read her thesis, you would see the difference firsthand. Each page of her dissertation is divided into two columns: one side is your typical academic text, the other is written in verse. As she puts it, her thesis is deliberately written in a way that privileges Indigenous voice analogously with academic prose.

“It’s physically and purposefully disconnected,” says Cheechoo. “It’s the idea that these two voices butt up against each other, making it hard to know where to focus. Welcome to an Indigenous student’s life—trying to exist in this academic space and navigate two realities. It’s very difficult to be someone who is marginalized and oppressed, and to be in the Ivory Towers.”

For now, though, her thesis is under embargo until she engages further protocols with the Indigenous women who shared their lived experiences with her.

Nisgaa: A mindful approach to research

“I want to ensure that this huge missing piece—this authentic and accurate history of Indigenous women—is included in Canada’s tapestry and in school curricula,” explains Cheechoo. “But I can’t do any of that until I engage all my participants in a good way, making sure that I have permission to share their narratives and stories. It’s all about making sure that I’m not doing any harm as I move forward.”

Cheechoo’s approach to research, education—and life—is rooted in two key concepts: ethical relationality, which demands self-scrutiny and careful reflection of one’s relationships with others, and Nisgaa, a Cree methodological framework she developed that involves mindfulness, reciprocity, relevance and consent.

“Everything I do is through that practice,” she says. “I realize that I’m responsible for the energy I bring into a space and that I’m accountable to that energy. So, I try to ensure that the people I’m engaging with are also practicing ethical relationality so that we can have our best relationship together.”

Keri Cheechoo and her family

Keri Cheechoo and her family.

Her bumpy road through academia is breaking trail

Cheechoo’s academic journey was not an easy one. She was encouraged by administration to leave high school after she became pregnant. Later, she was unable to get a bachelor’s degree in Education because she couldn’t pass a required math exam.

“My transcript looked terrible because of all these attempts, and that dragged down my GPA,” she says. “Ultimately, I found out that I have Dyscalculia, a learning disability in math, which I’m very forthcoming about because I’m trying to destigmatize having a learning disability.”

Cheechoo went on to do a master’s in English, then a bachelor’s degree in Education to bolster her track record. In 2015, she moved to Ottawa from Thunder Bay to start her PhD in Education at uOttawa.

“That was my journey, and along the way, I recognized that I was kind of breaking trail and forging new spaces for First Nation students to be present, and feel present, in postsecondary spaces, and even graduate spaces,” she says. “This PhD is not solely mine. It belongs to my community, Long Lake #58 First Nation. When I went to school every day, I brought my community with me, and represented them as best I could. And so, for my community and for my kids, I want to continue demonstrating that the success I’m experiencing is accessible to anyone.”

Now a PhD graduate and an Assistant Professor with uOttawa’s Faculty of Education, Cheechoo jokes about how her tattoos and her shaved-up head aren’t things you’d expect a postsecondary instructor to have.

“I think reconfiguring the way a professor is ‘supposed to look’ helps create new spaces of possibility,” she says. “Frankly, we need to have more brown faces in front of a classroom to destigmatize that space. I’m going to keep doing my best to Indigenize the faculty with my colleagues present and future—just doing our best to provide these pockets of representation so that Indigenous students can feel like they can flourish here too.”

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