Keri Cheechoo woke up one night in early 2010 with two words in her head: forced sterilization. A poet and educator, Cheechoo knew she had received an important message, even if she was unsure of its meaning at that moment. So she scrawled the words on the back of an envelope and pondered.
Five years later, Cheechoo began her doctorate at the University of Ottawa, collecting stories documenting forced sterilization and other reproductive violences against Indigenous women in Canada.
Before her midnight awakening, Cheechoo, an Iskwew (Cree woman) and member of Long Lake No. 58 First Nation in Northern Ontario, had not spoken to anyone about coerced sterilization, which has been occurring in Canada since the 1920s.
“I believe in blood memories,” says Cheechoo, a professor in the Faculty of Education and the director of its Indigenous Teacher Education Program. “I think it was ancestors nudging me to be in that good space of working towards justice for women who had experienced this reprehensible violence.”
Cheechoo spent 18 months building relationships and community with Indigenous women across northwestern Ontario and Quebec. Her doctoral dissertation privileges Indigenous voice and includes (re)stor(y)ed narratives generously shared with her. The pages in her dissertation are formatted in a manner meant to disorient the reader’s eye. Amid the lyrical poetry and conventional academic prose, a space emerges where missing histories find voice and speak to the collective traumas of forced sterilization and the horrific racism existent in the health-care system. The dissertation is embargoed for five years to follow protocols, to protect the participants and the Indigenous knowledges it contains, says Cheechoo.
The researcher’s goal is to honour these women, to embed their experiences within curricula that better reflect the realities and racism embodied by Indigenous peoples, and to help make people aware of these stories. Hearing about these and other injustices is a wake-up call for some of her students, many of whom were not aware that Indian Residential Schools existed until 1996.
“You need to know about these things as you go into the world so that you have a really good lens,” she says.
In her research, Cheechoo uses a framework she calls Nisgaa, the Cree word for goose. Its central components enact relating to others ethically and transparently, and engaging protocol through a process of consent, reciprocity and accountability.
“That means I had to speak to knowledge keepers and engage with Elders in a good way, and to move forward in sharing circles to make sure I wasn’t hurting or harming anyone,” she explains.
The Nisgaa methodological framework is critical when engaging with communities that have long been exploited through extractive research that consumes knowledge without consent or reciprocity. Accordingly, says Cheechoo, “I can only hope my research creates space for more conversation.”