Locating my Indian self in the academy's tenure process

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shanne McCaffrey, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Issues Portfolio’s ‘Transforming the Academy: Indigenous Education’ series, which will be the focus of the Portfolio’s programming at Congress 2011.

When I began to prepare my portfolio for the tenure process, little did I realize how incredibly difficult this was going to be, from a location that is, for many Indigenous scholars, devoid of spirit, identity, culture and Indigenous traditions. When I prepared my portfolio I inserted many pieces, gifts that were related to my scholarship of engagement in Indigenous communities. When I had finished it, I bound my portfolio with a Métis sash and presented it to the committee.

I soon found the Métis sash in my office, taken off my portfolio. Apparently it was too difficult to tie it back on after viewing the portfolio. As well, the act of placing the sash around the portfolio had been interpreted for its esthetics rather than symbolic literacy or deeper connections to Indigenous ceremony.

As I went through my portfolio, I experienced a deep sadness. I saw my community engagement work pushed to the side, as the writing, curriculum work, and course-based evaluations took up all of the space. I was told to keep it ‘scholarly’ and ‘academic,’ to take out the pieces that were connected to community, to relationships and to spirit. And the final blow? A small cobalt blue glass bead that had been presented to me by a northern community was tucked at the back of the portfolio, the piece that talked about the bead, its history and relationship was tucked elsewhere, in the binder’s flap.

It was time for me to re-think not only my portfolio, but my Indian self and how I wanted to (re)present that self to the academy. I needed to find a way that I could connect with my spirit, my identity and ancestry in an academy, located, importantly, on traditional Lekwungen  territory.

For support on this journey, I went to my mother, sat with her and explained my dilemma. My mother had walked two cultural worlds and moved on both sides of the feather, for years. She understood the dual cultural ways that often are required in working with non-Indigenous communities and institutions. She calmly replied that I needed to weigh the consequences of any action, which might mean that I could be denied a place in the academy. If I could accept that, then I would be able to move forward in any matter that I felt most comfortable presenting myself.

For me, there was no hesitation. I would present myself in my Indigenous ways. I would not disconnect or compartmentalize myself.  I could live with the consequences of my stand of locating myself, with integrity and honour. After all, I had come from a people on both my mother and father’s sides, who were used to taking a stand, and from a social location that often circumscribed their autonomy, identity, lives, and homes.  It would be the least that I could do to honour their indomitable strength, trials and enduring legacies.

After thinking through all of this, I sat down and wrote a small treatise, which began to take the shape of a prayer and then a keening wail. I decided to print it on salmon paper, to signify that ‘salmon always return home’.  I put it on the front of my portfolio and handed it in for the final time.  I had also given notice to the university’s tenure committee that I would be attending the gathering in-person, something not typically done.

My words on salmon paper were deeply offensive to some. One person called it a ‘rant’ and gave me a wide berth and silence to show displeasure. Another person said it made her cry; she did not understand how painful this process could be. Through the academic ivy I heard another person say that they wanted to ‘push’ me to do the best that I could. Yet another person claimed that he did not want me to be ‘embarrassed’ by not meeting the standard demanded at a prestigious School. Finally I was asked if the salmon letter could be taken off, after all, the point had been made and the portfolio seemed in order now. I stated I would not take the letter off and it would remain in the front of my binder all the way through the process.

I wanted to go to my university tenure committee to explain and interpret a couple of pieces of community peer ‘assessment’ to them. These objects, on the surface, may seem to be a simple glass bead, or four quarters, or a brightly woven belt, but these were all part of community evaluations, affirmations and ways of assessing. These objects spoke to the ceremonies, contracts, witnesses and relationships that I had forged and earned with people and communities. They were as precious as any paper from a high office in the academy.

So, I went to the university tenure committee and explained these pieces. I looked down the table and explained my Indian self. Walking out, I proudly strode back to my office, comfortable at last in my brown skin. Later, the phone rang and the head of the committee informed me that I had passed the tenure process and would be receiving a letter to that effect. I immediately gave thanks to my ancestors in the traditional ways that I had been taught – kitatamihin (literally, you make me glad). The following is the ‘salmon letter’ I wrote that was on the front of my portfolio.

My ‘Salmon Letter,’ or on Indigenizing the tenure process
I first must hold my hands and acknowledge the Coast and Strait Salish people, who are the territory holders of this land that I have been a guest on for fourteen years. To them I extend my sincere and grateful thanks for being such kind and generous hosts in so many good ways.

As a Nehiyaw Cree Métis person, I have the responsibility to bring my ancestry forward and to acknowledge those before me, to honour them and the blood that flows through my veins from both my mother and father. I am not an island. I cannot represent a sliver of myself, but must bring forward this self that I am, that I identify with, which includes my brown Indian self.

I am Shanne McCaffrey, my mother is Yvonne Cecile Marie McCaffrey. Her mother, my grandmother, is Rose Marie Wapistikwan (White Head) Lafond. My great grandmother was Kamiyosit (the pretty one). My great-great grandfather was Pikakam (Churned Up Water).  My ancestry is located in Saskatchewan on the Beardy’s Okemasis Reserve, Fort Carleton and Batoche in Saskatchewan.

I am a Nehiyaw Cree Métis woman who has an Irish father, George Joseph McCaffrey. His father, my grandfather was Phillip McCaffrey. Phillip’s father, my great-grandfather was Owen McCaffrey and my great-great-grandfather was Laughlin McCaffrey, who came over from Ireland and first settled in Quebec.

I have struggled fiercely with this tenure process, to show the academy my scholarly, teaching and expert self. There is an assumption deeply embedded in the tenure process that I want to be an academic. I do not aspire to be an academic. I aspire to be a person who will be remembered as having good and caring relationships with people both inside and outside of my work. I aspire to be a life long learner as well as I want to continually strive to be a good teacher and a good person to others.

I was hired to be a teacher, a senior instructor and I was also hired for being an Indian; for those cultural mysteries, traditions, and relationships that I am fortunate to enjoy. To those systems, social conventions, politics, culture that I know the signs, language and codes of membership to. To knowing those intricate matrices of relationships between nations and communities, traditions, cultures and protocols essential to working in effective reciprocal partnerships and circles with diverse and strong cultural peoples.

All my life, I have watched, talked, experienced, thought and learned, but all of these ways have no place of honour, validation or acknowledgement in this tenure system. This is colonialism of the Indigenous spirit, mind and body. I have felt physically sick at being pressed to represent a sliver of who I am and to try to twist and contort myself to fill in the blanks of curriculum vitae papers, ready-made forms, systems, cycles, timeframes and framework agreements that were created for the ‘professor’ stream at the academy. When asked about the ‘standard’ for the Senior Instructor process, I am told about the framework. I go there and prepare my first portfolio. I am then told that I needed to re-do it and add in more ‘scholarly’ achievements and to pull out some personal pieces. When I ask again, I am given still give vague, veiled instructions about the ‘tone’ of my work. That only pushes me into resistance. I do not know this coded system and cannot trust anyone to show me how to navigate or steer this iron horse that is careening down the tenure track.

The tenure process has a long and deeply embedded history in the learning institutions of the Euro-Western world with accompanying Euro-western ideology and conservatism that will not allow the Indian in me to come out. For myself, I have found this step to be excruciatingly painful. I hear and feel the swing of the iron cross of colonialism. I know it is real. This is a colonial process and it tears deeply into my Indian heart, head and spirit. It has a flavouring reminiscent of residential school. You cannot speak your speak, your words, ways of knowing, doing, being have no place in this privileged domain, only your white self need step forward. This process is a shaming process. I feel deep shame at leaving my Indian self.

Every part of my authentic whole self that I bring to the relationships I have in and out of the academy are denied a space or a place in the tenure process. Only my scholarly self need stand up and take a bow, while the Indian self in me is pulled from the binders, piece by piece.  My Indian self is not honoured or valued in this process. That side is banished to reside in the shadows and darkness, daring to peek out for a chance to speak – my speak – speak my truth. My Indian self is “Kguss kay tin” (lonely and sad).

I am being taught through this process to pull that Indian self inward, allowing my Euro-western self to stand up and take a bow, when this is not my culture, these are not my ways.  I have grieved, wailed and felt deep sorrow and confusion about this colonial process.  I ask: ‘Am I assimilated enough to be accepted?’ ‘Do I want to be assimilated enough?’ ‘Is this the measure, the standard they speak of?’ The only self that need appear is my Euro-western self, while my Indian self shrinks and recedes to the shadows. ‘Can I really move forward this way?’ My Indian self is an outcast in this process. There is no invitation for the Indian in me to come forward. My tears have been pregnant with sorrow as I struggle to move out of this place of contradiction, control and imbalance.

Now it is this very Indian self, that I am being denied the right to voice, express, represent in an institutionalized tenure process. The Indian self in me demands that I make reparation – that I acknowledge this Indian self. I straighten my shoulders and I whisper aloud: ‘I am not you. Don’t assume I aspire to be like you. I am not aspiring to be like you. I am “me.”  I am aspiring to learn and grow into the person that I am meant to be.’ My Indian self nods; ‘Gway-iss’ (good). Yet, this is the Indian self that this institution and others are always seeking from me – my Indian eyes, head, and heart.

If I dance the hoop dance and spin all the hoops, take all directions to show my academic and scholarly self, will I be assimilated enough, white enough, colonized enough, institutionalized and finally good enough for the academy? At what cost to my spirit, sense of self-identity, responsibility to my ancestry, and authenticity will be damaged and negotiated in this process.  What about my Indian self?  My Indian self grins and pokes me forward – ‘ma kee skway in (you’re crazy).

The tenure process will not take the Indian out of me or from me. I am clinging to my brownness, arms wrapped around like a straight jacket with my fingernails embedded deeply into my back, hanging on a like a dog soldier, to life to limb, to spirit and membership to the collective and to self, especially to my Indian self. You cannot pull it from me. It is not a shroud that can be donned and then taken off. It is skin that blankets me and is rooted in blood and bone, to my being, my self, my spirit, and my identity.  It is me. My Indian self takes a creep forward another step and says ‘kin stoo tin? (Do you understand?) I reply: ‘ehheh, kin stoo ta tin (I understand).

I have been taught to critique, to assess and evaluate. I have a responsibility to start the conversation of the colonial process of tenure. So here I am today, hovering around the academy.  In or out, on the teeter – totter. To be brought in to be corseted and cloistered by colonial fingers that are pinching the Indian in me into silence, seclusion until it is time for that Indian to be brought into the light again.  Now is that time. ‘Peeyeswak’! (Thunder)  ‘Peeyeswak’!

I have been taught to tell the truth. Sometimes I am more successful at this than other times. But I have a responsibility to tell the truth especially to my Indian self, my cultural self and beloved ancestry. This tenure process has been damaging. It is colonialism living inside my head, like a fuzzy fungus that causes confusion and unease and pain. At first I did not recognize this invasive discomfort until I actually sat down and moved to that deep place and began thinking – thinking with all of myself represented, speaking with the Indian in me. ‘kee nan skomitin’ (Thank you) I say to myself.

I have a responsibility to those who have come before me, to honour, validate and acknowledge and stand them up. This must be done first. These are my ways, my ways of knowing, doing, being. My Indian self comes into the light and screams joyously: ‘Ka kee oni wa ga ma gannuck’ (All my relations).

Shanne McCaffrey is a Senior Instructor in The School of Child and Youth Care, Faculty of Social Development, University of Victoria, British Columbia.


Equity Matters


Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts in this blog post. You made so many thoughtful comments. I am glad to read that the committee made the right decision. I am troubled, though, to keep on hearing of ways in which racialized people and some women get tenure with the scars to prove it.

I'm a graduate student at UVic and I think this is amazing. Your bravery is an inspiration. Thank you for telling your story.

Miigwech for your commentary on your experiences with the tenure process. I think there is much that you have said that is similar to the experiences of many Indigenous peoples who take up work in the academy. I just completed my doctorate last year and part of my research involved speaking with Indigenous academics who said things similar to what you have expressed.

I having a blog on Indigenous education and if you would like to repost this I think others would also like to read it. All the best and again miigwech for sharing.

Thanks to all of you for your good words. I have been receiving a lot of interest about this story and this seems to be a larger issue than I had even realized. Sheila, and others please feel free to repost these on your blog, or networks. If others can find value or commonality in this story, it would be worth it. We need to start the conversation of this process and how we can work in better ways that honour Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being in the Academy. "Kee nan skee motin awow" Thank you all, Shanne McCaffrey

Dear Shanne, your words are inspiring. I admire you very much for walking that path with such integrity. This post should be widely shared and I am sure so many others can relate to the struggle. This is only the beginning of a very long and urgently-needed conversation.