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Indigenous Scholar Dr. Cary Miller.

Indigenous scholar Dr. Cary Miller. // Photo by David Lipnowski.

Head of Native Studies wants to reframe discussions around power relationships in history

Meet Dr. Cary Miller, Department Head of Native Studies

December 6, 2019 — 

It’s hard to keep up with Dr. Cary Miller. Since arriving at the University of Manitoba in 2017, the Anishinaabe leader has been working non-stop to Indigenize the campus.

As head of the department of Native studies, Dr. Miller is responsible for making sure the department grows in ways that support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, the Manitoba Collaborative Indigenous Education Blueprint, the University of Manitoba Strategic Plan 2015-2020 and other local and provincial agreements. She has worked to make Anishinaabemowin, Cree, Dakota and Michif language classes available on campus. Dr. Miller has also served as a University Senator, on the Faculty of Arts executive, and on numerous committees such as the committee that put forward the recommendations on Indigenous senior leadership, a Task Force on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Senate Planning and Priorities committee.

UM Today had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Cary Miller to ask her a few questions.

Tell us where you came from.

My heritage is from the St. Croix communities in Wisconsin and Leech Lake in Minnesota. I was adopted in 1970 by my non-Indigenous parents. My parents never hid my background from me. They worked as educators and were very kind. I was adopted into a community, which consisted primarily of blonde Scandinavian kids. It was really tough. I remember I would get asked at the playground to do an Indian rain dance. My parents never knew how to talk me through it because they had never experienced racism.

I always knew that I would learn about myself and identity as an adult. I started doing this in my 20s. During my undergraduate degree, there were no Indigenous classes. This is part of what motivated me to get graduate degrees and bring those classes into the academy. I finished my MA in 1995 and PhD in 2004. I would say between 1995 and 2004 is when Native studies departments and courses started becoming much more common.

What brought you to the University of Manitoba?

I felt like I was just a checked box, even after teaching at the University of Wisconsin for 15 years. I had trouble getting the opportunity to teach graduate courses on Indigenous content history because the history department did not consider this important for their graduate students to learn. In 15 years, I was asked to do one guest lecture in a U.S. history course. It was very much, “We are so glad you’re in our department and have all this Indigenous history, but we don’t see what that has to do with U.S. history.”

Reconciliation in Canada has changed that narrative. As colonial nations, both the United States and Canada have taught history that is not complete – history that is an origin myth rather than a true accounting. Reconciliation embraced as widely as it is in Canada holds the possibility that we may move to an honest narrative of the historical past from kindergarten to higher education. Helping us move toward that goal is something I really wanted to be involved in.

What are your priorities for the department and/or campus?  

I am strongly involved in providing education for faculty members across the university. It is part of the university’s strategic plan to increase the infusion of Indigenous content into courses across the curriculum; however, many of our faculty have not been trained in this content and so are hesitant to adjust their syllabi, justifiably fearing that they could misstep and unintentionally reinforce misconceptions out of unintentional ignorance rather than move reconciliation forward.

To address this, our faculty has been involved in delivering training across the university through workshops, drop-ins, book clubs and teach-ins, but none of our initiatives has been as important or as effective as the Summer Institute. We held it last summer over 10 weeks from April through June for 30 faculty members. Exit surveys show that most will be revising courses as a result. We did sessions on culture, historical context, common academic stereotypes, fragility, privilege, microaggressions, barriers faced by Indigenous students, as well as a full day in the community at Turtle Lodge at Sagkeeng First Nation. Each week, faculty had assigned readings and the opportunity to write response papers to address topics they missed raising during class. I have applied for funding to run this institute four times within the next three years during the summer and the school year so more faculty will have the opportunity to participate.

The department of Native studies also has drop-in hours every other week for faculty and staff to come and ask questions about reconciliation and decolonization, their course content and assignments, and other questions they may have concerning Indigenous content. Through such programs, we are helping faculty to see that infusion of Indigenous content is more than just cultural awareness – it requires an Indigenous content literacy that will help them see where they need to adjust the narrative not just since 1492, but wherever settler colonialism is expressed in western sources. The impetus to colonize and exploit did not spring forth as a new thing at contact; it has deep roots that we need to more consciously and critically engage with in our classrooms.  So while some are modifying their classes to include discussion of Treaty 1 signers or Louis Riel’s inner circle, others are discussing Roman expansion in terms of settler colonialism – and that is part of reconciliation too. Reconciliation is not just reframing how we discuss Indigenous people; it is about how we reframe discussions around power relationships in history, in classrooms, in practicums and in contemporary Canada.

What advice would you have for Indigenous students?

Believe in yourself. Every day, we are making the university a more inclusive place for Indigenous students, where you don’t have to leave your identity at the door but can be your full truest self on our campus. We may not be there yet, but we are getting there. Know that folks like myself, Christine Cyr, Catherine Cook, Ruth Shead and many others are here working for you daily.

Eager to learn more about reconciliation? Check out the book club hosted by the department of Native studies. Dr. Miller will present at the next event on her book, Ogimaag: Anishnaabe Leadership 1763-1845, on Dec. 11 in room 111 in St. John’s College.

Dr. Miller will also be a panellist for Visionary Conversations – “What does a decolonized Canada look like?” This event also takes place on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

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