Aboriginal Women Practicing Leadership

Susan Dion

I work in an academic institution and a few years ago I was being considered for tenure. As part of my process I was required to attend a meeting of my faculty’s Tenure and Promotions Committee and present my case. Reflecting on my first five years working as teacher/researcher in the university, I was supposed to build a case that would prove to the committee that the work I had accomplished met the university’s standard for tenure and promotion. Participating in this Euro-informed practice caused me to think about the work of Aboriginal women who were my mentors and guides. Rather than assess my accomplishments against the demands of the university, I asked myself: “Does my work contribute to and is it informed by the ways in which Aboriginal women practise leadership in our communities?”

My understanding of leadership as practised by Aboriginal women is derived from my experiences working with, reading, listening to, and sometimes observing from a distance the work of Aboriginal women. Aboriginal leadership is informed by what I refer to as the “Four Rs of Aboriginal Education”: remembering, relationship, responsibility and reciprocity. These concepts cannot be separated; they intertwine and inform each other.

As Aboriginal women, remembering who we are, and honouring our ways of knowing and being, is difficult and purposeful work crucial to our survival. We work in relationship with each other, recovering our languages and our ways of knowing. We take our responsibilities to past and future generations seriously. We work cognizant of the concept of reciprocity, never taking without giving back. In this article, I share the stories of women I look to as mentors and guides, women who practise and contribute to my understanding of Aboriginal leadership.

Remembering and leadership

In her book Indigenous Storywork , teacher-educator Jo-ann Archibald of the Sto:lo Nation writes about her learning journey, which began with a dream.

“I needed to learn how to hear what the Elders had told me in the dream. After learning how to listen to the stories, I was expected to use their cultural knowledge and to share it with others, thereby ensuring its continuation. Important knowledge and wisdom contain power, if one comes to understand and appreciate the power of a particular knowledge, then one must be ready to share and teach it respectfully and responsibly to others in order for this knowledge, and its power to continue.” 2

Archibald explains that her cultural values, beliefs, lessons, and understandings are formed through learning relationships with Elders. Recognizing that Indigenous stories lost educational and social value due to colonization, Archibald works with Elders and Indigenous scholars to find ways of respectfully placing First Nations stories within academic and educational settings. She insists



women sitting at tables

How do you demonstrate the power of language to students weaned on a diet of dramatic and engaging visuals? I have them close their eyes and picture an image to accompany the famous words of British poet, Robert Browning: "A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Classroom full of students overseas

Project Overseas. These words hung in the back of my mind for almost a decade.