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Trudy Cardinal – Who can I be?

Author: Carolina Capelo Garcia 

As we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, we speak to Dr Trudy Cardinal – mother, grandmother, sister and daughter – Associate Professor of the University of Alberta, Canada, and co-editor of Frontiers in Education’s Research Topic on Assessment Practices with Indigenous Children, Youth, Families, and Communities. As Trudy shares her vastly different experience as an Indigenous person, we thank her, we listen and we learn. 

Photo credit: University of Alberta

Who is Trudy Cardinal, and what was it like growing up as an Indigenous person?

“I identify myself as Cree-Métis, and I was born in northern Alberta, Canada. According to the way the governments identify people, to be part of the Métis nation of Alberta, you have to do your genealogy and track your ancestry back to Indigenous people that were connected to the Louis Riel rebellion, the first stories of who Métis people are. My mom’s dad, my mooshoom – how we say grandfather – was Métis, a trapper with a little cabin on free land by the lake. So I grew up living that lifestyle with my mom and my mooshoom as a Métis person. And my mom’s mom, my koohkoom, had married this Métis man and lost her First Nation status. She was First Nation from Wabasca-Desmarais, Big Stone Cree Nation. So we grew up just as Indigenous people and didn’t do the identification method until I was an adult. In both family trees I could trace myself back to Cree and Métis ancestry, and I identify myself as Cree-Métis to honor those brilliant strong Indigenous Cree women that I come from, but also the Métis and that lifestyle and all the cultural aspects that we grew up living, understanding and knowing. I refuse to drop one or the other.

“I grew up in a small community in northern Alberta, with not a lot of money but a really strong extended family: I was always with cousins and doing group things like picking berries and gathering together for family events. Yet because I grew up in small communities, most of my elementary and junior high was between Wabasca and Slave Lake, small towns where there was no university and I didn’t imagine this lifestyle. I didn’t know about research, but I did know I could become a teacher! Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher and that’s what I ended up pursuing. I had only one Indigenous teacher in all my career – in grade four – and I think that inspired me to see that it was possible. At the age of 16 I had my daughter and thought that that dream could have been lost, but I had a beautiful vice-principle who said “I could, of course,  still go to university”, and so I did. And I taught for 13 years but wasn’t satisfied with how education was being lived out in my world at the time. I thought that there was something better or more, and so I came back to university and that is where I am now – an Associate Professor of the University of Alberta in elementary education. 

“My passions are Indigenous young women and the ways they negotiate their identity. I like to think of literacy, honoring other ways of creating, communicating, and showing our knowledge and wisdom.”

“As I became a grandmother, just before I became a professor, I shifted focus and started thinking of all the skills I didn’t have as an Indigenous woman, as a grandmother, the skills that my aunties, my koohkooms, my mooshooms and even my mom had. I shifted a bit to start to enquire into that part of who I am.”

Your work on “For All My Relations, An Autobiographical Narrative Inquiry into the Lived Experiences of One Aboriginal Graduate Student” (2010), opens with a chapter called “Not the Indian I had in mind”. How have your past education experiences as an aboriginal person paved the way to your future as a Cree-Métis educator? 

“Growing up, I didn’t always live in my mom’s community. Because I wasn’t First Nations and at the time didn’t actually belong to a Métis settlement, I was sort of always in between. And whenever I tried to think about who I was as an Indigenous person I didn’t really fit a category. Thomas King has a beautiful video where he created a skit listing all the different kinds of Indians and unpacking it a little more, saying “I’m not the Indian you had in mind” (2007). It was the first time I had somebody famous capturing that sense of how I lived in the world. This articulated beautifully that I am Indigenous.

“My original Master’s thesis was going to be an enquiry into Métis children’s books. I was starting to feel uneasy. I was in Indigenous Peoples’ education because I wanted to learn more, but in the program itself there weren’t many answers. Once again, I didn’t fit in, because they talked a lot about going back to community and I had been distant from my mom’s community. There were a lot of beautiful ethics to live by to honor Elders and I hadn’t learned all those teachings. We lived it but we didn’t articulate it. Based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I started to think how young Indigenous women were portrayed today. And there was nothing about this ‘me’ who lived in town and visited.

“In the end, I switched to an autobiographical narrative enquiry, partly to understand who I was as an Indigenous scholar, because I wasn’t the kind that came from community, knew ceremony and knew Elders. And I couldn’t go as ‘me’ who lived in town and taught in a Catholic school for 13 years. I did an autobiographical enquiry that asked where those stories came from, what tension were present. I was able to think very deeply about narrative conceptions of identity: Who am I? Who am I becoming? What are the stories that shaped me? Once I had that, I could go back along Indigenous young women: I have a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a mom (we are a very matriarchal family). Finally, after I got to be alongside Elders, my unfolding as an Indigenous scholar happened slowly and organically.”

What does ‘telling, retelling, living, and reliving’ stories and experiences mean to you?

“Those terms come from the narrative enquiry, but they also come from the way I live in the world with stories. They are about that idea of slowing down, and then telling the story like my first memories of reading ‘Little House on the Prairie’ (Laura Wilder, 1932) and not knowing there were so many words about Indigenous people, a whole Indigenous story in that book. I can tell that story. And the next part is to unpack it and think what was going on, when it was written, who was I living, why I was I uncomfortable, how I knew I could be both, who was around me and which Indigenous people were influencing me… I got to unpack it all and retell it. I see what was happening to me as a little girl, I see why I had tensions.

“The living is about living that story through, living through the unpacking of it, through who am I now and how am I seeing differently; and then reliving means now I carry it differently. At the time I looked at it, we objectively had the poverty, the alcohol, the addiction… But what seems to be missing from that story is the love, the life with cousins, the closeness, the teachings that are embedded in how you just live together in that community way. So now I can look back and see all the gifts that were there.” 

“As Indigenous people, we are taught that our ancestors are looking over us and to have our house always open. Those are the ethics that I live by.”

A call is being made by the United Nations to end violence against Indigenous women and girls. What is the importance of voicing Indigenous women and how can these voices be heard?

“I lived with my grandmother for a few years, with my mooshoom as well, and as a granddaughter I was important to people and that really mattered to me. As I became older, I saw what a gift it was to have those people listen to you, to have them think you are capable. There is something beautiful about knowing that you are a needed part of a community, part of a family, and that you are really listened to. My passion is for those next generations to see that they are capable, it is possible to be things that you might not imagine immediately. But it is also really wanting for Indigenous women of all ages to see that they are beautiful and perfect just as they are. That life isn’t meant to be just perfect. Elder Bob has this story that as human beings we are four part people: we have our mental being, our spiritual, our emotional and our physical ones, and that the idea is to think about the balance between the four, but to remember that even an eagle flying in the sky is not always still – it’s always slightly adjusting – and that’s what it means to be human. This is a call we can’t ignore. Once we start coming more and more together, rebuilding those strong communities of women deliberately with strength in that power and togetherness, we will be stronger than ever. There are pockets of hope and moments of beauty that I hang on to.”

As we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, what advice do you leave for young women representing Indigenous peoples around the world?

“You are exactly who you are supposed to be. You are born into the exact time that has needed you. There is a beautiful book by Tasha Spillet called ‘I Sang You Down from the Stars’ (2021), and it is that sense that as Indigenous people and as Cree people we are star people, we’ve come from the stars, and also the idea that every being was called down to be here. And these are the ways of being, knowing, and doing that are so beautifully embedded in some of the spirituality that I am just coming to know, some of that ethics and sense of self. So I would like them to honor and enquire into it playfully, gently, and with love, into who you are and who you want to be. Embrace the fully human experience. Have the emotion, seek that balance, find your gifts and know that they are exactly as they should be and that they are needed. Understand that there are possibilities and hope, even in places where it doesn’t seem hopeful. Keep being beautifully you because the world needs you. And whether you see it or not, there is someone watching you who is inspired.”

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

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