June 29, 2021

Wellness research puts Indigenous students' voices first

Grad student Keeta Gladue uses traditional forms of storytelling and iconography to evaluate Indigenous experiences
Keeta Gladue
Keeta Gladue

For Keeta Gladue, a graduate student in the Faculty of Social Work, her Indigenous identity is inseparable from her research and her chosen career.

“I’m not a social worker who is Indigenous; I’m an Indigenous social worker,” says Gladue, BSW’19.

Gladue has been awarded a prestigious Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant for her research exploring the experiences of Indigenous post-secondary students who have accessed and utilized the University of Calgary’s mental health and wellness supports.

Her graduate research is built on foundational research she completed during her bachelor’s degree, in which she asked Indigenous students to share their suggestions and evaluations of mental health and wellness services at UCalgary. Her research found that many students were in fact aware of these services, but chose not to access them for three primary reasons: they had spoken with someone who accessed these supports and did not find them to be helpful; they did not want to take resources away from someone who needed them more; or they did not have time to access them.

With this information in hand, Gladue is now taking her research one step further, asking Indigenous students what are the things that work in those mental health and wellness supports, what are the things that don't work, what are the things that need to be developed, and what do they want those supports to look like. Her research makes an active effort to treat these students as experts on the subject, as she feels that Indigenous people are often pathologized when it comes to mental health, in particular by non-Indigenous researchers.

“I’m centring the voices of Indigenous peoples as the experts of understanding support systems at the University of Calgary, because you can’t evaluate differences in things like social determinants of health without recognizing how racism and colonization and patriarchy have created these determinants for Indigenous peoples,” Gladue says.

“The two biggest things for me are that I Indigenize and decolonize my work,” she says of her goals. Gladue is doing this through the utilization of traditional Indigenous oral and visual storytelling. Her survey gives participants the opportunity to answer questions using symbols that have been created for this project, as well as orally record their answers. Upon completion of her research, Gladue is planning to create symbols that represent the knowledge and stories that have been shared and will eventually give those symbols back to the land to close the circle.

“Decolonizing is breaking apart the system that supports colonization and the patriarchal understanding of knowledge,” says Gladue.

Being awarded the SSHRC grant provides Gladue with the opportunity to complete her research well, “meaning that I can pay honoraria to the people who are contributing to this work, and it also means that I can take some time off to just write this,” she says. But, more importantly, Gladue feels being awarded the grant gives her the opportunity to pave the way for the next Indigenous researcher.

“Helping make way for the next Indigenous researcher to pursue different paths for their research, something that is considered non-traditional, is the most important thing for me,” she says. “I’ve been granted this opportunity through SSHRC, in helping make the way clearer and more accessible for the next person who is going to apply. I did this for my cousins, because we are still doing twice as much work for half as much recognition.”

In June, Canadians celebrate National Indigenous History Month to honour the history, heritage and diversity of Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is also an opportunity to recognize the strength of present-day Indigenous communities. 

National Indigenous History Month is a time for learning about, appreciating and acknowledging the contributions First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have made in shaping Canada. 

The Government of Canada recognizes the importance and sacred nature of cultural ceremonies and celebrations that usually occur during this time. While celebrations and events for National Indigenous History Month may be different this year than those in the past, we can still share and learn from stories, traditions and culture in new ways that keep us together and connected.