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Marie Battiste: Mi’kmaq Scholar and Thought Leader in Indigenous Knowledge Awarded Honorary Officer of the Order of Canada

By Shannon Cossette

In May 2019, Dr Marie Battiste (EdD) was attending a conference when she received a phone call from the Governor General’s office. She was both surprised and pleased to learn that she had been selected to be an Officer of the Order of Canada. On June 27, 2019, a public announcement was posted on the Governor General’s website of the awardees and Marie received her official pin by mail. A more lavish affair, originally scheduled for February 2020, has been postponed to a later date due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Being among the very few Indigenous men and women in Canada to have received this honour, I feel deeply honoured to be among these greats,” she said. “Only one other Mi’kmaq has received this, Rita Joe of Eskasoni, the late great poet whose life is lived still in her writings and poetry about her years in residential school. My life has been enriched by hers and others as notable as Leroy Littlebear, Blackfoot scholar, Elder and statesman, and Cindy Blackstock, leader and activist. So, to reach this level, I am humbled by the recognition of my writing, my talks, and activism to change systems and structures to honour, respect and include Indigenous knowledge, languages and peoples in their systems.”

Battiste was born and raised in Houlton, Maine. Her parents, John and Annie Battiste with their three other children - Eleanor, Thomas, and Geraldine, went to Maine as migrant labourers helping the local farmers picking potatoes, much like everyone else did in Houlton. They remained there, raising their children to benefit from an education that was not available on reserve.  After her parents saw all their children graduate from high school in Maine and Marie having earned two degrees, they returned to their ancestral community of Chapel Island, Nova Scotia now called Potlotek First Nation.

“I am a federally recognized citizen of Mi’kmaq First Nation in Canada and a federally recognized citizen of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Maine,” she said. “My status as to whether I was a Canadian citizen defined which of the statuses I received, honorary or regular. I am a First Nation member of Potlotek First Nation and a treaty signatory of the Queen, though technically, I am a USA-born citizen.”

Battiste attended the University of Maine, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree and receiving a teacher’s certificate in both elementary and junior high education. She went on to receive a Master’s degree from Harvard (Master of Education in administration and social policy) where she also met her husband James Youngblood Henderson who was in Harvard Law School. They both went on to teach at the University of California Berkeley and she later went on to earn her Doctorate in curriculum and teacher education from Stanford University.

After receiving her Doctorate, Battiste returned with her family to Nova Scotia, and worked for 10 years (1983-93) with Mi’kmaw schools in Potlotek First Nation and then Eskasoni First Nation.  After ensuring Mi’kmaw language and cultural education were solidly in the schools, she began her journey at USask in what was then known as the Indian and Northern Education Program in the College of Education. 

Battiste’s scholarship began taking root in decolonization and language education, working to advance education of social and cognitive justice. Her extensive work teaching, supervising graduate students, committee work on and off campuses, grants, research and publications, international speaking, and much more have generated the foundation for her multiple awards and four honorary degrees. Among the major awards, Battiste was named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2013, received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 2008 and earned USask’s Distinguished Researcher Award in 2005.

After 27 years, Marie Battiste retired from the university and has reflected on her time spent at USask, and some of the changes that she has seen. 

“Indeed, there have been several significant changes in the university and I feel proud to have been part of many of them,” she said.

Battiste points to significant changes such as the 1996 SSHRC Summer Institute titled Cultural Restoration of Oppressed Indigenous Peoples which led to the start of reclamation of Indigenous knowledges that has been leading a change, not just in Canada, but internationally.

A year after the Summer Institute, when pressure and lobbying began for an Indigenous student space, the university was given one million dollars by Ted and Margaret Newall. Years later, after a somewhat arduous process, the university sought additional donor funding to build the Gordon Oakes Red Bear Student Centre.

Battiste said the wahkohtowin conference in 2014, was significant to celebrating the multiple changes at USask, from including Indigenous peoples and worldviews in all areas of the university, and eventually establishing the position of Vice-Provost Indigenous Engagement held by Dr Jacqueline Ottmann (PhD), and the development of new standards for promotion and tenure for Indigenous faculty working in and with Indigenous knowledges.

“The development of a research centre, the Aboriginal Education Research Centre for which I was the first research director, has had a significant impact in education through the development of the Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre,” Battiste said. “That was a multimillion-dollar national project and the beginning of an international land-based education project under Dr Alex Wilson (PhD) the next research director of AERC, completed with a master’s and a PhD in land-based education.”

Although retirement was on the calendar for 2020, rest and relaxation do not seem to be in Battiste’s immediate plans for the future.

“My projects seem to keep on growing, though relaxing would be nice,” she said. “At the moment, I am in the first year of a seven-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership project on Thinking Historically, which is to assess history education across Canada and in particular for my purposes, to assess how and what Indigenous knowledges and histories are being taught in K-12 schools across Canada, what methods are being used for that, what teacher training is being applied to this area across teacher education, and what resources, methods and challenges do teachers have in working with Indigenous histories, knowledges, civic engagement and thinking historically.”

“As a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellow, I am involved in mentoring new scholars in the foundation through providing guidance, and knowledge mobilization,” she added. “My committee work continues with the Royal Society of Canada to decolonize its knowledges, diversify its membership, and address its systemic discrimination. Finally, my partner Sakej and I are also working on the next edition of our book Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage, in the coming year.”

Battiste considers her career to have been a time of “self-discovery, a persistent path of caring, loving, parenting, listening, planning, composing, serving, assessing, supervising, searching and researching, writing and rewriting, continually etching out a program that became a life quest for justice in many areas including Indigenous languages and knowledges.”

“I have engaged my learning spirit to work toward deep listening and being honest about my own quests and my limits,” she said. “I have had too-numerable-to-count great conversations with many faculty, staff and students in the university and met some wonderful people who make up our university and its communities and have truly been blessed with deep friendships and advocates.  People, systems, and weather have made my years both challenging and rewarding and helped shape many of my decisions. I thank them all for helping me in my self-discovery.”

Battiste humbly shared her thoughts regarding the future of students, communities and Indigenous languages when asked. Future Indigenous students pursuing their dreams, education, and language can feel her gift of experience in these words.

“I am definitely going to keep learning, writing, researching and working towards inclusion and respect for our Indigenous communities and our languages and knowledges,” she said. “That is my gift and my purpose.”

I would tell the new Indigenous students that they are at the beginning of a life of discovery of their own many gifts and their purposes, and each day they need to honour those even if they have not found them yet or know what they are. They need to respect themselves, their bodies, minds and spirits, and know that even when they don’t, they’re still there to guide them through the forest or whatever looks dark or difficult. Do the best you can at everything you try was all my dad told me.”

Publication and Life Highlights:

Asked about what has been her publication and life highlights, she shared, “My book Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit was my first more autobiographical, philosophical and practical writing. I finally had reached the place where I could step back and reflect on what I had been through as a Mi’kmaq, as an educator, and as a scholar and not treat the writing as scholarly output but as a teaching moment for myself. I think that readers would find an honest reflection on colonization, resilience, and Eurocentrism and the hope of Indigenous peoples, the inspiration for the decolonization of education and practical activism for reconciliation.”

Battiste’s love for her family is evident and she honoured them by sharing these thoughts:

“My husband, James Youngblood (Sakej) Henderson has been my true partner and life highlight throughout our long journey at the university with his being in the Native Law Centre.  We have enjoyed partnerships of all kinds, and raising our children has been a joy that continues. Our son Jaime Youngmedicine is a Member of Parliament from Victoria-Sydney, Nova Scotia riding; my daughter Mariah Sundaylace is an online beading entrepreneur of Sundaylace Creations, and Annie Wintersong is an education consultant in Saskatoon. Our sole grandson Jacoby Youngblood is a Mi’kmaw immersion school graduate and entering the sixth grade.”