Maamwi. Together. Ensemble. This is how we understand the past and learn to move forward hand-in-hand as a community. Listening, understanding and initiating change are all crucial to how we move forward together. Karen J. Pheasant-Neganigwane (BA ’03, BA ’11) felt the courage to reach out to Laurentian University and pursue her post-secondary studies due to that feeling of togetherness she felt on campus in Sudbury, in the early 2000s.
Karen grew up in Toronto, with a start in Cabbagetown, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood of Toronto, where her dad worked on building the Yonge Street subway line. Her dad left his community of Wiikwemkoong First Nation, on Manitoulin Island, Ontario in 1951, returning to meet Karen’s mom, have children together, and raise their family back in Toronto. This is a feat unheard of in those days, as First Nations people were thought best to keep on reserve only. The family always maintained strong ties to their home on Manitoulin Island, but they made the move for a better life. Her parents wanted to keep her and her siblings away from the residential schools, because they had survived them, and they wanted their children to be able to speak English.
One of Karen’s favourite memories as a child was when she was eight years old. Her mother and aunt made her a powwow dress, which she wore and took to the middle of the dancefloor, making her feel powerful. At the time, in the sixties, Indigenous people were ashamed of being themselves and wearing their traditional dress. “I didn’t have to be ashamed of who I was,” says Karen. “It lifted my spirit. This is how I achieved bliss and found my blessing, in our dancing.” She was a Jingle dancer into adulthood, dancing competitively all over North America.
Karen did return to Wiikwemkoong as a young woman in her early twenties, in 1983, to further connect with the land and the people. She stayed long enough to raise her own children and grandchildren.
As a single parent, Karen was looking to further her education as a mature student when she was pleased to discover a large mature Anishinabek community at Laurentian University. She graduated with a BA in Political Science at Laurentian in 2003, then she took to focus both on her dance and being a part of her home community. A few years later, she decided to pursue a BA in English Literature at Laurentian, graduating from the program in 2011.
She was unfamiliar with the protocols and system of the educational institution; it was a foreign construct for her. She didn’t know how to write an essay or how to format it in a MLA or APA style. What Karen did have was a great community of professors and fellow students to back her up and help her out. She was especially thankful for professors, the late Lloyd Wagner, Hoi Cheu, Bruce Dadey, Susan Glover, Patti Brace, Shannon Hengen, and Alexis Shotwell, among many others, particularly in the English Literature program. “I had some amazing professors at Laurentian,” says Karen. “Those professors are not just recognized scholars; they are human beings with compassion and they were approachable to all, including marginalized students. I sat down with each one of my professors and they gave me the courage to believe I could be a confident and intelligent individual.”
At this point in her life, she had two degrees but no clear direction other than knowing it was her time to leave her home of Wiikwemkoong First Nation, as she was in search of a better life. She was hesitant to leave her family, her mother and her home, but she had to find work. She had gained work experience as a Sessional Instructor with Cambrian College for the Business Management Program, through Kenjgewin Teg on Mnidoo Mnising, Manitoulin Island (2001-2002), and the University of Victoria with the Fine Arts Department, through the En’owkin International School of Writing and Fine Arts in Penticton, British Columbia (2003).
After applying to various positions with universities across Canada, Karen took the opportunity to move to Alberta. She worked for two years to earn her Master of Education in Indigenous Peoples Education at the University of Alberta. Then she accepted a position as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Primary Instructor in the Department of Education, at the same university.
The move was not easy, as she faced racism and discrimination as an Indigenous woman in the education sector, and in her new city. This was not new to her and she could have been upset about it, but she chose to continue on her own journey and not own the miseducation of those around her. She echoes the words of the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, the former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), who is now a member of the Canadian Senate, in saying: “Education is the key to reconciliation. Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out of this mess” (CBC, 2015).
She later taught as a Sessional Instructor in the Department of English at MacEwan University, in 2016. She was also a Sessional Instructor for the Indian Teacher Education Program with the University of Saskatchewan at the time (2015 –2017), and shortly after taught Anishinaabe Studies with Algoma University (2016).
Karen is now an Assistant Professor (cross appointment) with the Faculty of Teaching and Learning, as well as the Faculty of Arts at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. She is also currently working toward earning a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in the Indigenous Peoples Education Program through the University of Alberta.
She published her first book in April 2020, Powwow: A Celebration through Song and Dance. The book is in its second distribution and it has been nominated for a 2021 Yellow Cedar Award by the Ontario Library Association (October 2020), which celebrates English non-fiction available to youth readers aged 9 to 14, in grades 4 to 8. “Powwow is a celebration of Indigenous song and dance. It’s a journey through the history of powwow culture in North America, from its origins in colonization, the Indian Act and the Wild West shows of the late 1800s to the thriving powwow culture of today. As a lifelong competitive powwow dancer, Karen Pheasant-Neganigwane is a guide to the protocols, regalia, songs, dances and even food you can find at powwows from coast to coast, as well as the important role they play in Indigenous culture and reconciliation,” (Orca Book Publishers, 2020).
Karen’s daughter, Sophie Pheasant, is also a Laurentian University graduate (BA ’17), an educator, and is currently teaching on a sessional basis at Queen’s University in the Faculty of Education.