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Winona Stevenson [right]
In the midst of a box-filled house barely unpacked from her recent return from California, Winona Stevenson kicked aside a box so we could visit. I immediately felt comfortable with this incredibly successful and confident role model. Throughout the course of the interview, Winona revealed her personable nature as she spoke modestly of the various challenges and achievements she has encountered over the years.
Winona has recently completed the course work requirements for her PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) at the University of California, Berkley campus. She has just returned home to Saskatchewan to complete her PhD dissertation and resume teaching in the Native Studies Department at the University of Saskatchewan. Until last month, Winona was the only Aboriginal person holding a tenure track position at the College of Arts and Sciences at the U of S. She is quite happy to announce a new member of the Department, Patricia Monture-Okanee from the law school in Ottawa.
During the course of Winona's studies, she received continuous encouragement, love, and support from her family, friends and community. She stresses that without this support she could never have made it through university.
Winona was born in April of 1958 and is the single parent mother of 16 year old Theresa who presently attends Joe Duquette High School. Her mother, Bernelda Wheeler (nee Pratt, comes from Gordon's First Nation, Saskatchewan and is a well-known journalist and author. Winona married into the Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba, and is still a Band Member there. She speaks with pride of her younger brother, Jordan Wheeler who has written a number of books and is presently the story editor of the CBC show "North of 60" (her niece and nephew are also on the show, Erol Kinistino's Kids).
Stevenson describes her high school experience as very difficult. "In the '70s, very few of us made it through High school," she says, School had little to offer so she dropped out in grade ten. "When I was in High school I had absolutely no aspirations to go to University, it was like Mars," she reflected.
After she quit school Winona travelled and participated in many Aboriginal rallys, protests, and sit-ins yet she realized something more had to be done. "Rallys and protests will only take us so far. What we need are people with skills to fight the system on it's own terms".
In 1978, Winona was hired by the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs as a land claims researcher and paralegal. During those two and one-half years working for UBCIC, her belief in the importance of education was reaffirmed. She felt her lack of education would hinder her efforts to help First Nations people. "It really, really, worried me that I was not able to do for my people as good as I could. I wanted to do everything I could for them, I didn't want to let them down".
Winona left UBCIC to go back to school to acquire the skills that would equip her to help fight the system that inflicted so much damage on the First Nations People: "I wanted to go back to school to go into history in order to arm myself with their skills and their knowledge to be able to fight them on their turf."
In 1981, Stevenson entered the University of Manitoba. During her first year of study, she struggled to adjust to a foreign institution: "In my first year...I fought my whole way through because I was fighting so hard to hang on to who I was and everything I believed in." Despite the battles she excelled in her studies and completed her degree in 1986. She admits that after those first years at university, her attitude toward knowledge changed: "I learned to question in ways I had never learned how to question before" she states, and she discovered the value of critical thinking and multiple perspectives.
In 1986, Winona began the Masters Program in the history department at the University of British Columbia. She wrote her thesis on the "The Emergence of a Native Ministry in the Church Missionary Society". She recalls that her "grandmother is the one who gave me direction on my Masters Thesis." As a child she was raised with stories about her great, great grandfather, Charles Pratt or Askenootow, who was an interpreter for Treaty Four and the first Native Missionary in Western Canada. The knowledge Stevenson acquired through oral tradition as a child was essential to her thesis research and her life long studies.
Once her Masters Program was completed, the University of Saskatchewan hired her under the Affirmative Action Program as Assistant Professor in the Native Studies Department. According to Winona, teaching Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan has been a good experience so far, yet she feels there is a stigma attached to being an Affirmative Action employee.
"I didn't want that [stigma] to remain... so when I was hired I made it clear that I intended to get a PhD in a few years". After teaching for three years, she went on education leave from the University of Saskatchewan and entered an Inter-disciplinary PhD Program at the University of California, Berkeley campus (Ethnic Studies, History, Native American Studies).
Stevenson has successfully completed the course work and exams for her PhD and has returned to Saskatoon to teach and finish her dissertation.
In looking back over the years spent in University, Winona believes she faced a number of obstacles as an Aboriginal student. "There was overt racism in my undergraduate years...the racism got more covert and subtle as I progressed through my degrees. I found as a graduate student I was being patronized, people wouldn't challenge me, so I had to challenge them to challenge me," she states. Throughout the course of her studies, Stevenson continuously resisted the barriers of racism and discrimination.
Having almost reached the pinnacle of her academic studies, Winona views the educational institutions as somewhat narrow and closed. "They perceive knowledge to be a certain form ...with very little room for other kinds of knowledge," she says. Universities often do not credit Oral Tradition as valid history. In looking at the value and worth of Oral Tradition as valid history. In looking at the value and worth of Oral Tradition, Winona finds this practise ironic. "My - own people have their own philosophies of history, their own forms of history, and their own views of what constitutes historic events," she says, "what I have found really painful was here I was a Native historian, learning how to be a historian according to western tradition to understand my own people's history."
According to Winona, the most intriguing challenge she faces for the future is "to pursue Indigenous knowledge without the constraints and the paranoia of the Academy holding me back." Currently, Stevenson is working on revising her Masters thesis into a publishable manuscript.
Towards the end of our conversation Winona stressed the importance of education for all Aboriginal people. Stevenson strongly encourages the families, communities, and the Chief and Councils of students to provide concrete support-students so often feel alone and alienated by the academic community and their own people when they enter post secondary institutions.
She urges the Aboriginal community to encourage their students, be there for them, to welcome them and show their appreciation when they return home. She quips, "jobs would be nice."
Tracy Robinson has recently graduated from Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, where she majored in Indian Studies. She is presently pursuing graduate studies.