For years, Sherry Pictou doubted she would ever find the time to pursue her doctorate.
“I always wanted to do my PhD, but there was a time when I thought, ‘well, that’s just not going to happen,’” says Sherry, a Mi’kmaw woman from L’sitkuk (Bear River First Nation) near Annapolis and Digby counties in Nova Scotia.
She’d completed three different degrees in the late 1980s and early- to mid-1990s, including a master’s at Dal, but had returned home thereafter to work in the community.
It was the beginning of a 15-year journey that included time as a community councillor and even a term as chief in the early 2000s. Eventually, she moved into the policy arena, taking on roles as an advisor and consultant.
As busy as she was, a chance encounter with Dal Social Anthropology Professor Brian Noble visiting the community got her thinking again about going back to school. A few years later, she took the plunge and enrolled in the Interdisciplinary PhD program at Dal in 2012.
Connecting academia and her community
Rather than beginning an entirely new chapter, Sherry, who graduates this Saturday, was able to link her doctoral research closely to her community work.
Much of that work has been dedicated to exploring Indigenous perspectives on how to implement rights laid out in the 1760-1761 “Peace and Friendship” Treaties signed between European settlers and Indigenous peoples, particularly those related to fishing and food.
Sherry’s research has used a pair of 1999 Supreme Court of Canada rulings, collectively referred to as the Marshall Decision, as a jumping off point. The decision was originally heralded as a win for Indigenous communities in that it upheld treaty rights to building a livelihood in the fishery, but political and economic problems arose when it came to negotiating the implementation of those rights.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Sherry set out in her PhD to explore some of the challenges and different perspectives of her community and their allies on the issue.
“It brings voice to these people that are otherwise excluded in formal processes,” she says of her thesis. “These voices often get pre-empted by an . . . interpretation of what the treaty rights stand for. In any of the negotiation processes, it’s all about exploitation for economic benefit.”
A more holistic lens
Sherry says she’s uncovered a much broader interpretation of Treaty Rights at the community level.
“It’s more in line with the ancestral understanding of the treaties, which is basically ‘how are we going to live on this land with each other and how are we going to share the land and how are we going to share it sustainably?’” she says.
Entering into Dal’s Interdisciplinary program offered Sherry the kind of flexibility she was after, allowing her to take a more holistic approach to the topic. She was able to draw upon a diversity of fields such as social anthropology and international development studies as well environmental studies and adult education, but to also filter it through an Indigenous perspective.
She says it helped that there has been a boom in Indigenous scholarship over the past few years and that her advisers, Dr. Noble and International Development Studies Professor John Cameron, were extremely open to her methodology, which included using the concept of traditional basket weaving as a conceptual framework for her thesis.
Focus on relationships
As she wraps up her time at Dal, Sherry remains engaged in a number of projects, including an Indigenous mentoring program at Dal and a food project at Mount Saint Vincent University. She plans to focus much of her coming academic work on Indigenous women’s understandings of treaty rights and their role in land-based practices for food and lifeways.
“It’s well known that the resurgence, if not the restoring, of our relationships with the land is going to be necessary to transform those structures that exploit the land,” she says. “We are going to need that for our survival, and we need to focus on what Indigenous women’s roles are in that.”
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