The Ring

Protecting the Sacred Cycle through leadership

Thu, 2011-06-02 14:14

Thomas. Photo: Ted Kuzemski.

Every Indigenous community has them: strong women who are the backbones of their families and communities. “Often these women are not acknowledged for their leadership roles,” says Robina Thomas (Qwul’sih’yah’maht), who this spring will become the first Coast Salish woman to graduate with a PhD from Indigenous Governance. “One, because they never look to be acknowledged and second because they are not in any formal type of leadership positions, but nonetheless they are leaders.”

Thomas's grandmother was the backbone of her family. Though she passed away in 1991, she continues to help Thomas, even giving her the inspiration for her doctoral topic.

“One night when I was having a bath, I was once again asking my grandmother to guide and direct me, 'help me pick a PhD topic,'” said Thomas, an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

The answer came as she reflected on her grandmother. As Thomas writes in her dissertation, "Protecting the Sacred Cycle: Xwulmuxw Slhunlheni [Indigenous Women] and Leadership," “She was gentle, kind and caring. She loved unconditionally. But what I remember most about my grandmother was that she lived her values and beliefs. Her life was rooted in her teachings.”

In honour of the role her grandmother played in her life, Thomas decided to focus her research on Xwulmuxw Slhunlheni (Indigenous Women) and leadership. In doing so, she examines the leadership roles of Indigenous women, and how the Indian Act stripped women of their traditional roles and imposed a form of governance that vested all power to male leadership

Thomas, who was born in Chilliwack and grew up in Zeballos, and is Lyackson, Snux’ney’muxw and Sto:lo, interviewed 13 women from Hul’qumi’num communities on Vancouver Island about leadership. Each of the women, who ranged in age from 19 to 86, brought up the idea of having a responsibility not only to the past because of what their Ta't Mustimuxw (olden days people) had done for them, but also to the present and future.

“This connection to the past and present was so prevalent that I called it a sacred cycle—a cycle that keeps the past, present and future connected at all times,” she said. “Further, every one of us will work our way through this cycle—so we all have the responsibility to ensure we keep the sacred cycle alive.”

Part of the sacred cycle, she says, is living their values and beliefs, or what Taiaiake Alfred, the director of Indigenous Governance calls “living Indigenously.”

“The women I interviewed were magnificent—they taught me so much,” says Thomas. “But one thing that stands out for me is the importance of living our teachings. ... Living Indigenously is a critical part of the sacred cycle because the sacred cycle is rooted in our – Xwulmuxw – ways of knowing and being.”