Headshot of Sydney Kuppenbender, a Métis graduate student from La Ronge
Sydney Kuppenbender, a Métis graduate student from La Ronge, is working on her master’s in the School of Environment and Sustainability at USask. (Photo: Submitted)

Indigenous student achievement: seeking sustainability

As Sydney Kuppenbender sits down to tell her story, she begins by introducing herself in Michif, the traditional language of the Métis.

For the University of Saskatchewan (USask) graduate student in the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS), it is an important part of proudly reaffirming Métis heritage and language, reclaiming her connection to the homeland of the Métis, and reprising family history that traces back to relatives like the late great Gabriel Dumont, one of the most prominent leaders of the North-West Resistance of 1885.

“Part of how we introduce ourselves is to place our family within our nation’s history and part of our responsibility as Métis individuals is to articulate our family history and sometimes that can be really hard,” said Kuppenbender, who was raised in La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan. “People like my grandpa who was taught to be ashamed despite the fact that my great, great, great, great, great, great, great uncle was Gabriel Dumont. There is a lot of family oral history that has been lost because our ancestors were ashamed to share that. So, it can be really hard sometimes for some of us to place ourselves in the greater history of our nation. But I think part of claiming Métis identity is doing that work.”

For Kuppenbender, that path to the past has been a journey of self-discovery for her and her family, who have roots in the Duck Lake area, the site of the first battle of the North-West Resistance that culminated in The Battle of Batoche. Like so many Métis people from the area, her great uncle was later evicted from the land he had settled on, and hid his heritage in the years that followed.

“That is the history of many, many, many Métis families in Saskatchewan,” said Kuppenbender. “Our family has been in the Duck Lake area since the Métis Resistance, so after experiencing generations of racism, they kind of learned to hide their identity and the fact that they are Métis, but that became easier when my great great grandma married an American and inherited his last name.

“My dad is the first generation in a long time to embrace his identity and it didn’t really come until adulthood when he would openly identify as Métis, but he raised my sisters and I to do the same. I think settling in La Ronge probably encouraged that process. It is a community that, especially at the time when they moved in the 90s, it was predominantly Indigenous population, Dene and Woodland Cree and Métis.”

Growing up in northern Saskatchewan amidst a large Indigenous community and with parents who were both teachers, Kuppenbender developed an appreciation of academia as well as a spiritual and cultural connection to the land and the animals who live there, an area of interest that has become the focus of her master’s research in relation to sustainability and the effects of climate change.

“I have kind of taken on the role of bringing voice to animals and to the land, air, water and rocks, and that is kind of the mission I have taken on as part of my research and I think will also likely be my life’s work,” she said. “But absolutely, the community that I grew up in, and the land that I grew up on, definitely have shaped that and has continued to shape and evolve as I have continued to grow.”

A critical part of that ongoing process has been the importance of learning languages, from studying Cree and French immersion in high school, to embracing the recent revival of the Michif language of the Métis people. That process that began in earnest a few years ago led by Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MN-S) and by Michif-speaking scholars like Elder Norman Fleury, who is dedicated
to preserving the Michif language in spoken word and in print through his work with USask’s College of Education. For Kuppenbender, who took a Michif class through MN-S for the first time last year, being able to read Michif text had a profound impact on her grandfather.

“My grandpa grew up speaking Michif, but he always thought he was speaking French, and I grew up doing French immersion in school and we would try to converse and we thought he was saying words kind of funny,” said Kuppenbender. “It wasn’t until about five years ago that there was a big push by Elder Fleury and MN-S to create resources in Michif and my mom had access to a lot of these resources and she brought them home one day and we were flipping through it and the pieces started to fall into place. I had never seen Michif written down before, but we kind of went, ‘Oh my goodness, I think this is what grandpa is speaking.’ So, we showed him the book and it was a big moment for all of us.”

The revitalization of language and love of the land go hand-in-hand for Kuppenbender, whose academic journey began back in 2016 at McGill University where she studied microbiology and international development and began getting involved in Indigenous activism and protests, before transferring to USask in 2018 to study environmental science and be closer to family back home.

“I applied for a semester back home in Saskatoon and I was immediately struck by the presence of Indigenous people, students, staff, and faculty on campus at USask, and I just really got this feeling of being at home and welcomed within the colonial academic system that I hadn’t really experienced before that,” said Kuppenbender. “So that really carried me through and I wound up transferring permanently to USask to finish my undergrad Bachelor of Science in renewable resource management and that carried me further into doing my master’s.”

Kuppenbender is quick to credit the support systems that have helped her get to this point, especially the MentorSTEP program partnership between USask and the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

“Everything I have now, I owe it to community members who have created these opportunities for me,” she said. “I was part of the MentorSTEP program, which is a mentorship program through the University of Saskatchewan that created opportunities for Indigenous women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and put us in internship and mentorship positions, which is how I got this research assistant job with my now supervisor.”

Working under the supervision of SENS associate professor Dr. M.J. Barrett (PhD) has brought Kuppenbender back to her roots and her connection to the northern communities facing sustainability challenges and that are often the most affected by climate change as she works toward her Master of Environment and Sustainability. Kuppenbender said seeking solutions to this global issues for humans also requires a perspective that includes communicating and considering the effects on the land and animals (more-than-human kin).

“In our first interview, Dr. Barrett was talking about her work in Intuitive Interspecies Communication and I was immediately kind of transported back to my childhood, particularly in the Cree language classroom where we grew up hearing traditional stories of ancestors who would co-exist with more-than-human kin. She kind of opened my eyes to the reality of these relationships and that the stories of communication between humans and animals was not metaphorical, but these were actually oral history retellings of this phenomenon.”

Kuppenbender said there are more than 400 English-speaking animal communicators — experienced professionals who communicate directly with domestic and wild animals — from every continent except Antarctica, and more than 180 books on the subject published in English. She is currently collecting research data for her master’s thesis and proposes employing Intuitive Interspecies Communication by engaging animal communicators in partnership with Indigenous land managers as part of seeking sustainable solutions to the effects of climate change.

Kuppenbender understands that the concept and the research will be difficult for some to digest.

“It is pretty radical and I always kind of preface anything I say with regards to my work as I understand this is radical and I understand that a lot of people will experience cognitive dissonance and a shifting paradigm when talking about this kind of work,” she said. “And I think part of what we talk about as a research team is constantly addressing that reality. But I think we are also getting to a place now where the push for Indigenous voices is very much present and ongoing and we can advocate for other missing voices, which from my perspective are the animals and the land.”

Kuppenbender said she is honoured to work with experts like Barrett, whose research goal is “to nurture ways of knowing and being where the more-than-human (natural) world is respected as intentional, intelligent and communicative.”

Kuppenbender is also hoping to follow in the footsteps of Elder Joe Copper Jack, who is working towards similar goals as an Indigenous land planner, combining traditional Indigenous knowledges with western science as part of the decision-making process in projects in the Yukon and northern Alberta and British Columbia. Copper Jack’s ‘No Voice’ perspective
holds space for the voices of future generations, non-human relations, Mother Earth and others to be considered in the decision-making process.”

“They are actively using this concept of ‘No Voice’ and engaging with animals and the land as part of land management, so that is already happening in his context and his work,” said Kuppenbender, whose research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Indigenous Graduate Leadership Award from the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at USask, and the Equity Scholarship from SENS. “It is really exciting and it is emerging a lot quicker than we expected, so it is unfolding really fast.”

Ultimately, Kuppenbender wants to bring animal and other more-than-human voices to the table by partnering with animal communicators and Saskatchewan Aboriginal Land Technicians, to find practical applications for using Intuitive Interspecies Communication and Indigenous ways of knowing to find more sustainable solutions for communities dealing with the upcoming climate change crisis.

“First and foremost, I think that all advocacy and all activism is vitally important for the climate change movement and there is no right or wrong answer,” she said. “However, I think for me, we aren’t going to see the change that we need to see, in the timeframe that we need to see it in, unless there is a massive paradigm shift in the way that we do things. And I believe that must include bringing animals and the land forward as having voice and agency and identity that I hope will help people realize the impact of everything we are doing. I think we all know that we are all connected and our existence as humans depends on the well-being of the land that we occupy and the animals that we share it with.”

Sydney Kuppenbender is one of the student award winners for academic excellence who are being celebrated during Indigenous Achievement Week at the University of Saskatchewan, March 6-10. Click here for information on the week. 

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