But the Elder and Knowledge Holder from The Key First Nation who works with Pewaseskwan (the Indigenous Wellness Research Group) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), turned her own healing into something positive, bringing traditional teachings and ceremony to the lives of Indigenous people with their own struggles, especially those living with HIV, hepatitis C and other challenges.
Her lifetime of work bringing Indigenous ways and reconciliation to health research, to the arts, and to community organization was recognized on June 7 when USask awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Laws at its 2023 Spring Convocation.
“I’m standing in the world today looking to the future. What legacy and seeds can I plant upon receiving this honorary doctorate and what can I do to bring beauty into the world with the kind of peer acceptance that this doctorate acknowledges?” Jinkerson-Brass reflected.
Born in B..C to a mother from The Key First Nation, in Treaty 4 territory in eastern Saskatchewan, her biological father was Ukrainian-Canadian. He had mental health challenges and was hospitalized, so at 14 months old, Jinkerson-Brass, along with her four siblings, were apprehended from their mother.
Jinkerson-Brass was raised by a middle-class white family in northern B.C., who first had her as a foster child and later adopted her through a court-ordered adoption. While her family was kind and she had warm relationships with her adopted parents, she always felt out of place as the only darker-skinned child.
Her physical difference was noticeable in the town where she lived, too, and she grew up being discriminated against because of her race. Teachers, who undervalued her intelligence, singled her out for being an “Indian foster child,” and teenage boys and men targeted her for sexual violence.
“I’ve struggled right from Grade 1 with my horrible teacher who tried to make me believe I (had a learning disability). I have had to open doors my whole life and I have never been welcome. My whole life has been a struggle to even be visible,” she recalled.
But in the 1980s, when she was in her 20s and feeling lost and still unsure of who she really was, Jinkerson-Brass decided to reconnect with her family at The Key First Nation. Her grandmother, Rebecca Brass, who was a traditional healer and midwife, immediately embraced her and began sharing Anishinaabe knowledge with her.
Jinkerson-Brass would travel from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples, in what is now Vancouver, where she was in college, and visit her grandmother and the community. As she learned her Anishinaabe ways, such as how people and ancestors and future generations are all connected to each other and to the natural world around them, she began to heal.
“What I really want my people to know is that all of who we once were is what my grandmother brought alive in me,” she said. “I have had so many obstacles to overcome, and I wasn’t always graceful and fluid in those struggles, but I do know my Granny’s embrace of all of humanity is what I’m living for today. At first it was definitely my own pain and struggles but eventually it turned into the legacy I am going to leave behind.”
Jinkerson-Brass began to apply her grandmother’s teachings to her work. By then she was working in arts, health, and community organizations. To her research, she brought ceremony, such as sharing circles, the Medicine Wheel teachings, and smudging. She became a leader in Indigenizing community-based research, bringing grounded, trauma-informed, harm reduction approaches to everything she did. Her methods had profound impacts on the participants and researchers.
“I worked with her in the capacity of a Community Guiding Circle for persons with Spinal Bulbar Muscular Atrophy who identify as Indigenous,” said Dr. Kerri Schellenberg (MD), a USask associate professor of neurology. “I have been continually impressed with her ability to create a calm, caring and culturally safe place for communication amongst those of who identify as Indigenous and settlers. Her use of discussion, ceremony and creative listening have been instrumental to the success our collaborations and community building.”
Over the years, Jinkerson-Brass served as an Elder for different community organizations, arts organizations, and even for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry in Vancouver. She also served on many non-profit boards over the years, bringing an Indigenous voice to the table.
A gifted filmmaker and conceptual artist, she was the artistic director of Big Sky, a successful multi-media company that focused on Indigenous music, dance and performance, which she founded with her husband, Victor Reese, a member of the Tsimshian Nation in B.C.
She began her work with Pewaseskwan in 2015 in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Since then, her work and profile have grown and expanded to Saskatchewan and even nationally, as she is a member of Mitewekan (the Indigenous Peoples Engagement and Research Council), which provides guidance on health research with Indigenous peoples.
For Dr. Alexandra King (MD) and Dr. Malcolm King (PhD), co-leads of Pewaseskwan, working with Jinkerson-Brass was a privilege and gift, since they find wonderful synergies in combining Indigenous and Western ways in health research. Together, they have made great progress in innovative research that embraces Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing.
“We are incredibly grateful to Sharon for embarking on and remaining committed to this journey. We are also grateful that we were prepared to take chances and trust that something this good could amount to so much,” said Alexandra King, who is a citizen of Nipissing First Nation.
Those who have worked with Jinkerson-Brass come away transformed. Whether they are Indigenous or not, her warm spirit and her teachings touch people’s hearts and minds.
“Sharon takes care of everyone around her – colleagues, partners and research participants,” commented Kehinde Ametepee, a research manager who has worked with her on Pewaseskwan research projects in Vancouver and Saskatchewan for over seven years. “She sees, first and foremost, the human being, irrespective of their life circumstances. With unfaltering energy and determination, Sharon strives to uplift and build everyone up. A ‘grandmother spirit’ and a radiant soul, she inspires all through her dedication and passion for her work in the community.”
The Key First Nation, where Jinkerson-Brass' son is now a member of the band council, is incredibly proud of her. Chief Clinton Key said she has led a life dedicated to community, healing and reconciliation and the honorary doctorate is well deserved. Even though Jinkerson-Brass does not live on the reserve, she has plans to retire there, much to the community’s delight.
“Sharon has been committed to bringing her vision, skills and medicines home to the people of The Key First Nation. I share many hopes and dreams for our community with Sharon and I know she will bring forward many good things for our people,” said Chief Key.
For Jinkerson-Brass, a big part of the honour of receiving the honorary doctorate is having the opportunity to address the Class of 2023. She hopes to share a message of connection and love, and to encourage them to change the world by being their authentic selves.
“We can make a difference if we are willing to journey from mind to heart and be who we are supposed to be,” Jinkerson-Brass said. “One of the things I have recognized is that I’ve not become someone else with my healing and growth. I have become who I was supposed to be.”