Feature #10 – Sarah Olson – wîhkwaskwa iskwesis (Sweetgrass Girl)

What nation do you belong to? Ininew (Cree), Norway House Cree Nation

Where is your home community? Winnipeg and Fisher Branch

What makes you happy and inspires you? Besides my fiancé, puppy, family, and friends, I feel happiest when I’m driving on a beautiful sunny day with the windows down and I’m singing loudly! I am most inspired when I see Indigenous peoples succeed in spaces not meant for us, by real sustainable systemic change, and when there is true allyship in action. 

What is your proudest accomplishment? Since making the nerve-wracking decision to go back to university for my Master’s degree, I have often felt imposter syndrome and wondered if I could make it. I recently received two awards for my GPA and research objectives, which has helped to affirm my decision and ability to take up the space I’m in. 

What is an assumption or hurtful stereotype that has been said about you? Indigenous people are seen as less worthy and undeserving of dignity and respect in our society because we have been dehumanized since contact, which is clear when you consider the Indian Act, Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, and the ongoing discrimination we face. I and my family have not been exempt from this. I have been perceived as someone living off Canadian tax dollars (false! Look it up), an easy Indian, and someone who needs to be followed around stores to make sure I don’t steal. I’m always surprised and hurt by how quickly some people can say the most racist and cruel things, as if it’s so deeply entrenched in our society that these comments are on permanent stand-by.

What is a racist remark you’ve been called before? Token Indian and Squaw

What can non-Indigenous folks do to educate themselves and create meaningful change? It is of the utmost importance that a person shows up with their full heart and an open mind. We all need to remember what a blessing it is to be able to learn from one another and be the reason someone feels kindness, not pain. This is the time to humbly listen and use your platform (including talking to friends and family) to share the voices and discourse of Indigenous peoples. Don’t expect people to always take the time to educate you – this can be painful and there is a lot of information already created you can tap into. Remember not to center yourself in these conversations, speak out against injustice, attend rallies, make time to volunteer, and consider donating to organizations already doing amazing work to help communities if you are able. 

What piece of advice would you give your younger self if you could? I would urge myself to stop being so hard on myself. My internal critic is pretty loud and it’s taken me this long to face it head on and try to realize my worth. As an adult I understand the connection between my low self-esteem and the derogatory portrayal and treatment of Indigenous peoples. Meaning that the negative labels I hold about myself are not my burden to carry. 

Who is a role model you look up to and why? I look up to my parents. They have all had some really tough things they had to get through, but they are the most compassionate and supportive people out there. They are always there for me with an open heart and I am so proud to be their daughter. Generally, I look up to every single Indigenous youth. They are so strong and I know our future as Indigenous people, with our ancestors having our backs and the work of the people who came before us, is so bright. 

You’re proud to be Indigenous because…? I’m proud because of the incredible perseverance and beauty of our people, cultures, and communities. Being in spaces with strong, Indigenous aunties and sisters has changed my life and provided me with so much self-worth. After growing up with deep shame about my identity, I have focused my research on the damaging effects of the misrepresentation of Indigenous identifying-women (ex. MMIWG2S, forced/coerced sterilization, high incarceration rates) and how we can begin to shift the disparaging narrative about us. 

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