By Shannon Boklaschuk
A book written by a University of Saskatchewan (USask) faculty member is in the running for a prestigious prize in Canadian history scholarship.
Assembling Unity: Indigenous Politics, Gender, and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the first book written by Dr. Sarah Nickel (PhD), has been shortlisted for the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize. UBC Press published Assembling Unity in 2019.
Nickel, an assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies in USask’s College of Arts and Science, said it was “incredibly humbling and exciting” to receive the good news about her book.
“To be nominated alongside such an impressive slate of established scholars in my field was unexpected, and I’m so thrilled about this recognition,” she said.
Nickel’s work takes a historical look at Indigenous political activism in British Columbia between the 1960s and the 1980s using the Union of BC Indian Chiefs as a case study. She explores how Indigenous peoples across the province worked towards political unity, and how Indigenous women’s organizations and grassroots individuals—who didn’t always agree with the direction taken by the chiefs’ organization—influenced this.
“I connect B.C. political activism to larger global social movements at the time, including Red Power, and pay attention to how political movements change over time,” said Nickel.
“I use oral interviews, newspapers, government documents and Indigenous political papers to foreground Indigenous peoples’ understandings of their own political histories, which challenges western and patriarchal political ideals that cast Indigenous men as reactive, Indigenous women as apolitical and the settler state as dominant.”
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs started in 1969 to represent the almost 200 First Nations in British Columbia. Despite the organization’s longevity, no one had written about it “in any sustained manner,” said Nickel, so she decided to take on the task.
Through her book, readers will learn “how complex and messy Indigenous political work is, how the concept and practice of politics can be widely defined and how every-day people can make a difference in what life looks like for them,” she said.
“For me, the organization—which is still active today—provided a unique opportunity to explore the modern B.C. Indigenous rights movement using this organization as an anchor point,” said Nickel.
“I didn’t set out to write a traditional organizational history, but rather used the union to reshape and disrupt conventional understandings of Indigenous politics as solely reactionary to the settler state and dominated by male elites. Certainly there are aspects of both, but I wanted to showcase the ways in which women and grassroots individuals also played a significant role in the movement despite their limited formal political power. I also wanted to insert Indigenous politics into our mainstream understanding of ‘what counts’ as politics, where typically Indigenous political expressions have been viewed as isolated ‘responses’ to settler systems.”
Nickel’s first book will soon be followed up by another work. In early May, In Good Relation: History, Gender, and Kinship in Indigenous Feminisms, which Nickel co-edited, will be released. Nickel said the edited collection expands the concept of Indigenous feminisms to account for its diverse expressions and experiences.
In Good Relation “brings together scholars, artists and community people to showcase how Indigenous feminisms intersect with history, queer theory, concepts of kinship, health and other areas of scholarship that remained somewhat separate in the past,” she said.
“Through poetry, creative pieces and more traditional scholarly works, authors prove that Indigenous feminist theories are everywhere and, as such, bridge the false dichotomy between ‘academy’ and ‘community.’ Representing and embracing diverse opinions and experiences, this inclusive and non-essentializing collection presents critical interventions into history, politics and theory by outlining the transformative potential of Indigenous feminisms,” she said.
Before joining USask as a faculty member in 2015, Nickel earned her PhD at Simon Fraser University. Her areas of research include comparative Indigenous histories, 20th century Indigenous politics, Indigenous women’s politics and Indigenous feminisms, and oral history.
In 2018, Nickel was the recipient of a University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union (USSU) Teaching Excellence Award.
“The people at USask are really incredible and inspiring. My colleagues across campus are doing such innovative things in research and teaching, and it is amazing to watch,” she said. “I also really enjoy working with the students at USask. They are some of the most grounded, critically engaged and socially conscious individuals I’ve ever met. It is very humbling to work with them.”