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Recognizing Indigenous excellence

(Courtesy Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean)

Kahnawakehró:non Wahéhshon Shiann Whitebean started university eight years ago at age 30.

Already a mother of three, Whitebean embarked on a rigorous academic journey, which led to her being named a 2020 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar, one of Canada’s most prestigious academic awards.

In only a few short years, and with a family at home, Whitebean completed three degrees back-to-back starting with a BA and a Master’s degree from Concordia University, where she also graduated as valedictorian.

When she started her Ph.D. at McGill University in the department of Integrated Studies and Education, she was awarded the Tomlinson Doctoral Fellowship, another incredible milestone for the scholar.

“It is an honour to have my work recognized at that level. Getting to where I am now goes back to my roots and my family and the Longhouse, my community work and academia,” said Whitebean.

“I worked really hard to be at the top of my game and to come to this point. What I am most proud of is that the more we win these kinds of awards and are successful, it changes things. When doors open for me, doors are opening for other Onkwehón:we too.”

Prior to pursuing higher education, the scholar was a homemaker and completed the Kanien’kéha Ratiwennahní:rats Adult Immersion Program. She was also very active in the community, something she continues today.

“I have applied over the years and have been very successful in winning a number of different kinds of awards and scholarships and recognition. I was nominated for both the Vanier and the Trudeau (Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholarship),” she said.

She explained that the application process for the Vanier Scholarship was the most challenging thus far.

“I was ranked third out of all of McGill. I knew I was competing with the top scholars that were nominated across Canada. I didn’t get my hopes up, so I was quite surprised,” explained the scholar.

The Vanier award comes with a generous scholarship of $50,000 a year for three years so that Whitebean can concentrate on her work.

“Not everybody supports or applauds Onkwehón:we or Onkwehón:we scholars and community members when we are out there, and sometimes it can be intense. Sometimes people question our success and our accomplishments. Were we only chosen because we are Indigenous?”

“But we worked incredibly hard and sometimes even harder than a lot of other students to get where we are,” said Whitebean.

She was recently invited to speak to the incoming cohort of McGill graduate students.

“I am not just speaking to Indigenous grads, but I am there as an Onkwehón:we person speaking to them all. And I am from the rez, you know.”

She explained that years ago, she had to force herself to move past her insecurities of feeling like the underdog or that she didn’t belong and own her success. But still, she said that her community and family keep her humble.

“Especially because of the nature of the research that I do. It is very personal. It is very ingrained in who I am. My work is important to be me because it is about our community. It is about experiences that we have lived. It’s about multigenerational stories,” said Whitebean.

She believes that stories like her own will help change the media’s often biased narrative about Indigenous Peoples.

“I want us to shine in every aspect. To show the strength of who we are and where we come from. That none of those things have been barriers, and it’s given us strength and motivation,” She is hoping to complete her Ph.D. by 2023.

“I am moving fast because I want it to be our stories, our voices and not somebody else telling the story about us,” she said.

She credits her family and Kahnawake for supporting her from the very beginning, and she said she would not be here if it wasn’t for that support.

“I really hope it continues to open doors because we are really putting Kahnawake on the map on every level,” said Whitebean.

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