The first Gwichyà Gwich’in in history to earn a doctorate degree is gaining national recognition for her work.
Dr Crystal Fraser was awarded the 2020 John Bullen Prize by the Canadian Historical Association for her thesis, titled T’aih k’ìighe’ tth’aih zhit dìidìch’ùh or By Strength We Are Still Here.
The prize honours the outstanding PhD thesis on a historical topic submitted in a Canadian university.
“As I read that email I was overcome with emotion. I started crying,” said Dr Fraser, who was notified about winning the prize in March.
“It was really a testament to how important the history of residential school is in the North.”
Fraser, who is from Inuvik, graduated from the University of Alberta last fall.
Her work looks at how Indigenous northerners confronted hierarchies of power at day and residential schools in the Beaufort Delta.
Using oral interviews, photographs, and other materials, she reconstructed part of residential schooling’s history in the region, focusing on a Gwich’in perspective.
Felice Lifshitz, chair of the prize committee and a professor at the University of Alberta, said Fraser’s work stood out – not just among this year’s prize nominees, but from many works of history.
“Literally everything about it stood out,” she said.
“Everything that you look for in an original work of history was present at the highest possible level in Dr Fraser’s dissertation.”
Lifshitz called Fraser’s thesis “a joy to read” and said it’s unique because of Fraser’s use of Indigenous philosophy and language. The thesis draws on the Dinjii Zhuh concepts of t’aih, vit’aih, and guut’aii, or individual and collective fortitude.
“That’s what made it a really potentially groundbreaking contribution to historical scholarship,” Lifshitz said.
Fraser is dedicating the 2020 John Bullen Prize to northern Indigenous people and all residential school survivors.
“There’s really a lot of people behind this work,” she said.
“Even though the award is one thing, and the thesis is one thing, it’s really symbolic of the dozens of relationships that I’ve made as a result.”
Fraser said she also owes her PhD thesis to her grandparents, Marka Andre and Richard Bullock, and her great grandmother, Julian Andre.
“My community and my family really encouraged me to take on this project of the history of residential schooling,” she said.
Marka Andre lived on the land with her family at their fish camp on Dachan Choo Gę̀hnjik, also known as Tree River, on the Mackenzie River. Fraser said Andre attended Immaculate Conception Indian Residential School with her sister, who died while institutionalized.
Julian Andre was born in 1883, witnessed the signing of Treaty 11 in Tsiigehtchic, and ran her dog sled from Alaska to the Mackenzie Delta, Fraser said.
“She’s this amazing person and I got to spend a handful of years with her as a child,” Fraser said. “She would speak to me in our language and I kind-of like to think that I got my inspiration for storytelling from her.”
‘Find your mentors and it’ll happen’
Winning the prize has drawn attention to Fraser’s work across Canada and the world. She has received messages from colleagues in the United States, Scotland, and New Zealand.
“It’s definitely created a little bit of excitement,” she said.
While Fraser doesn’t expect the public to read her thesis, which is around 460 pages long, she is planning to publish her work as a book which will be “more palatable” to a broad audience.
The main thing Fraser said she wants people to take away from her accomplishments is that “you can basically do whatever you set your mind to.”
At one point, she said, she had dropped out of high school, came very close to becoming homeless, and had no connection to her community. Now she is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta in the departments of history and classics, and native studies, on track to tenure.
“Even if you don’t feel like you’re in the position to undertake something that’s important to you or further education, reach out to people and find your mentors and it’ll happen,” she said.