Beyond the Prize: Indigenizing Changemaking in Academia with Ashton Harry
This year’s first place Harmony Essay Prize winner is Ashton Harry of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
Ashton, a recent graduate with a Masters degree from Royal Roads University, aims to support Indigenous communities advance themselves by blending the insights acquired in Western academia with her extensive 4.5-year tenure, first as a member of Tl’etinqox band council and later as the Executive Director of Tl’etinqox Government Office.
For Ashton, contributing to the advancement of women’s leadership within Indigenous communities is not just a goal, but a heartfelt commitment to her community and relatives. Ashton steps into her community role with deep connection to the past, bringing traditions to the fore as she walks towards becoming a good ancestor.
In an interview with RAVEN, Ashton shares insights about her winning paper Matriarchs in the Making: Empowering Women in Tl’etinqox, as well as stories from her upbringing and her community that are the inspiration for her research paper.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about who you are in the context of your research paper?
Sid soughzi Ashton Harry. Tsilhqot’in Deni neslin. Se?etsu victories stump Xinli. Se?inkwel Eleanor Cooper.
My name is Ashton Harry. I am from the Tsilhqot’in (chilcotin) nation. My late grandmother was victorine stump, and my mother is Eleanor Cooper.
I was raised by many matriarchs in my life. I was also lucky to be raised by men who respected the matriarchy. I grew up being engulfed in my culture and teachings, and have become a woman who chooses to share those teachings with others.
I am a member of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, which is best known for winning Title and rights to a vast tract of our traditional territory. I come from Tl’etinqox, one of the largest communities with nearly 2000 members. I come from a very traditional family. I was raised by my grandparents. My grandparents and my mother were all survivors of residential school. I’m a survivor of day school.
Could you elaborate on your upbringing and the influence of your grandparents on your life?
My grandparents who raised me were very different from each other. My grandmother was a devoted Catholic, but still had a lot of tradition in her, and I learned a lot of things about being a strong woman from her. And my grandpa, he actually ran away from residential school. So he was only there until grade three, and then he ran away. Because of that he was able to keep a lot of his culture and his language intact. He spoke some English but he preferred to speak in Tsilhqot’in. He was very influential in my life. Between them both they gave me a really rounded education.
I grew up in a house full of people.That’s the major theme with a lot of people who grew up in community — you grow up with everybody, all your first cousins, your brothers and sisters. I’m an only child, but there were a lot of us. My grandma was kind of like a traditional foster home — she used to take in everybody. She offered a home to anyone who needed it. She took in everybody and I learned that facet of traditional life from her.
What inspired your research paper on empowering matriarchs in your community?
My research was inspired by the incredible women in my community and their resilience. While leadership often spoke about empowering matriarchs, I saw little action. I wanted to go beyond talk and find tangible ways to uplift these women. Being a matriarch is earned through contributions and learning, not merely a gender-based role. My research aimed to discover steps to create a path towards this goal from the community’s perspective, rather than a top-down approach.
My paper was really inspired by the women in my community and the women in my life. I wanted to find ways to really speak to putting matriarchs back in their rightful place in my community, because while leadership in my community talked about reinstating matriarchs back to their rightful places, I never saw any action. I wanted to figure out, “how do we actually do that? Because I’m tired of the talk.”
Working on this research meant trying to find real steps towards creating those solutions, or creating that path to making matriarchs in the community. Being a matriarch doesn’t happen just because you’re a woman. It’s a spot that you’ve earned because you’ve learned something, because you’ve contributed to the community, because you have something to give to your people. There’s a common misconception that every woman is a matriarch. It’s my belief that that’s not true. Being a matriarch is a spot that’s earned just like being an elder.
So, the purpose of my paper was to find those steps to becoming a matriarch from within the community and to give recommendations on how to bring back the element of tradition where we see women in leadership.
Can you tell us more about the findings of your research and any surprising discoveries?
There have been a few steps that my Nation has taken towards reinstating matriarchs: for example we have the Women’s Council. But, even the women said they felt they didn’t have any power, the council seems performative, and it still feels very surface level, or symbolic so far.
One of the recommendations in my paper is to actually involve the Women’s Council in the actual Council in the community, and to let them have a vote and to be a part of that.
The other surprising thing that I found in my research was that the men are being left behind. I think it was so surprising because I was so focused on empowering women that I didn’t think to see how the men were being left behind. Men are a part of creating the cycles in our communities — good or bad. It’s sad to say, our men do play a role in creating the cycles of abuse and of violence; not to say women don’t do it too, but it’s the fact that it is happening because they’re being left behind. A lot of the work is going to be really uplifting the men at the same time as empowering women.
How you approached writing the paper was quite unique. What informed your approach to the research?
With the research, I didn’t have any expectations going in. I didn’t know what I was going to find or that the outcome would be a list of recommendations. At one point I didn’t even know if I would be able to complete the research because I was fighting with the ethics board at Royal Roads for five months. There are a lot of rules around storing data with ethics boards at universities, and they said that as soon as I was done with my paper all the data had to be destroyed. They said that if I wanted to do a project where my community got to keep the data, that I’d have to go back and redo the research after I graduated.
This kind of thing is a real issue, and why communities don’t want to participate in research like this. The research belongs to my community. That is data sovereignty. Me and my community already had methods for keeping the data safe, but it still took months of fighting the ethics board, and I almost quit.
But once I was through that, the results of the research were really inspiring. I was really happy to find that a lot of people are still connected with the teachings of the matriarchy. In the end I had to shut my survey down because I got too many responses and I didn’t have enough time to manage any more data.
There was one thing that was really surprising to me. One of the elders said that women were kind of quiet in their leadership, they worked in the background, not out there telling people what to do. They had a very soft way of leadership. And this surprised me because it was quite different from what I grew up with. I had a different way of picturing how things happened in the past, and how women were a part of decision making and governance structures. So that was one piece that really surprised me coming out of the research.
What do you hope your research will achieve for your community? And beyond?
Well firstly, this paper was really healing to write. I discovered a lot about myself. When I did my Masters Certificate in Change Management I complained so much because the methods I learned would never work in my community. So, with this I was able to indigenize the change management strategy. I changed it to fit my community. And the main thing is that people felt safe and that I know that my people are getting the research in the end.
I hope there are changes in my community, specifically in empowering matriarchs. Beyond that, I really hope that my experience with the ethics board changes things for other Indigenous students in the future too.
Ashton’s research and paper are a testament to her unwavering commitment to her community and to Indigenous sovereignty. Readers can glean many insights from the recommendations and research found in her paper. For fellow researchers, Ashton’s approach provides inspiration, rooted in values of respect, ethical considerations, and a sincere commitment to fostering positive change within her community.
Moreover, Ashton’s resilience and determination during her engagement with the ethics board reflect her embodiment of leadership qualities akin to the matriarchs in her community. Just as her mentors and elders work tirelessly often in the background for the greater good, Ashton’s efforts in navigating the ethical challenges in academia demonstrate her capability to step into a leadership role and make change for those who follow. We extend our gratitude to Ashton for generously sharing her story, and we will be keeping an eye on what comes next for this emerging writer.