Department of Native Studies student Belinda Blair (Nicholson) hopes to make a difference through her research on coded messages of whiteness in missionary educational texts. As the mother of Indigenous and bi-racial children and the wife of an Indigenous man, Belinda’s passion for Indigenous issues and for examining white fragility extend beyond the classroom.

Belinda Blair (Nicholson) discovered her passion for Indigenous issues during an introductory Native Studies class. As a sciences student attending undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba, Belinda considered studying nursing, and the class was required as a part of her nursing application. She went in knowing little about Indigenous issues in Canada, and Belinda found herself tearing up when she learned about the atrocities committed against Indigenous people throughout our nation’s history.

Feeling impassioned to learn more about how to be part of positive changes for Indigenous rights and anti-racism, she went on to take more and more classes through the Department of Native Studies, eventually graduating with an advanced double-major in psychology and Native studies.

Belinda went on to enroll in the master’s program under the supervision of Dr. Renate Eigenbrod. After Dr. Eigenbrod’s untimely passing, she went under the supervision of Dr. Sherry Farrell-Racette, ultimately working to finish her degree with Dr. Cary Miller.

Her thesis work examines coded messages of whiteness in missionary educational texts from the Great Lakes area from 1830-45. Missionary schools of the time used textbooks created by non-Indigenous people, which contained messages implying that Europeans/whites were a superior people. Belinda sees these messages as a way to explore white privilege in history, how this bias is built into our society, and how this impacts historical and contemporary non-Indigenous relationships with Indigenous peoples.

Belinda (second row, centre) at Rising Up: A Graduate Students Conference on Indigenous Knowledge and Research.

Belinda cites book passages that criticized Indigenous practices of sharing, celebrating instead the European idea of property ownership. Other books blatantly referred to Indigenous people practicing traditional ways of life as ‘savages’, while some messages were more coded, implying the superiority of European shoes over moccasins. Messages like this were included in educational texts so that Indigenous children would be taught from an early age to view European culture as superior, and to encourage assimilation.

Indigenous children were fed these messages at a formative time in their development, and the messages themselves came during a formative time in North America’s history. As Belinda points out, “this was the beginning of America and Canada – what were we building at this point?”

Through her research and support from Dr. Miller, Belinda discovered some educational texts that had been translated from English into Anishinaabeg by Indigenous women. The Indigeneity these women brought into their interpretations ended up, consciously or inadvertently, diluting the messages of European superiority in the texts, which Belinda finds encouraging. Having the narrative changed by the Indigenous women to be more Indigenous-centric shows the resiliency of the culture, and the strength of the women.

As the non-Indigenous wife of an Indigenous man, and as the mother of Indigenous and bi-racial (Afro-Caribbean) children, Belinda is also passionate about exploring the societal implications inherent in interracial relationships. Belinda notes that less than fifty years ago, she would have gained Indian Status by marrying an Indigenous (Status) man, and that any Indigenous (Status) woman marrying a non-Indigenous/non-Status man would have lost her Indian Status. The sexism and racism inherent in that policy is staggering to consider. Things may have changed since the 1980s, but white privilege and white fragility are themes that continue to shape the reality of our society and still effects Indigenous people today.

It was always Belinda’s dream to go to the University of Manitoba, but as a teenaged mother, twice over, and with three little ones by her early 20’s, she thought that dream would never materialize. Now, as a mother to five, she is making that dream a reality and more: after she finishes her master’s degree, she intends to return to the Department of Native Studies to begin her PhD.

Read more about Belinda’s research at the link below:

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Profiles: Belinda Blair
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