Honoring Indigenous Scholars: In conversation with Mary Song


To commemorate IRSI's 5-year anniversary, we take great pleasure in presenting an insightful account of the organization's journey over the last five years. Our objective is to illuminate who IRSI is, as well as its evolution and growth. As part of this series, we are honored to showcase a group of exceptional individuals who have made significant contributions to Indigenous research. Through engaging dialogues and conversations, we have highlighted impactful projects, partnerships, and collaborations that have not only shaped IRSI's trajectory but have also left an indelible mark on Indigenous research at UBC.

Amongst these exceptional voices is the distinguished researcher and scholar, Mary Song. Mary Song graduated in 2016 from the UBC Okanagan with a BA degree and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in research focused on intergenerational survivors of the Residential School System, the state of bonds within family structures, and the kinds of structures that help people in the community connect to each other and to the land. Song worked for the School District in Kelowna doing Aboriginal advocacy work. Now her research focus is the Carrier (Dakelh) Nation, specifically the Lejac Residential School in Fraser Lake in BC’s central interior. 

The Indigenous Research Support Initiative had the privilege of sitting down with Mary Song to interview her on her perspective on Indigenous research and how the space around Indigenous research has changed over her career. 


Follow below to learn more about Mary’s experiences:


What does it mean to be Indigenous and do research at an institution like UBC?

Being Indigenous and doing research at UBC has really opened my eyes for collaboration, networking, and understanding a wider scope of what Indigenous culture and peoples have experienced throughout history. This, in turn, really helped me understand why I am the way I am. My lens was fairly small prior to starting post-secondary education and research. I got my human services diploma from the Okanagan college in 2011, before attending UBC for my undergraduate studies. A lot of tears were shed throughout the process. It was definitely a hard journey, a hard process for me to go through. Sometimes being the only Indigenous person in the classroom and having to carry that weight for all Indigenous people on my shoulder, to answer certain questions, or to fight or to argue, or to make a point across that I believed needed to be shared at times, was difficult but also very inspiring. 

I think a lot of our people, Indigenous peoples, should be pursuing a post secondary education so they can acquire a broader scope and knowledge. Through my education process, I have a lot more stamina and power to stand my ground and to share what I’ve learned.

The Indigenous room that we have at UBC Okanagan also really helped me feel comfortable with smudging. Smudging was not something that I grew up with, and we don't use sage where I grew up, we have other forms of plant medicine. I remember when I smudged for the first time at the University, I started to cry because I didn’t know what to do. I felt like everyone was looking at me and I felt like I was really out of place. UBC really helped with my understanding of who I am as an Indigenous person. 


What are some of the tensions, inevitable compromises, and accountabilities that you navigate through while doing research at an institution like UBC?

Research methods are a big thing because we are very oral people and we like to orally share everything. Going through COVID was difficult because I had my research plan already laid out through my ethics application and I had to change it three or four times. Previous to that, I’d say I had a lot of moments throughout my Bachelor of Arts undergrad, where I felt like I had to argue my point because they didn’t understand the history or didn’t have lived experience such as I had, living on a reserve and growing up as a six one, six two status, which is status acquired through bloodline, through lineage. 

My mom was Indigenous and she married my Scottish father and got her status removed. So I didn’t get my status back until I was twelve.  But even through the process of learning those specific things and having to argue with my professors at certain times because they didn’t have lived experience or have an education behind Indigenous history. It would have been nice to have more Indigenous history and education shared throughout different parts of UBC, for example the Health department, Science, History, or English classes.

Other than that, the whole journey itself was and still is very interesting to me. Because I can see what needs to be done, what has been done, and what we are working towards for reconciliation. Other than that, it has been a fabulous journey and I’m very grateful for having come this far. 


What would you like institutions like UBC to be doing more of or less of? 

I think it would be a good idea for all departments and professors to attend some sort of Indigenous retreat or cultural retreat to be around other Indigenous cultures and beings who have lived and come from different areas, who have many different cultures, different ways of living, foods they eat, and plant medicines they use. 

You know that TV show where they go onto a reserve for six weeks and get a lived experience in Indigenous communities? I think something like that would be so amazing. To have a professor come to an Indigenous community and have a lived experience, even if it’s for like two weeks. Just to get that feel, understanding, and lens. 

I think it’d be more wise if there was more collaboration and working together, and more empathy to really understand Indigenous communities and our culture, our way of being and who we are. I think it would be wise to have more connection to the community and ask questions. A lot of people, especially Indigenous people who are educated, are more than willing to share. They’ve walked that path, they’ve gone through those troubles to know it’s important to share and collaborate. 


When you felt like you were building a sense of community, was there a certain place or certain people that you feel really helped connect you to that community? 

Yes, Dan Odenbach. He was my boss and a mentor. He really helped me feel connected and supported. Gregory Younging, he was definitely one of my idols. He had such a soft heart, such a huge insight on our history as Indigenous peoples. Margo Tamez is my supervisor for my masters right now, she is phenomenally beautiful and she’s the one who really got me to open up my eyes. When I took her first class, I realized I had to bring a thesaurus to my second class. I could barely understand every second word that she said in class, but that also gave me that extra push because I wanted to understand.

I also remember the first time sitting around our round table discussion, when asked to introduce myself I said something along the lines of: “I am Mary Song, I come from Fort Saint James, I’m Carrier, and I’m a mom to four.” And I left it at that. And we continued down the table and four or five people down from me, one of them shared like a 10 page document of who they were and it was beautiful. I wanted to cry. And I just left it so simple for myself, I’d shared very vaguely. And I was like no, there is so much more to me that I need to share.  I told myself that the next time that we get asked this question I’m going to share a lot more than the simplified version of me. Another person is Jeanette Armstrong, there are so many that have helped me walk my education journey and I’m so very thankful. 


What are you currently working on or collaborating on that you are most excited and proud of, whether it be a community-based project or a UBC-based project? 

Right now I am currently still working on my MA, my own research. I am unfortunately going to be on leave, for a little bit, it’s a bit hard to have my four kids and working full time, and trying to get my Masters research complete. I need to change my format through my ethics application again, because of COVID now, but having oral communication and sitting with people and sharing food is really important to my research and how I want to do my research. So I have to go back through that process and write another proposal to ethics. I’m hoping to have my masters and thesis complete by the end of August.

A lot of my research is focused around the time of berry picking in my community and it’s looking at the history of our Dakelh Carrier women, and how our women’s roles have changed in our community since prior to residential schools up until now.