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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 6 | Jun. 3, 2004

First Nations Woman Reclaims Identity Through Education

Adopted by white parents, she knew she was different

By Brian Lin

Helen Bell came to UBC to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but will be walking away with much more than a piece of paper: learning to conduct research has opened the door to a wealth of knowledge -- and her own identity.

Adopted by white parents at the age of four, Bell, from the Nak’azdli Band of the Carrier Nation near Prince George, always knew she was different but felt no particular urge to explore her Aboriginal heritage. That is, until her adopted sister, also of Aboriginal descent, died of complications of alcohol abuse in 1999.

“She had suffered from racism and struggled with her identity her whole life. When she died, I felt angry and wanted to know why so many First Nations people struggle with substance abuse and die young,” says Bell.

“I also wanted to find my true self.”

Having lost contact with her birth family for more than three decades and now with a family of her own -- including three daughters who are inquisitive about their Aboriginal heritage -- returning to her band was not an option.

“I’m no longer an active part of the community, but I know that through research and a university education, I will come to a better understanding of who I am and where I came from,” says Bell, who enrolled in a two-year First Nations Studies Program at Langara College in early 2000.

Bell says catching up on a lifetime of cultural education in just two years was challenging. “It was an extremely painful process to learn the history of First Nations people in Canada. It was mind-boggling. But in the long run, the knowledge made me stronger.”

After receiving an Associate of Arts Degree in First Nations Studies from Langara College and the Institute of Indigenous Government, at 44, Bell went on to become one of the first students in UBC’s First Nations Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts.

Bell says the research capacity she has acquired at UBC has made a tremendous difference in the way she pursues knowledge of her culture, and may even pave the way to a career in academe.

“The research component at this institution is excellent,” says Bell. “The respect, integrity and recognition of the uniqueness of First Nations people has really stood out for me.

“It’s crucial for me that we’re doing research for and with First Nations people, not studying them like specimens under a [magnifying] glass.”

Most Aboriginal cultures have strict guidelines regarding passing on sacred stories and traditional knowledge that are inherent to the individual communities. Bell says the methodology in First Nations-related research is as important, if not more, than the knowledge derived from it.

“Research in Aboriginal communities has to utilize methods that are different from conventional strategies,” says Bell, “with an aim to provide practical benefits to the very community where the knowledge comes from.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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