Aaron Derrickson is a member of the Syilx Okanagan nation and a PhD student in Indigenous Studies at UBC Okanagan. His research focuses on leadership and governance from a Syilx perspective. Through highlighting the leadership principles in oral traditions, he hopes to continue to partner with the Syilx communities to enrich their leadership.
Why are you researching Syilx leadership?
Leadership and government, to a large degree, is not under Indigenous people’s control; it’s under the federal government’s control. Our ability to succeed is directly connected to our ability to govern ourselves, to be self-determined.
Most of the academic literature on leadership is based in research on organizations, corporations, and governments and identifying what works and what doesn’t. In my research, I’m extending that scope by looking at the Syilx principles of leadership and governance that have always worked for our communities and applying them in a present context.
Syilx governance was derailed through the process of colonization, and because of this new dysfunctional governance, so was Syilx leadership. There are systematic and legal barriers that make it challenging to be self-determining. Add the effects of the Indian residential school system and it is not so simple to go back to those Syilx leadership and governance concepts. Given that success is tied to self-determination, when our communities revisit those governance and leadership practices, success will follow.
How can Indigenous people reclaim their past?
I don’t think it’s about reclaiming the past as much as understanding the past, discovering where it’s alive in our communities and figuring out where there are gaps in leadership and governance.
People think of tradition as something that is rooted and stagnant in the past. Tradition is tradition because it works, and therefore it’s repeated. Even when it’s not in practice, the principles never change.
What role did Captikwl (oral tradition) play in Syilx culture?
The oral traditions are a lot of things, but in short, they communicated a message through story that instructed us how to live. These stories housed our economic, leadership, governance, familial and social principles. Concepts as simple as generosity or kindness were taught through the story and the symbols in that story.
How do you hope that the research you’re doing will bring about change?
Although there have been a few academic studies on Syilx governance, no one has taken an academic approach to Syilx leadership. I want to add my voice to the ones that are speaking and the ones who have spoken and who have since passed on. My work in the community is a constant and as my research grows, there will be more to add to training and empowerment sessions. In terms of the big picture, I’m hoping to help better inform the process of applying traditions into everyday life.
The UBC Okanagan campus is located on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation. Why is that important to you?
It means a lot that my research is situated in my traditional territory. So many of the Captikwl stories have territorial geo-markers — they tell a story about what happened in this space. I am a member of Westbank First Nation, and we have one of these markers on our land that correlates to a story about leadership.
My supervisor, Jeannette Armstrong, is one of the knowledge-keepers within our nation. She’s an influential Indigenous leader and an academic at UBC Okanagan. The importance of studying under Jeannette cannot be underestimated. There are some very influential and prestigious Indigenous academics out there at other institutions. Even with their wealth of knowledge, they would not be able to provide the Syilx-centric academic knowledge that exists at UBC Okanagan.
I’m really grateful for the Indigenous academics whose research resides within Syilx traditional territory, not just physically, but categorically as well. These people are creating space for my research and also supporting me through all the challenges of grad life. They’ve carved out time and space within their own institutional processes — from writing to research to applying for scholarships — their support can’t be overstated. I’m really fortunate to have this close-knit circle of mentors to guide me through my graduate studies.
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