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
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
“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.”