Indigenous Success Stories

Education (6-12)

How Shirley Williams’s traditional knowledge helped her become a professor at Trent University

June 3, 2024

1st Indigenous woman in Canada to reach full professor status via traditional knowledge

Williams stares out across the lake.
Shirley Williams was born and raised in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island. (Candace Maracle/CBC)

June is National Indigenous History Month. To celebrate our accomplishments CBC Indigenous is sharing stories highlighting First Nations, Inuit and Métis trailblazers in law, medicine, science, sports — and beyond. 

CBC Indigenous: When Shirley Williams began teaching Anishinaabe language and culture at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., in 1986 there were no textbooks, so she had to develop her own learning materials for students.

“I remember the first sunrise ceremony that we did. It was up on the hill and we had to do it secretly,” Williams said.

“Today it’s free and we can do all kinds of cultural things for people to learn.”

By 2003, Williams had become a full professor based on her traditional knowledge, and is believed to be the first Indigenous woman in Canada to have done so. Now 85, she’s a professor emeritus of Indigenous studies at Trent.

The Odawa/Ojibway elder is from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, and attended St. Joseph’s residential school in Spanish, Ont., between the ages of 10 and 16.

“We had to fight for everything to be recognized … because the language was forbidden and the culture part,” Williams said.

“We had to go through a lot of hoops in order to practise our language and culture.”

Elder smiling.
Williams, 85, is a professor emeritus of Indigenous studies at Trent University. (Candace Maracle/CBC)

She’s semi-retired but still teaches, hosting online immersion workshops in Anishinaabemowin from her home in Wiikwemkoong.

Translating elder knowledge into institutional language

David Newhouse, who is Onondaga from Six Nations of the Grand River and chair of the Indigenous studies department at Trent since 1993, was one of the creators of tenure and promotion recognition for traditional knowledge in the department.

“Full professor is the highest rank that you can achieve within the university,” Newhouse said.

“I thought it was important that we have individuals who had high levels of Indigenous knowledge to be appointed to that highest rank.”

At Trent’s Indigenous studies department, candidates for tenure can meet requirements three ways: as a conventional scholar who is academically trained in the western tradition; as a traditional Indigenous knowledge scholar who has knowledge of the customs, tradition, histories, languages and ceremonies of a particular nation; or as a dual tradition scholar who has both traditional knowledge and academic credentials.

Man overlook balcony.
David Newhouse is the chair of the Indigenous studies department at Trent University. (Submitted by David Newhouse)

Williams, who holds a BA in Native studies and a master’s degree in environmental studies, was considered a dual tradition scholar.

Newhouse said there was some debate as to how they would validate traditional knowledge credentials. He said the verification process relies upon testimonials from “learned members of their community.”

Newhouse said every professor is expected to teach, research and serve the university — but elders don’t do research in a conventional fashion.

He said they “translated elder knowledge into the language of the institution” by asking what activities they engage in and how that generates new knowledge to bring to the university. Newhouse said Williams developed materials for teaching and working with elders and prepared lexicons and dictionaries, which they characterized as research to fellow colleagues at Trent.

One such occasion required Williams to develop new words for a hockey lexicon.

“She laughed uproariously about having to talk to elders about how to translate ‘jockstrap’ into Anishinaabemowin,” Newhouse said.

Williams’ work, Newhouse said, is in keeping with Trent’s vision statement to foster an environment where Indigenous knowledge is respected and recognized as a valid means by which to understand the world.

“Shirley is gentle. She’s kind and she brings a lot of laughter,” Newhouse said.

“You can’t have Indigenous organizations without laughter and without kindness.”

Walking for water

Williams returned to Peterborough in May to participate in and provide traditional teachings for a 100-kilometre water walk, an annual event that takes place over three days around Pigeon Lake in the Kawartha Lakes region. She and colleague Liz Osawamick founded the walk, called Nibi Emosaawdamajig – Those Who Walk for the Water.

Williams said she wants to help the public understand how they can be better stewards of the water.

Woman speaks to large group.
Williams helps lead Nibi Emosaawdamajig – Those Who Walk for the Water in May in the Kawartha Lakes region. (Candace Maracle/CBC)

“Water is very sacred,” Williams said.

“Without water we cannot live.”

She said sharing her traditional knowledge is a way to help Indigenous students reconnect to their spirit, if they didn’t have a chance to learn it growing up.

Students, friends and colleagues joined the walk.

Lynne Davis, who began working with Williams at Trent in 1986, said she remembers attending a lecture where Willams told a heart-wrenching story about how residential school had shaped her life.

Women smile with lake behind them.
Trent University students Judy Hyland and Angela Wallwork. (Candace Maracle/CBC)

“I remember Shirley started her lecture by saying that she may cry, she may become emotional. She never knew what would happen,” Davis said.

Davis said it was the first time she’d ever really understood anything about residential schools.

Judy Hyland, an educator and learner, said she went to Trent specifically to take one of Williams’s classes about language on the land. She said she’s since taken all of Williams’s language courses offered at Trent.

In her third year of a Bachelor of Education, Angela Wallwork said Williams wrote all of her Ojibway textbooks.

“Relearning the language is so impactful and she’s changed my life,” she said.


Candace Maracle, Reporter

Candace Maracle is Wolf Clan from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. She is a laureate of The Hnatyshyn Foundation REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her latest film, a micro short, Lyed Corn with Ash (Wa’kenenhstóhare’) is completely in the Kanien’kéha language.