Sept. 25, 2019

Social Work student uses PURE award to create Indigenous methodology for innovative research

Keeta Gladue leverages modern technology to allow students to tell their stories orally and using petroglyphs and symbols
Keeta Gladue

Keeta Gladue researches mental health and wellness of post-secondary Indigenous students.

Courtesy Keeta Gladue

As far as Bachelor of Social Work student Keeta Gladue is concerned, every Indigenous student who makes it to university should be thought of as “warrior miracles.”

“So, you have my community,” says Gladue, “who make up some of the lowest-income households in North America facing the most barriers to success finally fighting through every barrier to get to the University of Calgary. This, in and of itself, is a statistical anomaly. Some, including me, would call it a miracle. And that's just getting in the door.”

Gladue, who is Cree and Métis, also works at the University of Calgary Writing Symbols Lodge as an Indigenous student adviser, where she helps students to navigate university bureaucracy, solves problems, refers them to on-campus resources and, as she puts it, builds community.

As she explains, the generational legacy of residential schools and colonialism often makes institutions very uncomfortable places for Indigenous people. This stress, combined with all the usual stresses of being a university student while being isolated from friends, community and family can have tragic consequences.

“One of the top causes of death for Indigenous people in Canada is death by suicide,” says Gladue flatly. “In fact, it is the number one cause of death for Indigenous people under 47. For all university students, school is a time of deep stress, which is one of the reasons why three-quarters of mental health disorders manifest between the ages of 18 and 24, the average ages of university students.”

When Gladue, a student in the Faculty of Social Work's innovative Virtual Learning Circles Bachelor of Social Work program, heard about the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE), she knew what she wanted to engage in research. She just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

“We have the Indigenous Strategy on campus,” says Gladue. “We have these movements aimed at breaking down some of the barriers Indigenous students face on campus, but we can't do that unless we're listening to the voices of the people who are already here.”

Gladue approached Social Work professor Dr. Ilyan Ferrer, PhD, to discuss the approach she wanted to take. As a student adviser, she was familiar with the types of issues and questions Indigenous students asked. She wanted to go beyond that to discover the barriers that stop them from accessing the resources available to them on campus. She wanted to know the resources they felt most comfortable using and why, as well as the resources they knew about, but didn’t feel comfortable accessing.

PURE awards, which provide up to $6,000 for undergraduates to learn “hands-on” research while working with university faculty, was the perfect vehicle for her to pursue her question focused on Mental Health and Wellness of Post-Secondary Indigenous Students.

Gladue realized she couldn’t rely on a traditional western survey for the kind of connection she was looking to make. Instead she set about creating an Indigenous research modality based on a pedagogy of story. Capturing oral history in a digital world can be challenging, but Gladue has come up with an arsenal of amazingly innovative approaches.

The first part of her approach is a survey; however, it combines a uniquely Indigenous approach with digital technology. Gladue did research to create appropriate icons, petroglyphs and pictographs. She then used the “hot-spotting” portion of Qualtrics to allow students to choose icons associated with their answers on computer or phone. 

The next part of her research allows students to submit their answers orally on cell phones. Of course, as Gladue says, “Students come to university knowing they’re going to write,” so students can also provide written narratives if they choose.

Gladue says using an Indigenous methodology is essential because it honours who research participants are.

“The oppression and elimination of our Indigeneity has led us to the situation we're in currently,” says Gladue. “People have to tell their stories in the way that is true to their way of being if research is going to make change … and there has to be transformation.”

“I have nephews and nieces and they're going to be here in 12 years, two months and 14 days. I've got a timeline. I have to make sure that all of these barriers have been dealt with because that's my job.

"Their job is to show up and only have to worry about what every other student worries about parking, bills and the astronomical cost of textbooks. In order for that equity to be reached, I have to stand up and be who I am in my community, and try and take a space as a researcher, which is absolutely terrifying.”

Watch for the PURE awards application deadline in February 2020.