Volume 13, Number 11 February 3, 2006

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Aboriginal student looks at Cree views of cancer

By Jim Snyder

A quilt of honour

A quilt of honour

Nursing PhD student Rose Roberts stands beside a wall quilt by the late Elaine Barnhart, which hangs in the office of the Native Access Program to Nursing (NAPN) office.

Barnhart co-ordinated creation of the quilt with Aboriginal nursing students while she finished her own Master of Nursing degree and served as a student advisor, and just before she passed away in 2003 after a short illness.  The quilt’s squares are symbolic of the culture of the NAPN students and staff.

Photo by Jim Snyder.

For Rose Roberts, learning about cancer in the Aboriginal community held both a personal and a cultural significance. When her mother was brought to Saskatoon for (eventually successful) cancer treatment, Roberts, a registered nurse and a member of the Stanley Mission Cree community, noticed that her mother wasn’t reacting to or understanding the diagnosis in the way most Westerners would. “I saw a certain personal or cultural pessimism in her reactions,” Roberts explains, “and I wanted to find out where those feelings came from.”

Roberts received her B.Sc.N. from the College of Nursing in 1996. She received her M.Sc. in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in 2001. Her thesis was a quantitative analysis of the relationship between pesticide exposure and breast cancer risk.

“After my master’s, I was done with schooling for a while. I did not want to continue with a PhD until my children were older,” says Roberts. However, when the College of Nursing began offering Aboriginal teaching positions, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity – even if it required the completion of her PhD.

The Department of Community Health and Epidemiology was launching its new doctoral program in 2002, and Roberts became part of the first cohort of students. The Indigenous Peoples’ Health Research Centre was also newly created, and Roberts was the first doctoral student to receive a continuing graduate fellowship for the duration of her studies.

For her dissertation, she would be forging new ground in Aboriginal cancer research. “I was not able to use ethnicity stats in my master’s thesis.  For my PhD, I wanted to explore the views of cancer, health and illness among Wooldand Cree in northern Saskatchewan.”

For her PhD, Roberts would not just be analysing available data, as she had for her M.Sc. This time, she would have to do her own qualitative research. The process of gaining access into the communities and participant recruitment was almost as arduous as the interviews themselves.

“Even though I am originally from Stanley Mission, I still had to gain acceptance in the neighboring communities.  I also had to find ways to make research acceptable in the communities. The most important aspect in approaching people was to remain respectful of the ways and traditions of the elders and the people. Community always comes first.”

In the end, Roberts made 14 week-long trips and interviewed six elders, eight cancer survivors, and 12 family members from five Woodland Cree communities.

“I decided that I would conduct my interviews using narrative inquiry,” Roberts explains, “because storytelling and oral history is the way information has traditionally been passed down among the First Nations and Métis people.

“In the end, four broad themes were generated from the data:  concepts of health and illness; knowledge systems; concepts of cancer; and straddling both worlds.  However, further research is needed to investigate if the findings are reflected among other Aboriginal populations.”

Because Roberts conducted her research specifically for the benefit of her Cree community, she has been working hard to share her findings in interesting and accessible ways. With the help of Solomon Ratt, Roberts has translated the narrative portion of her dissertation into Cree syllabics, which are easily read by the elders of the communities. In addition, Roberts presents her findings to the communities in a unique way:  “The people would not want to sit and listen to a lecture about cancer. So, based on the narrative quality of the interviews, I present my findings in drama.  I dress up as an elder, a survivor, and a family member and tell the stories that revealed the four concepts.”

Roberts successfully defended her dissertation on Dec. 21.

Jim Snyder writes graduate student profiles for the U of S College of Graduate Studies & Research.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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