In Two Worlds: Dory Nason’s Story

By Allan Chan

Dorothy Nason, Dory for short, is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia working in the Institute of Critical Indigenous Studies and the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice. She was born in the community of Grand Island, Nebraska, an agricultural town. She took the position of teaching at the university in 2008 after completing her graduate studies at UC Berkeley with a focus on Indigenous feminisms. 

Dory grew up in a big household, living with three brothers and two sisters. She summarized herself in her youth as an “Indigenous-Mexican girl in Grand Island, Nebraska” with an “interesting multicultural upbringing”. Her father is Anishinaabe from Northern Minnesota and he, along with Dory, are enrolled in the Leech Lake Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. He worked as a truck driver for meat packing companies and was often away from home for his work. Dory and her family lived in Nebraska, while her father’s extended family lived in Minnesota. Thus she rarely had the opportunity to visit her father’s side of the family, but some of her aunts and uncles would sometimes come down from the reservation to her community on trips. Her mother was Mexican-American with an upbringing as a farm worker and later worked as a waitress among other jobs. Because of the agricultural and meat-packing industry’s central role in her community of Grand Island, she grew up in a very diverse community due to people coming from all across the world. 

Dory has always wanted to be a teacher since she was a child. Growing up she saw reading books and going to school as a means of escape. In addition, despite having an Indigenous father, Dory often saw herself as a child of immigrants, in an immigrant culture that oftentimes prioritized educational success as a way to escape poverty. 

Despite this diverse community, her high school had very few Indigenous individuals that she knew of. She spoke of how “most of her high school and elementary school friends would think of [her] as Mexican”. With that label being placed upon her by her peers, combined with discrimination in her community directed towards Mexican-Americans and largely anti-immigrant sentiments, she found that she had to navigate around complicated perceptions by others.

In terms of thinking on the topic of indigeneity when she was younger, Dory described the concept as “very personal, something that was part of [her] family, [and she] didn’t really think about it”. Identity is something that she described as not being thought of on the day to day, but rather something that was innate to who she was. 

One of Dory’s role models when she was younger was her mother, a “farm worker, bilingual Mexican woman with lots of kids”. Dory recalled many memories of her mother taking in newly arrived migrants who did not speak much English for a couple of weeks out of her own generosity to provide them with shelter. Something that Dory’s mother had instilled in her was “be welcoming to any stranger or people in need”. 

She also saw her ancestors as an inspiration to her while she was growing up. Her maternal great-grandmother was a professora, something that she had interpreted as a child to mean “professor”, but actually meant “teacher”. On her father’s side too, there were “tremendous women who worked really hard to keep their families together”. This included her grandmother Dorothy, whom she was named after, and her great-grandmother Margaret. Her grandmother Dorothy had attended a boarding school in Wahpeton, South Dakota and had very few opportunities to return to her home community of Leech Lake. While her great-grandmother Margaret was of the generation forced to make the decision to put their own children into boarding schools. Through the University of Minnesota, Duluth, Dory incidentally found records pertaining to her great uncle, Paul Buffalo who had worked in collaboration with the anthropologist Tim Roufs to produce thousands of pages of ethnography. His teachings provided an intimate insight into the struggles and difficulties that her ancestors endured.

Dory, alongside Margery Fee, were the co-editors of the book Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s Writings on Native North America. Both were professors at the time of the book’s publication, working in the University of British Columbia’s English department. Margery had approached Dory about writing a book on E. Pauline Johnson because many collections that were published prior encompassed the totality of her work, but not all of Johnson’s writings centred on a specific theme, such as her Indigenous identity. Margery Fee wanted to work together and compile Johnson’s writings on Native America, because “when you read her in a large, broad context, it’s hard to parse out those things [she] thought was impactful in terms of what she was speaking on Indigenous women and the Indigenous experience at the turn of the century”. 

Margery was described as a “preeminent scholar of Indigenous women’s writing” by Dory, having brought Dory into the book’s publication process and serving as a mentor to the younger Indigenous scholar. She had also seen that Dory’s research had aligned with the vision of the book, with Dory having written on Pauline Johnson and on Indigenous feminisms as a whole. Margery and Dory’s book on Johnson was designed to be accessible for classrooms, with previous anthologies being cumbersome reads, thus giving classrooms opportunities to elevate Indigenous authors.

Dory had first come across the writings of E. Pauline Johnson when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska. Drawn to how openly Johnson had a “political edge to her work,” Pauline spoke about issues that Dory herself had wanted to say. Two of Dory’s favourite works are A Strong Race Opinion: On The Indian Girl in Modern Fiction, an editorial where Johnson criticizes the “Indian girl in cold type,” the portrayal of Indigenous women in fiction; as well as Johnson’s A Red Girl’s Reasoning, which at first appears to fall into the same tropes that Johnson was previously critical of, but “flips the script” with the protagonist leaving her abusive husband to make a living in the city. Dory mentioned how revolutionary it was to have the portrayal of a strong female character such as Christine in A Red Girl’s Reasoning during the time of its publication.

Dory is currently working on the manuscript for another book, Red Feminist Voices: Native Women’s Activist Literature. It pulls together her reflections on Indigenous feminist writers alongside the work of activist writers and their contributions in literary circles. In it, she questions what it means to be an “activist writer,” and putting into question the notion that “art needs to be for everyone, not to be propaganda, and not too identity-driven.” She is also working with the stories included in her great uncle Paul Buffalo’s ethnography and combing through her ancestral records held in national archives. Work of that nature is something Dory considers very personal and emotionally heavy work, and she is actively trying to navigate how she will be writing on the issue in a way that is okay with her family. 

Having always been drawn to literary studies and reading, Dory wishes to branch out into doing more creative work. “The critic always wants to be the creator,” she says. She had always entertained the idea of writing fictional short stories and gravitated toward essay writing as a format that is able to tell a good story and is geared to be more accessible to the reader. Dr. Dorothy Nason embodies the power of teaching at heart. Since she was young, Dory had always aspired to become a teacher, and through perseverance against adversity, she had achieved her goals in life. Studying, reading books, and education was always recognized by Dory as something that was empowering even as life around her was challenging. Even as an academic, she ensures that her work is accessible to all reading it, preferring to write in essay format to share a story. This can be seen in the books she has authored; Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s Writings on Native North America is meant to be accessible and suited to be placed in an educational setting. Dory always has accessibility and educational potential in mind. Paul Buffalo’s ethnographies and recorded history by her ancestors held at governmental institutions helped to illuminate family and community history. Dory’s scholarship shows us the potential and power that education has and the strength that can be empowered through passion. We wish Dory nothing but the best in her creative endeavors moving forwards!

After the interview. June 30, 2022
(From left: Maya, Keiko, Allan and Dory)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s