McMaster names Indigenous artist Santee Smith its next chancellor

McMaster University has named Santee Smith, an artist, dancer and choreographer from Six Nations of the Grand River, its next chancellor.

Smith will embrace her identity as an artist and as an Indigenous person in her new role

Santee Smith holds McMaster degrees in physical education and psychology along with a Master of Arts in dance from York University. (McMaster University)

McMaster University has become the second Canadian institution in as many weeks to announce that its next chancellor will be an Indigenous person.

The school says Santee Smith, an artist, dancer and choreographer from the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River, will take over as the honorary head of the university in November.

Smith hold two degrees at McMaster, one in physical education and another in psychology in addition to a master's degree in dance from Toronto's York University.

To be in these positions that are perceived to be of power and prestige, I think it's important.- Santee Smith

"Recovering from two broken legs, she completed six years of training at Canada's National Ballet School, undertook theatre training and earned her McMaster degrees. She returned to dance in 1996 as a choreographer and dedicated six years to create and produce her first dance work, Kaha:wi, a family creation story," said a press release from McMaster.

The announcement comes two weeks after the University of Lethbridge announced that it was appointing its first Indigenous chancellor in the school's 52-year history.

Charles Weaselhead, a residential school survivor and former chief of the Blood Tribe, will officially assume that title in the spring.

Smith takes over from Suzanne Labarge, who has held the position at McMaster for the past six years.

McMaster President Patrick Deane says Smith was voted unanimously by the committee for this new role and she was an inspiring choice.

"She's a very admirable highly accomplished person, diversely talented and continuing to contribute in her field so certainly struck the committee as an inspiring choice," said Deane

Smith spoke to CBC Hamilton's Jasmine Kabatay on Thursday about her new role.

Congratulations on your new role! How do you feel being chosen as chancellor for McMaster?

It's a little overwhelming right now in a very exciting way, and I'm really looking forward to being a part of McMaster. As an alumni I have and had such a connection to the campus, I'm really proud to be able to be back and serve in a really important way.

With this role, you will be seen as an ambassador or symbol to the Indigenous community. Is this something you're comfortable with?

When I was invited by President Patrick Deane I did take a day or two to reflect on the importance of my decision, and spoke with my family. I always touch base with them as well, and they were overwhelmingly positive and said 'you have to take this opportunity and step into this role,' so that was decided.

It was something I had to consider, I considered it deeply and what I could bring and offer, and also maintain my professional life as well. I think it's all very doable for me and I'm happy to be a part of it.

What are some things people should know about you?

Well I am a working professional artist, I have a company called Kaha:wi Dance Theatre and it's based in Six Nations and Toronto, and I actually am in production right now. I just finished performing at Harbourfront Centre.

So I spend a lot of time in my creative world reflecting on, researching, and restoring, Indigenous narratives and bringing stories in the mainstream that's not usually heard. And that's always been my mission, to share culture not only with other Indigenous people but with just mainstream non-Indigenous audiences as well.

Charles Weaselhead was recently elected as the chancellor for University of Lethbridge. Do you feel, as a Mohawk woman, it's important to have Indigenous people for these types of roles?

I do. I think just being present and also being visible is important and sometimes it is a figurehead role.

I won't be there to make policy changes or hands-on, I'm not able to do that with my career anyway. But to be visible, to be Indigenous, to be a woman, is important.

To be in these positions that are perceived to be of power and prestige, I think it's important. I think it's inspiring for up-and-coming Indigenous students that not too long ago, I was a student at McMaster, and now I'm the chancellor.

So people could have a trajectory if they put their mind to different tests and where they want to go and the opportunities they surround themselves with, that's all possible.

So being Indigenous while also having an incredibly successful arts background, which part do you want to be the most prominent within your role?

There's always that, even with my own work, are you an artist or an Indigenous artist?

And I feel like that's more struggle for other people to categorize, and for me I'm just doing the work that I love to do.

It happens to be that I express Indigenous stories, that's what I enjoy doing and it is a part of my identity and I enjoy speaking through it and with others as well about it, so my role is really going to encompass everything I am.

That includes the artistic and the Indigenous, being an alumni and having a degree in physical education and psychology, so all of my life experiences will be involved

This transcription above has been edited for length and clarity

With files from Canadian Press


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