Doris Camsell

Enhancing Indigenous Education: Doris Camsell Gives the Gift of Knowledge

“I'm very passionate about passing on information to other people. That's what I like doing. Because, for me, this information that's coming to me, it's a gift. It's a gift that I hold, and that I would gladly give that gift to another person so that other person can take that gift and pass it on to another person,” shares Doris Camsell. She is from Deh Gáh Got’îê First Nation and lives in Hay River, Northwest Territories where she taught for 28 years before she retired. Now, she keeps herself busy enhancing Northern education systems. 

Before school, her parents raised her on the land with her siblings and on school breaks, her family would gather traditional foods in the bush. Until she was a teen, she went to school in Fort Providence, then she went to residential school to finish school. 

During her career, Camsell worked as a curriculum developer, teacher and language specialist at four schools in Hay River.  She currently sits on the National Indian Education Council for Dene Nation as an NWT representative in education, working towards First Nations control over First Nations education. 

Camsell credits finding the path she took to the guidance she received from people in her life. “As an individual, you don't see yourself the way other people see you. You have people that come up to you and give you a little excerpts about your life every once in a while… People just don't give you information about yourself for no good reason. There is a reason they are doing it and I listened to those people,” she recalls. 

Her Uncle told her, “You can be anything you want. You are so lucky to be in this country.” Linguist Phil Howard told her,  “You have the potential to do great things, Doris…. You don't only have to be a teacher. A human being can have as many professions as possible.” Camsell put their words into action and while they both passed away before she fully implemented their advice, they knew she was trying. Her parents also provided valuable wisdom.  

Early in her career, Camsell worked on a book and learned to read and write in Slavey. Howard asked if she would be interested in linguistic training the government was sponsoring in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had already applied for teacher education in Fort Smith. 

She did six weeks of training in Albuquerque during the summer and returned for teacher training, taking more linguistics the next summer and more teacher training again the following year. In the end she received her teacher certification for the Northwest Territories and linguistic certification from the University of New Mexico. Eager to learn more, Camsell completed a Bachelor of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, majoring in Language Arts and minoring in Native Studies. 

After graduation she worked on the reserve, took some time off to raise her family and went on to teach adult education. Camsell spent time on the trap line before heading back to work but found she was burning out. She went back to school and received a BA in anthropology and archaeology from the University of Saskatchewan. Because of her summer courses, she was able to get her degree in just one year. She took a master’s degree online and even traveled to Hawaii for her studies.  

Her advice for Indigenous students like thinking of leaving their home community to pursue education is to identify the support system they can count on for guidance back home. “No matter where you are, your footprint is back at home,” she says. Camsell recommends planning ahead and saving up for a year or two because the student financial assistance often only covers rent. Students will need more than that to stay afloat when they are studying, she’s found. 

One obstacle Camsell faced in studying anthropology was that in doing a paper about the law and judicial structures of her people, there weren’t books for her to refer to. She phoned elders from home to find out what they knew about how things were done before Western laws were enacted to overcome the barrier of the lack of printed information and completed her paper. 

Another obstacle she faced was access to traditional foods when she was away at university. Camsell recommends students dry traditional foods and bring them along or get family members to send them foods to eat when they are at school. 

If she could give advice to her younger self it would be, “relationships can hinder your education.” Camsell acknowledges that supportive friendships can be helpful throughout life, but settling down and starting a family early can make things tough as nice as having a family is. While she loves her family and they have been supportive of her education, she wishes she understood early on how much supporting a family can distract from pursuing a profession. Also, the added expense can create challenges. To do things over, she would advise getting an education, travelling the world and then starting a family.  

To maintain her mental health, Camsell relies on prayer and exercise. Her grandmother always told her to ask the Creator for what she wants. As far as exercise, she likes to go out for nature walks to process all the information she has coming at her. Taking the time to nourish her body well is also important to her, as is pausing to reflect on where she is and where she’s headed. To inspire Indigenous youth, Camsell recommends continually praying to the Creator for guidance. It’s the belief system that was given to her by her grandmother and it’s what she’s found works. 

"Knowledge has been recycled for thousands and thousands of years. But every individual you meet in your lifetime requires a different set of knowledge."

As far as inspiration goes, she says, “I'm inspired by the fact that I know I can make a difference. I am passionate about passing knowledge on to younger people. That's what we have to do as people to create good people…. Knowledge has been recycled for thousands and thousands of years. But every individual you meet in your lifetime requires a different set of knowledge.”  

Passionate about passing on the gift of information to other people, Doris Camsell has devoted her life to learning and helping others learn, too. Doing what she can to enhance the First Nations educational system, she is continuing her calling as a teacher even into her retirement years. With three degrees and a certificate, she has impressive credentials to inspire Indigenous learners and wisdom to share that comes from the challenges she faced along the way.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
    Northwest Territories
  • Date
    June 6, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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