Lifelong Learners: Marilyn Jensen Rises Above A System Not Meant For Her
“We're lifelong learners; our learning never ends, officially,” says educational and cultural consultant Marilyn Jensen. She is Inland Tlingit/Tagish Khwáan, from Carcross, Yukon Territory, and her clan is Killer Whale. She was born into an interracial marriage of amazing parents who have since passed away. Her upbringing was supportive, loving and encouraging in a time of prevalent racism. Culturally strong and grounded, her family was able to survive through residential school impacts and other challenging social issues.
She’s inspired by her mother. “She came into this world a warrior woman, a fighter, just so determined to elevate her people and her children to the rightful place that they belong,” she recalls. “I grew up with my mom telling me, ‘you're a Tlingit princess and don't forget what that means. You know what that means? It means that you're beautiful, you're smart,’" she continues.
Jensen’s mother raised her to take pride in herself but also in our community. Her mother would tell her, “Our people are noble, they deserve everything good and right in this world. It's time for our people to be happy again. It's time for our people to have joy in life.”
When Jensen heard the criticism of the world disparaging Indigenous people, her mother’s voice would counter their arguments in her head. A fearless woman who stood her ground, Jensen’s mother led the way for change and progress, sharing her wisdom. She encouraged resilience, humility, gratitude, and the strength to fight for what is right.
Growing up, the public school system wasn’t good because Indigenous students were made to feel stupid, which made moving onto post-secondary challenging with the negative voices discouraging her. She didn’t feel like she belonged at university because she had been so devalued, but she found the confidence to continue.
“I'm conquering the system, the system that has not been friendly or accommodating to our people, and has forced us to be everything we're not, to master it,” she told herself. Her undergraduate degree was in anthropology and she did a master's in Indigenous governance. Grad school was easier with her newfound confidence and positive self-talk.
At the beginning of her post-secondary journey, she was ill-prepared for success. She didn’t have the skills she needed but she figured it out after spending time with older students who knew what they were doing. Her grades improved until she graduated on the Dean's list. Jensen was the first in her family to go to university, and her mother cheered her on the whole way.
“All of a sudden you're doing something and you didn't really start out thinking that's what you're going to do. But there you are.”
After university, Jensen got into consulting in Indigenous education and wellness because while her undergraduate degree focused on heritage and culture, life led her in a different way. She partnered with another woman who lived nearby and the Yukon government hired them to teach their staff about culture, history, the land claims movement, and self-government.
The experience taught her that she’s a teacher with the gift of storytelling, sharing and being able to help people understand concepts. Now she teaches at Yukon University, does public speaking, and facilitates workshops. She’s working with a new colleague on a lateral violence Indigenous community workshop, teaching lateral kindness. She’s motivated by the meaning of the work she does, the experience of connection and making a difference in the world and the beauty of her people.
Outside of her consulting work, Jensen is very active culturally, leading a dance group and beading regalia. She’s also the chair for the Yukon First Nation Culture and Tourism Association and the chair of Indigenous Tourism Canada. She tries to work out three times a week, take care of her nutrition and focus on her wellness, like getting enough sleep.
Her advice to Indigenous youth finding their path is to be flexible. “Follow your heart, but also be open to things that might change to be different,” she advises. She hopes students will keep going with their education and rise above a system that isn’t built for them. “We know that piece of paper doesn't define you, or validate you, but it definitely gives you more armour. It definitely will open up a lot more possibilities and opportunities,” she continues. Most of all, she hopes they don’t give up.
Her hopes for the future are that she will build a legacy of lateral kindness around the work she’s doing, and have opportunities to mentor and inspire young people who will carry on the work. She wants to transfer her cultural knowledge, keep the fires burning, and build community and wellness. Marilyn Jensen knows that we're lifelong learners and our learning never ends, officially. Fortunately, neither does her teaching, so long as young people can hear her voice in their heads the way she did her mother’s all those years ago.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.