Sarah Nickel

Recording and Making History: Sarah Nickel Shares The Stories of Community

“I always want to make more connections and hear more stories,” says Sarah Nickel, a member of Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation who lives in St. Albert. She is a mother of a five year old girl and has two older siblings as well as a very large extended family. Nickel has been a historian of Indigenous and Canadian histories at the University of Alberta for the past four years and spent five years before that working in the department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. 

After graduating from high school, Nickel went on to university and was enjoying what she was learning in history and English. For her undergraduate degree, she majored in history and wasn’t sure what to do when she graduated so she applied to grad school and got in. The first in her family to go to higher education, she thought, “if they keep accepting me, I'll just keep doing this.” She didn’t have any other plans and kept moving forward. 

"I was just faltering, stumbling along. There was not really a clear path for me."

Working through her PhD, she wanted to quit almost every six months and she didn’t know what she would do when she finally completed her degree. She applied for many different jobs and was offered a position at the University of Saskatchewan before she finished her dissertation. The pressure was on to get it done once and for all. 

Throughout her lifetime, Nickel has struggled with imposter syndrome, wondering, “Am I good enough to do this? Is this for me?” She sought external validation, looking for acceptance from others. These days, she pushes through challenges with determination. Navigating university life was challenging at first but as a lifelong learner, she quickly became comfortable and found fun in her new environment.   

While she loves what she does, there’s always a challenge. With new classes every term and new students to meet, there are endless sources of novelty. “I love the research part. My work is really community-engaged oral history stuff, often in my own community, but also Indigenous communities across the West and so that's super fun. We often joke that we just visit for a profession. We're professional visitors,” she grins. Working for her community brings her joy, “That's just so ideal. It's such a privilege,” she beams.”

Her advice for students thinking of leaving their home communities to learn abroad is “Trust yourself, and be confident in yourself that you can really do whatever you want to do. It might be uncomfortable, and it probably will be uncomfortable. You might question yourself, but all those experiences are so enriching in different ways.” Nickel shares how the things students struggle through become life lessons down the road and she’s full of hope for the next generation.  

“Kids today, they're just so awesome. I just see so many students coming into my classroom… just doing amazing things… I just think that youth today are just so much more in tune and aware of what's going on in the world and that's so really wonderful to see,” she raves. 

Along the way, Nickel was her own biggest obstacle in that she didn’t believe in herself. At a certain point, she got over it. “I reached a moment where I felt like I woke up one day and I was like, I don't care. I don't care what other people think I'm just gonna do me and that's good enough,” she remembers

Otherwise, Nickel struggled financially. With the help of scholarships and the money she made working, she got through school.  Taking any opportunity she could, she stayed busy and found the resources she needed to succeed.

"In careers like academia, where you work for so long towards something, it's hard not to make it part of your identity."

Raising a child while working in academia helped Nickel find work-life balance and remember that it is a job and not her whole identity. Devoting time and energy to her “miracle baby”, she has found joy even through challenging but very typical childhood behaviours. While working evenings and weekends would make it easy to get things done in her job, she focuses that time on her family. 

“I love what I do, and I'm very privileged in what I do. It's also a job. You can't forget that it's not everything about you.”

 If she could give her younger self advice it would be to relax. “I've always been this anxious overachiever,” she recalls, thinking of how she envies the calm of her grandmother. “So many Indigenous families there are losses and traumas that come very early, so I feel like so many of us grew up really quickly. That probably feeds into it a little bit. You’re anxious or you're worried because sometimes there are reasons to be. But also take strength in the support around you and that it's going to be fine,” she continues.

To keep her mental health in check, Nickel spends time connecting with her family, texting with her siblings, talking to her mom and doing fun things with her daughter. The other thing she loves to do is spend time in nature, calming down and getting outside. “It's never a bad day when you've got some time outside, even when it's minus 40,” she smiles.

"Trust in yourself. Be confident and trust your instincts because I think we all do have really good instincts if we listen to them."

When it comes to inspiration, Nickel looks to her daughter and elders. She loves capturing the stories of Indigenous women, their activism and leadership. “It's those folks, those women that I can talk to and hear about their magnificent lives and what they accomplished with often nothing, no support, often in opposition to what was going on in their communities, or what was going on in Canada,” she reflects, thinking of how she is struck by their grace and humility as they did what they felt was required. 

Always wanting to make more connections and hear more stories, Sarah Nickel is sharing and making history as an Indigenous historian. A “professional visitor”, she gets to know the lives people have lived and documents those experiences for generations to come. She didn’t have a clear path when she started, but she’s found her way to recording the lives of Indigenous women and the ways they have made a difference.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
  • Province/Territory
  • Date
    April 30, 2024
  • Post Secondary Institutions
    No PSI found.
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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