Rhizomes: An Interview with Jess Dunkin

Edehzheh (Photo Credit: Jess Dunkin) – Edehzheh is a month-long language and culture immersion camp on the Horn Plateau for members of Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation. Along with community advisors and funders from the NWT On The Land Collaborative, I visited the camp in September 2016 as part of a learning trip.

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Jess Dunkin, Director, On the Land Programs, NWT Recreation and Parks Association.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

I went from graduate student to graduate professor overnight. I defended my dissertation in the afternoon on September 11, 2012. The next morning, I walked into a classroom of MA and PhD students. It wasn’t my first experience as an instructor, but it was the first (and, to date, only) graduate course I have ever taught. Over the next eight months, I poured everything I had into teaching.

The first semester with only one course was manageable, though as a recent graduate teaching graduate students, I struggled mightily with imposter syndrome. The winter semester was a different story. I taught three courses, all new to me, in three different departments at two universities (though at least the institutions were in the same city). I was a shell of my former self at semester’s end.

When I received word in April that I had been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship, I made the decision to take the summer off. That year of teaching had badly shaken my confidence and further eroded my previously unassailable conviction that my future was in academia; doubt had begun to set in when my numerous job applications went unanswered. I needed some time to get back on my feet.

I spent the summer reading (for pleasure, of all things!), gardening, cycling, volunteering, and spending time with family and friends. The time off was a tonic; I expected to return to academia rejuvenated. To the contrary, I struggled to get back into the swing of things that fall. The postdoctoral research project I had proposed wasn’t grabbing my attention, and I seemed to have lost my appetite for the solitary world of research and writing. A lack of institutional support didn’t help. I seriously contemplated quitting, even going so far as to look for other work, but as with my academic job applications, my solicitations went unanswered. I was stuck.

A short end-of-fiscal-year contract working with a disability advocacy organization turned things around for me. Along with a colleague, I travelled to Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit over the course of two weeks in March 2014. The trip piqued my interest in the North: I knew next to nothing about the territories before then. It also provided the boost I needed to finish the revisions to my book manuscript and to begin work on my new project.

As the postdoc wound on, I found myself looking for academic opportunities that would allow me to return north (at the time, I could only imagine myself as a scholar). In the end, it was a serendipitous encounter with my future employer at a conference that inspired me to change direction. I applied for a position as the On the Land Programs Consultant at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association (NWTRPA) shortly thereafter, and moved to Sǫ̀mba K’è (Yellowknife) in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8) in April 2015. Today, I am the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWTRPA.

Edehzheh (Photo Credit: Jess Dunkin) – Edehzheh is a month-long language and culture immersion camp on the Horn Plateau for members of Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation. Along with community advisors and funders from the NWT On The Land Collaborative, I visited the camp in September 2016 as part of a learning trip.

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

The title of my position is a bit of a misnomer. I am not meant to lead or coordinate on the land programs; rather, my role is to support communities and organizations across the territory that are delivering land-based programs. As a settler from the South, I have never felt comfortable in this position, and with good reason. On the land programs are meant to counter the effects of historical and contemporary colonialism by revitalizing relations between Indigenous communities and their territories. Since arriving at the NWTRPA, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this work in an anti-colonial way. I’ve had some successes, but I’ve also made mistakes.

About six months after starting at the NWTRPA, I was invited to represent our organization on the NWT On The Land Collaborative, a new initiative using a collaborative funding model to support land-based programming in the territory. I believe so strongly in what the Collaborative is doing. Not only is it increasing support for on the land programs in the NWT, it is also doing so in a way that centres community-based priorities and expertise. As the communications lead for the Collaborative, one of my responsibilities is to celebrate the beautiful, innovative, and vital programming that is rekindling connections between Indigenous peoples and their lands, languages, and traditions in the NWT.

One thing I appreciate about my work at the NWTRPA is that it feels like it matters in a way that my academic work never did. Though I loved the many hours that I spent in archives and in my office reading and writing, I often felt like I worked in a vacuum. Now I work in community and the difference is striking. I am accountable in very tangible ways. I am routinely humbled by the brilliance and generosity that surrounds me and feel so fortunate to be able to live and learn alongside Dene, Inuvialuit, and Métis. I also have the pleasure of spending time outside on a regular basis.

For all of the things I love about my job, about a year in, I realized something was missing. Apart from the occasional blog post or report, I had few opportunities to write. Yet I longed to write, to tell stories. With the encouragement of my colleagues at the NWTRPA, but especially the Executive Director, I have found ways to incorporate writing into my day-to-day responsibilities. I really appreciate the creative outlet, though it hasn’t sated my appetite to write. Over the last year, I have sought out small writing contracts as a way to tell stories that interest me. A recent article for Up Here magazine about Inuvik’s Top of the World Ski Races/Loppet sent me back to the archives. It was a pleasure to be a historian again. My colleagues continue to support this passion, and my supervisor is looking for ways for me to do more of this kind of work. It’s an enviable position in which to find myself.

Horn River Camp (Photo Credit: Jess Dunkin) – In early March, I travelled with students from Deh Gáh School to a week-long camp at the mouth of the Horn River as part of an audio documentary on land-based education at the school.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career? What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

My education as a writer began when I was a child. My mum and brother, both English majors, were attentive editors who inspired me to care about writing well. In graduate school, I likewise benefitted from being surrounded by people who cared deeply about good writing, not the least of whom was my supervisor, John C. Walsh. These smart, community-oriented scholars taught me how to tell important stories in a rigorous, yet accessible way. That said, most of what I wrote as a graduate student was academic in nature: scholarly essays, journal articles, book reviews. Learning how to write for more popular audiences in recent years has been a journey, as has developing my abilities to write in plain language. I’ve had the good fortune to work with generous and patient editors. Nevertheless, I would have liked opportunities in graduate school to practice crafting theoretically-informed histories for folks picking up a magazine or cruising past a website.

I am also very thankful for the commitment to teaching historical theory at Carleton, which has served me well as a practitioner working in community. I do wish that education had included more Indigenous thinkers and writers.

NWT Evaluation Symposium at Aurora Village (Photo Credit: Jess Dunkin) – In May 2018, I was a co-chair of a symposium on Indigenous approaches to evaluation, a collaboration between the Alberta/NWT Chapter of the Canadian Evaluation Society and Dedats’eetsaa: the Tłı̨chǫ Research & Training Institute of the Tłı̨chǫ Government.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

It’s hard to know what will make sense for someone else. Looking back, I wish I had been less careerist. When I started graduate school, I wanted to be a professor; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I had a virtual checklist of all the things that would set me on my chosen career path: SSHRC funding, teaching experience, publications, conference presentations, academic service, finishing in four years. I diligently checked all the boxes, paying special attention to the timeline. While I didn’t want to go into debt as a result of graduate school, in retrospect, I wonder what my experience would have been like had I given myself a bit of breathing room. What might I have gained from working outside of the university, for instance? I have learned so much in the last few years doing community-based work about being a scholar, an ally, and a neighbour.

By focusing so strongly on a career in higher education, I also never really entertained the possibility that I might end up elsewhere. When it became clear that there wasn’t a place for me in academia, that I needed to find another path, I was completely lost. It took a long time for me to recalibrate. As much as I have loved the transition to the North and the non-profit sector, it was a difficult one: I had to figure out this new version of myself. I take full responsibility for my singularity of purpose, but it was certainly fuelled by the valorization of academic positions over other careers for historians. My sense from the Twitterverse (one of my few remaining ties to academia) is that there is a greater awareness of and appreciation for other ways of being a historian today, but I suspect there is still more room for improvement on this front.

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Jess Dunkin

Director, On the Land Programs at NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin is the Director, On the Land Programs at the NWT Recreation and Parks Association. She lives in Chief Drygeese Territory (Treaty 8), home of the Wıìlıìdeh Yellowknives Dene. In her free time, Jess loves to paddle, cross-country ski, and tweet about life in the #SpectacularNWT from @jessddunkin.

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