LUKOWAQANE’KMUTI SAPAWSIT (Survival Tool Kit)
WHY A SURVIVAL KIT?
As a graduate student, I have come to realize that although completing a master’s program can be challenging, the academic journey is ultimately gratifying, and the end result is worthwhile. In order to get through the challenges that the program has presented me, I have kept—and continue to keep—many tools in my survival toolkit. While some have changed or even been omitted over the years, the ones I included here are the tools that have propelled me forward in this degree. Just as Ahmed wrote in Living a Feminist Life (2017), a killjoy survival kit is “about finding a handle at the very moment one seems to lose it [...] a way of holding on when the possibility you were reaching for seems to be slipping away” (p. 240).
While Ahmed’s killjoy survival kit focuses on feminist survival, it gave me inspiration for this graduate student survival kit, and greatly influenced the tools within the toolkit. As an Indigenous Feminist, seeing the world through an intersectional lens has given me perspective on how to make the world a better place for those who are left in the margins, or who do not fit in our society’s pre-determined, rigid boxes. No matter what master’s program you are enrolled in, I always encourage students to take a Feminist stance and conduct their research through an Intersectional lens. Seeing the world through this lens will, quite literally, change your life. Comparatively, keeping a graduate survival kit throughout your degree is also a feminist stance. A stance that makes a statement that, despite the hurdles, you will survive this degree. This survival toolkit is my gift to you, and to all graduate students, as a guide to surviving your journey in mastering your research - in mastering your profession.
ITEM ONE: LITERATURE
While Ahmed recommends books in her survival kit (p. 240), I prefer to label this category as "Literature." This is a list of readings that have helped me through my degree so far, and they are works I believe will help all students, no matter their program or thesis topic. In order to be an effective researcher, it is important to understand your history and the history of the world that surrounds you. As an Indigenous Feminist who was failed by the public education system, I must take it upon myself to re-learn all the material I was not taught. I say "failed" with the notion that the history lessons we are taught as children—and later as teenagers—are Euro-centric and white-washed. This is because it is easier for the general public to pretend that colonization and genocide never happened on the land of the most "friendly and welcoming" people. Teaching young minds about the horrors of our nation's past is what some parents would call "inappropriate" and "unthinkable." It is also time-consuming and exhausting to challenge the historical accounts of our "Founding Fathers," especially when their descendants are currently in positions of power in what is now Canada. As Ahmed mentions when talking about being a killjoy feminist, “[i]t is as if these problems are not there until you point them out; it is as if pointing them out is what makes them there” (p. 39). The reality of it is that these "inappropriate" and "unthinkable" history lessons are part of my family's history and the histories of many marginalized people who live on this land. It is so important to unlearn what we have been taught and relearn our history from an Intersectional lens. The most difficult part of any journey is the beginning. If you are ready to start unlearning, you need to be okay with the idea that you will feel an array of emotions and that you will get uncomfortable. As you work through the anger and discomfort, know that we as humans are imperfect and that learning takes a lot of time. Be patient with yourself, and know that the knowledge keepers, the historians, the experts in their field, are there to guide you along the way.
For me, personally, the literature written by marginalized peoples has taught me the most throughout my degree and has allowed me to verbalize how certain issues have made me feel.
The works of Kimberlé Crenshaw, especially her 1989 paper titled Demarginalizing the
Intersections of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, defined the term Intersectionality and made sense of diverse, marginalized peoples experiences. Subsequently, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) by bell hooks, and Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2002) by Patricia Hill-Collins, must also be included. Other books in my tool kit include (of course) Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph (Gwawaenuk Nation), The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King (Cherokee), and All Our Relations by Tanya Talaga (Anishinaabe). I also like to keep Indigenous poetry and narrative pieces in my toolkit, such as I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe (Mi’kmaw), as well as I’m Finding My Talk and other poems by Rebecca Thomas (Mi’kmaw). As Ahmed says “Their words reach me. Their words teach me” (p. 240)1, and when you need to be re-taught a subject like Canadian or American history, the words need to reach you. I believe this list of literature will do just that.
ITEM TWO: SPACE
Living with ADHD can be challenging, however, what matters the most is how you cope with this challenge. When I first started this degree, I had not yet been diagnosed with ADHD. While a diagnosis is not always necessary, you must know what you need in order to successfully complete your program.
As someone with a neuro-diverse mind, I find it imperative to have a private, quiet space of my own to get my work done. A corner of your living room will suffice, but a spare room in your home is ideal, so you will not be distracted by undone chores or mundane tasks. You get brownie points if the space has a door. This space must have the tools to get your work done, which for me includes my laptop with double screens, a standing desk, a store inventory’s worth of office supplies, and a mug warmer for my coffee. It is also important to personalize your space. I am surrounded by artwork, books, decorations, whiteboards, and places to organize my belongings.
This is also where I keep my reminders. My workspace would not be complete without my Mi’kmaq flag, posters from Walking with Our Sisters, printouts of the Seven Sacred Teachings, and my sacred medicines and smudging materials. These are all reminders of who I am, where I come from, and why I am doing this degree. Surround yourself with your work, with what drives you forward. You are the vehicle; your workspace is your engine.
ITEM THREE: SELF-CARE
I know you have heard about self-care a thousand times before. However, when I refer to self-care, I do not advise that bubble baths and Merlot will resolve your issues or take care of your mental health. To think that it will is unrealistic. While this is where most advice falters, I practice due diligence when discussing self-care. What self-care really is, is quite literally in its wording: taking care of yourself. As an Indigenous Feminist, I think of Ahmed’s survival kit referencing several of Audre Lorde’s works in saying that self-care is about “finding ways to exist in a world that makes it difficult to exist” (p. 239). While this refers to marginalization and feminist work, it is also reflective of a graduate student’s experience. We live in a capitalist society, where we are taught that productivity is rewarded. We normalize overworking, not taking breaks, not sleeping, or forgetting to eat lunch. This is not healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. I have been guilty of doing this to myself before.
I started my master’s program in 2016/17, immediately after graduating with my bachelor’s degree. Being the overachiever that I was, I felt that I could dive into the deep end headfirst and start the next chapter of my life. Everything started out seemingly fine, but I soon realized that I was not as good of a swimmer as I thought, and in reality, I was drowning. I do not intend to imply that this lifepath is wrong. What I am saying is that it was not the best choice for me. Halfway through my program, I had to take a mental health leave of absence. When I first thought of leaving, I had to sit on the idea for a month. I debated even taking the break, as the productivity demon ate up my thoughts. When I was finally able to silence the demon, I left. I tried to return to school after a year, and I was still not mentally well enough, so I left again. In the fall of 2020, I finally returned as the best version of myself thus far. In the time I was gone, I took care of my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. What I realized was that my extended break was not about fixing my brain, it was about picking up the fragments of my overworked, broken self, and putting them back together again.
Many Indigenous nations’ teachings include the Medicine Wheel, which is comprised of the four sacred medicines, directions, times of day, seasons, and of course, the states of being. These components are known as your Spiritual, Emotional, Mental, and Physical States. Just as the four seasons change, and as the four directions guide us, our four states of being encapsulate all parts of the human experience. When we are unwell in one of the four areas, the other three are subsequently affected, and our being is not balanced. When we do not practice self-care, we risk endangering any or all of the four states of being. Going on a
leave of absence gave me what Ahmed calls a “Permission Note” (p. 244), to take care of my states of being.
It also reminds me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which is the practice of putting a broken dish or pot back together with golden dust-filled lacquer. In cases where the hole is too large, it is filled with a thicker substance called resin. Taking a break allowed me to put my pot back together again, but not in the same way it had been before. I returned as a better, healthier, more beautiful pot, shimmering with gold.
I realized that in taking my leave of absence and in putting myself first, I had killed joy. Not my own joy, but the joy of others. The joy of needing to follow the “right” path to finish the degree at all costs, and against all odds. The joy of finishing the degree “on time.” When you take a break, to take care of your states of being, you will kill joy. You must be okay with killing the joy of others in order to better yourself. You need to be okay with taking a break, so you do not snap. The kind of snap that puts you at risk of not finishing your graduate program. Maybe your break is only 30 minutes away from your computer, or a sick day, or weekend getaway. Maybe your break will kill joy, as mine did, and end up being a year or two away from school. Take time to pause and figure it out. After all, it is not a race, it is an experience. The degree you get when you cross that finish line in a cap and gown is the same in two years as it is in five or six. So, I challenge you to whole-heartedly experience this degree. Experience your classes, your coursework, and your learning journey. Experience it. And make sure you kill others’ joy while doing it.
ITEM FOUR: IMPERFECTIONS
Having imperfections as a tool in my toolkit is how I proclaim that I am alright with being imperfect in a world that demands perfection. When I was off from school and caring for my states of being, I had a lot of time to think about imperfections. During that period, I often felt as though my life was failing - falling into the abyss. When I finally realized I was okay with killing joy, and with following my own life path, I recognized how beautiful imperfection can be. One of my greatest school-related anxieties was how much pressure I put on myself to get straight A’s, and as close to a 4.0 GPA as possible. Part of my healing journey and of taking care of myself, was realizing that this is not realistic. You are in your graduate program first and foremost, to learn. Learning is meant to be a journey, not a destination. Even after you graduate with your master’s degree, you will continue to learn, grow, and improve yourself. You do not always need to get an A. You and your experiences are worth more than a grade point average.
Because you are always learning, it is also just as important to be open-minded and open to new ideas. As a graduate student, part of this mindset is about being corrected or put in your place when needed. The reality of it is, you are not always right all the time. Part of the experience of being a human being is being wrong. This happens more often than you think. As an Indigenous Feminist, one of my life goals is to make the world a bit better than the one I was born into. This goal is not possible if I am not open to learning, being corrected, or being put in my place when needed. This is especially true of corrections coming from marginalized groups that I do not belong to. As a cis-gendered, Indigenous woman, I cannot speak to the experiences of other women of colour, transgender men, or non-binary people, to name a few. If and when I make mistakes, or say something offensive, it is my responsibility to listen to how and why I am being corrected. I am also accountable for correcting and learning from my mistakes, from my imperfections. Humans are imperfect after all. It is how you handle those imperfections that counts the most.
ITEM FIVE: RELATIONS
In my native language (Mi’kmaw), one of our most important lessons is "M’sit No’kmaq." The direct translation of this saying is “All My Relations,” meaning that all humans are created equal and should always be treated as such. The term also translates as the need to hold close to you the relations that make you whole. Before I had snapped—before the pot had broken and the cracks were beginning to form—some of my closest relations were the classmates in my graduate cohort. We reviewed course work together, read each other’s assignments, and gave each other shoulders to cry on when the going got tough. When my cracked pot began crumbling, my classmates supplied lacquer as much and as often as they could. Eventually, my mental health was in an uncompromising state, and the pot broke into several pieces. This is where I snapped, and where the leave of absence came in. When the snap happened, the relations I have and continue to hold close to me helped pick up the fragments of my overwhelmed self, and they patiently sat with me while I reassembled myself. My family and friends were a fundamental part of the equation, and I would not be where I am today if it had not been for their undying love, support, and continuous encouragement to keep going. When and where they could, they provided lacquer so I could try to glue the pieces of ceramic together.
A fundamental part of my survival during this time—and as an Indigenous Feminist graduate student, in general—is my loving partner. Not only did he sit with me, but he also helped me fill the cracks in my broken pot, guiding me towards the gold lacquer. On several occasions, especially at my lowest points, he added the gold to the crystal-clear liquid himself. He often did this without me realizing it, or in some cases, he would quietly pretend I had done it myself. He was (and continues to be), the gold that filled the cracks, and made the pot look more beautiful and complete than it ever had. Along with my partner are my wonderful animals, who are essentially my children. They have brought and continue to bring me so much joy and happiness. Their gold, sparkly stencils help bring the pot to life, making it so much more unique and special. I could not live without my fur babies.
Finally, the last ceramic pieces that come together to make the pot whole, are the connections I have with my communities. The BIPOC and Queer communities that I have been fortunate enough to connect with have livened my spirituality and made me into a whole and more complete person. They helped heal the states of my being that had been fractured by intergenerational trauma. They added different colours of dust to the lacquer and provided beautifully coloured resin to fill larger cracks that could not be repaired with the thin, gold lacquer. They were, and are, an essential part of my survival kit, of my overall survival.
My point in sharing about my relations is to encourage you to strengthen the bonds of your current relations, and to seek out new connections that strengthen you. Everyone’s list of relations will be different. Some may have more chosen family over legal or bloodline family, some may include children/grandchildren, and some may not include a life partner or pets. Your list is yours. It is part of your survival, not only as a graduate student but as a being, as a person. Your relations are your lifeline.
ITEM SIX: PASTIMES
Another lesson I learned when I went on a leave of absence, is that the program should not take up all of your time, all of the time. While it is an important part of your life and your journey to bettering yourself, it is not meant to consume your every waking hour or keep you from getting a good night’s rest. As I have gotten older, it has been difficult not to get swept up in adult life, or to not be consumed by the work-until-you-drop mindset. This was especially true since I was raised with the principle that work comes before play or relaxation and that not getting all of your work done first was synonymous with laziness. These are the thoughts that the productivity demon planted in my mind, sowing seeds of exhaustion and burnout. What is dangerous about this type of mindset, is that it leaves little room, if any, for balance. While my leave of absence from school allowed me to take care of my physical, mental, and emotional health, I was also able to take care of my spiritual health. This happened quite by mistake.
You see, when I was younger I used to love pastimes such as painting, scrapbooking, or making crafts. It allowed me an escape from my household chores, homework, and the kids who bullied me for not wearing brand-named clothes. However, when my life equation included rent, insurance, and taxes, my pastimes were left in the margins. What continued to leave my pastimes in those margins, is that our capitalist society can also make us regularly feel as though everything we produce has to be accompanied by monetary or professional gain. This is one of the biggest lies that you, and I, (and everyone else) have been told. You are allowed to paint for fun. You can create, mould, or craft something, and when you are done, you do not have to sell it. You can learn to play guitar, not as a way to advance your career, but as an escape from your office job. Even when the world is on fire, you are allowed to take a break from helping to put out the flames. Lighthouses do not go searching for ships about to crash along the shore; they help when they can, as much as they can. You as a graduate student, as a Feminist, as a human being, are more than what you can produce, or what you contribute to your country’s GDP. Your non-monetary pastimes are a form of resistance and a form of surviving your graduate program. So, enjoy making music, crocheting a hat, or even playing video games. Take that much-needed break from your research, from your job, and from the many curveballs that life can and will throw at you. Life is much too short after all.
ITEM SEVEN: LAUGHTER
This one is short and sweet, as it should be. You could say that this tool fits into almost all the other categories, however, laughter holds a special place in my heart, and it deserves its own category. While the adage “laughter is the best medicine” might be cliché, it rings true for people from all walks of life. As a graduate student, an Indigenous Feminist, and a human being, laughter has gotten me through some of my toughest points in life; the points where I broke, snapped, cracked. The relations I hold close to my heart often fill my life with laughter and joy. When my animals do silly things, a smile starts to form, and inevitably a little chuckle follows. When I watch standup comedy or funny videos, I have more than a few good belly laughs. When my family is goofing around, or my partner and I are being silly, I howl and roar with laughter, my sides hurting, and tears rolling down my cheeks. At some of my lowest points in life, in and out of graduate school, laughter really has been my best medicine. As a graduate student be sure to find the people, the things, and the experiences that make you laugh. It is an essential part of your toolkit, of your survival, and of your state of being.
M’sit No’kmaq (All My Relations).
1. Lukowaqane’kmuti (lu·go·wa·hga·nee·gê·mu·di) = tool kit
2. Sapawsit (sa·baw·sit) = survive
Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist
Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. 1989
(1), 139-167, University of Chicago Legal Forum.
Hill-Collins, P. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics
of empowerment. New York: Routledge.
hooks, b. (1981). Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. New York: Routledge.
Joe, R. (2019). I Lost My Talk. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.
Joseph, B. (2018). 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act. Vancouver: Page
Two Books, Inc.
King, T. (2012). The Inconvenient Indian. Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
Talaga, T. (2018). All Our Relations. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Thomas, R. (2020). I’m Finding My Talk. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.
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