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A heart’s journey

Mi'kmaw researcher working to improve health and wellness in her community


By Marcia Porter

When you meet Erica Samms Hurley, you can’t help but notice her earrings.

They are handcrafted works of art: some are wooden, some are fabric with tiny beads, others are made of fish skin. They are also a visible connection to her community and heritage.

“I am Mi’kmaw, connected to my community through my parents, Jim and Gail Samms, of Mount Moriah,” said the assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing.

One of five Indigenous scholars hired in winter 2022 by Memorial University, Ms. Hurley is based at Grenfell Campus.

She is cross-appointed to the School of Arts and Social Sciences and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program; she’s also a registered nurse who taught at the Western Regional School of Nursing (WRSON) for a number of years.

“I’m from the west coast of Newfoundland and I’m lucky enough to stay in the community, to really position where my research is situated,” she said. “I was lucky enough to grow up in my culture and lucky enough to bring that lived experience to my work and everything I do.”

A Journey of the Heart: What Heart Means to Mi’kmaw Women of Western Newfoundland, is the foundation of her doctoral research at the University of Alberta’s School of Nursing.

It’s research that she’s doing hand in hand with her community; and, two Mi’kmaw women sit on her PhD supervisory committee.

Effects of racism

A Journey of the Heart is an academic pursuit, but it’s also about Ms. Hurley’s personal journey and evolution as a Mi’kmaw researcher and woman.

Her grandfather, Wilson Samms, helped lead the struggle for Indigenous rights in the province. He formed and became first chief of the Benoit’s Cove Band.

As a child, Ms. Hurley was steeped in the life of her community, often spending time with her grandfather in his craft shop.

However, a lot of stereotypical racism at the time meant things weren’t always easy for her, particularly in her teenage years.

“Everyone knew who I was, knew my family. As I got older, I stopped going to things and didn’t want to participate.”

Woman with long hair and brightly-patterned shirt stands by a wall with Indigenous writing on it.
Erica Hurley says she went back to her Mi’kmaw teachings to decide on a path for her doctoral research.
Photo: Lori Lee Pike

It wasn’t until she went to university that she was able to find her voice again, especially during her nursing program at WRSON, when she started rejoining community activities.

“Nursing was a place where you developed a voice and learned to use it because you were advocating for clients, for community. I felt that responsibility.”

She loved nursing, loved the dynamic of constantly learning new things. When she had the chance to become a clinical instructor, she loved that, too.

“I had a lot to unpack. I had to decolonize myself at times.” — Erica Hurley

She completed a master’s degree and decided to pursue her PhD in nursing just a few years ago.

With heart disease so prevalent among Indigenous Peoples, she began her doctoral work thinking she’d look at cardiovascular disease from a physiological perspective.

“But I had a lot to unpack. I had to decolonize myself at times,” Ms. Hurley said. “I had to understand that I grew up within a westernized system, within a westernized curriculum, and that it’s not the only way.”

Her supervisors supported her to go deeper, to consider what she really wanted to do, so she returned to her community to speak with the knowledge keepers and the women she knew.

“[Women] know what supports their health.” — Erica Hurley

Research on heart health in the community was needed, they told her, encouraging her to take an approach positioned within a Mi’kmaw world view.

“I really went back to my cultural teachings, my Mi’kmaw teachings,” she said. “The more I unpacked, the further I went, and with the support I received it became clear that I was going to focus on the meaning of heart to the Mi’kmaw women of western Newfoundland.

“We know that traditional westernized approaches, the biomedical model, have not worked, particularly for Indigenous women,” Ms. Hurley continued. “It’s always that negative thought process. We are always worse off. There are always deficits. Let’s support women in the positives, and the positives are that they know what they need. They know what supports their health.”

‘Voice and space’

The exchanges were guided by the women themselves, including how they wanted to meet and what they wanted to share.

She’s not sharing her preliminary findings just yet; she wants to make sure she’s accurately captured the women’s stories before presenting to the community for input.

“What I want for everyone to think about and reflect on is that we can’t move forward with the idea that everything is going to fit westernized thought. We have to give voice and space to Indigenous world views. The notion of health and wellness in health care can be changed to improve Mi’kmaw women’s health.”

Interested in learning more about research taking place at Memorial? Check out the calendar of events for Research Week, running Nov. 21–25!

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