Dr. Martha Many Grey Horses has come full circle with her appointment as director of the University of Lethbridge’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit Centre.
Originally from the Kainai First Nation, Many Grey Horses lived, studied and worked in the United States for many years before returning to Canada and more recently to southern Alberta.
“I feel very excited that the University of Lethbridge has taken on this initiative. I feel it is a big step forward for the education of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people,” she says.
Many Grey Horses’ duties include managing Iikaisskini, the U of L’s FNMI Gathering Place, and co-ordinating initiatives across the University, with institutional partners and in the broader community.
Her own educational journey has given her experience, insight and wisdom that will benefit U of L Aboriginal students as they embark upon, continue and complete their post-secondary education.
A descendant of Chief Red Crow, she grew up with parents who demonstrated a traditional spiritual life. Her father, Alphonse, was the leader of societies and her mother, Ruth, supported the responsibilities that came with leadership. Her parents were keepers of the medicine pipe bundles and, as a child, she saw many ceremonies taking place in her home and spent time in the company of elders.
The residential school system, which she entered at age five, did not provide a positive association with education. She persisted nonetheless, completing her primary education at residential school and graduating from public high school in Cardston. While her parents encouraged their children to get an education, they also urged them to continue their spiritual development.
“We were living at a time when, as a teenager and even as a child, our personal cultural identity as nations was not nurtured by the government or by the society in general,” she says. “My parents understood that those traditional values were strongly connected to our personal cultural identity and that we must have a strong cultural foundation in order to survive or to function in this world out here.”
After high school, Many Grey Horses didn’t imagine she would go to college. She wanted to be at home where she could devote herself to her two passions — riding horses and sewing dresses. After staying at home for a while, her parents told her it was time to go to college. She began her studies at Mount Royal College and quit during the first semester.
“I went back home and informed my parents I had quit. I thought life would return to normal,” she says. “One day, my father was going to town and I hopped in without asking permission. Then he asked me ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘I’m going to town with you.’ He said ‘No, you’re not coming to town with me. You decided to quit school. You find your way to town.’”
Her father’s words proved to be a turning point. She thought about them all day and by the time he arrived back home, she had made up her mind to return to school.
After completing two years at Mount Royal, she went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in social work at Montana State University and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Denver. She also completed a fellowship in Washington, D.C., and another master’s degree in educational administration and human development at National University in San Diego. Many Grey Horses went on to achieve a PhD in educational thought and social cultural studies from Arbor University in Arizona.
“My education was not handed to me on a silver platter. I didn’t have a lot of money as a student so earlier on in my life I knew that I had to rely on my academic abilities,” she says. “The sacrifices I made through all those years, the loving discipline of my parents as a child — being on task, being on time, listening and completing assignments— all those life-enhancing values kicked in for me.”
Her early negative experiences with education were transformed when she began attending universities in the United States. There, she was greeted by a welcoming atmosphere and, coupled with the pride of identity shown by her American Indian peers, her perception of her cultural identity began to shift.
“To me that was the turning point. I found I had a strong desire to strive for academic excellence,” she says.
Being able to nurture the same desires in today’s students by building a community that brings together academic studies and traditional indigenous teachings drew Many Grey Horses to apply for the position of director at the U of L FNMI Centre.
“The U of L’s emphasis on creating an environment that is conducive to the personal, social, academic and cultural aspirations of students, staff and faculty is broad and very inclusive and that’s what I like about it,” she says.