As a first-year student at the University of Alberta years ago, Melanie Dene was understandably nervous. But when she got to James Dempsey’s class, she instantly felt better.
“To see him I would never have guessed that he was a professor. He had long bushy hair and he wore a Native Pride hat, dark glasses, T-shirts, jeans, a leather coat and he carried an old-school briefcase, the kind you click on the sides.”
Wrapped in the Faculty of Native Studies professor’s down-to-earth vibe, the young woman from Mikisew Cree First Nation in northern Alberta felt welcomed and a little less alone.
”Seeing him was like seeing an uncle from your home community,” she recalls.
It’s a memory she will treasure as FNS and the U of A remember the beloved longtime professor, who passed away on April 15.
Dempsey, a bedrock member of FNS, was commemorated in a celebration of life hosted by the Faculty of Native Studies on June 2.
“James was a brilliant, original and innovative scholar and a committed teacher. He leaves a powerful legacy,” says FNS dean Chris Andersen.
Dempsey, a member of the Blood Tribe, held a bachelor of arts degree from the U of A and a master of arts degree from the University of Calgary and a PhD from the University of East Anglia in England.
He arrived at the U of A in 1992 to serve as the second director of what was then the School of Native Studies. His advocacy during the five years of his term helped the fledgling school survive before it eventually became a full faculty in 2006.
“He kept it alive during difficult fiscal times and in a totally different era from what we have today, when there wasn’t much interest in the field of Native studies,” recalls FNS professor Frank Tough, Dempsey’s colleague for 23 years.
Dempsey also played a key role in the U of A’s early ethics discussions around research engagement with Indigenous communities, Andersen notes.
“James had a gift for ‘translating’ between the university and the Indigenous community and was a great comfort and help in navigating those dynamics.”
In 1998, Dempsey became an associate professor of Native studies and, in that role with FNS, taught hundreds of students over the next 30 years about general Indigenous history, the history of Indigenous peoples in Western Canada, the Indian Act and land claims.
His extensive knowledge as a scholar of history was amazing, Andersen says.
“He loved exploring the minutiae of historical sources and made wide use of them in his projects — everything from maps to archival sources, art and First World War Indigenous soldiers’ ephemera – to glean broader patterns about historical life. And he was an encyclopedia of First Nations history in Western Canada.”
As a scholar and author, Dempsey also left behind a robust fact-based body of work, including a book chronicling Blackfoot war art from 1880 to 2000 that will serve future generations, said Tough.
“When someone wants to read about that topic 100 years from now, his work is likely to be the first they go to because it’s a gem of scholarship that will transcend time — and that’s what good scholarship is all about.”
His caring, unpretentious nature and personal approach to teaching made him popular with students, Andersen says.
“James spent countless hours with them one-on-one, patiently answering their questions. They knew he cared about their success.”
Dempsey’s classes inspired Dene to want to learn more, she says.
“He was a wealth of knowledge, like a time capsule. He knew everything about everything, the histories of all Indigenous people, American Indians, Eastern tribes. I found myself buying more books. As an Indigenous person I felt like I learned so much more about Indigenous history and culture.”
Dempsey also had a way of teaching that made her feel valued, Dene adds.
“I always felt like my opinion was heard, and he would challenge me on it sometimes, but he created a space where you could feel safe, and even if you didn’t fully understand what he was teaching, he’d teach it in a way where you would get it.”
Dempsey’s steady hand and compassion as a graduate supervisor helped her complete a master of arts in Native studies she’d almost given up on, said Darlene Horseman.
She hadn’t clicked with her first supervisor and was also grappling with the traumatic theme of colonialism and its particular impact on Indigenous women for her thesis, but that eased when Dempsey started working with her, Horseman remembers.
“I found it hurtful to research all the injustices, and he would talk about what he would go through when he was writing his thesis, and it gave me a sense of hey, I’m not the only one going through this.”
Dempsey was determined that she finish, so, every Friday for months, Horseman drove six hours from her northwest Alberta community of Horse Lake to meet with him.
“He wouldn’t let me give up. He’d tell me, ‘You’re learning about your history and you’re going to persevere.’”
Now on a tenure track as the only Indigenous studies instructor at Northwestern Polytechnic in Grande Prairie, Horseman says it wouldn’t have been possible without Dempsey.
“He was hugely responsible for my success and my career and was by far the kindest man I’ve ever met.”
That compassion also proved to be a turning point for Dene.
After giving birth to a son during her studies, Dene wasn’t sure she belonged in school anymore. But the tot was welcomed into class alongside his mother, where he crawled happily and was occasionally carried around by Dempsey as he taught.
The gesture meant everything to Dene, who went on to earn a degree in Native Studies and a master of arts.
“He was one of the professors who encouraged me to keep coming to class, who said, ‘Just bring him; he’s going to learn too.’
“That empowered me and kept me in school.”
She only wishes other students had the chance to know him.
“We’ve lost an incredible professor, and it’s sad that students won’t get that privilege of learning from him. It’s a huge loss.”
| By Bev Betkowski
Bev is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
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