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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Emily Macgillivray

Coming to U-M has helped Emily develop her Canadian identity. She explains, “I’m slightly more patriotic since coming to the U.S., possibly because by living in a different country, I see national identity that I didn’t realize I had and am now becoming more aware of.”

In her Master’s in Gender Studies project at Queens University in Ontario, Emily examined how race in native and Black communities was depicted in Ontario public school history textbooks. During that process, she says, “In academic and popular histories of Canada, I came across these really interesting historical moments between native and Black people. Contemporary feminist theories weren’t drawing on those connections and I was frustrated that in the Canadian context I couldn’t find any thorough work on those connections. In the U.S., however, I found a growing body of work.” One of the first anthologies on the work, Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds, was co-edited by U-M faculty member Tiya Miles. That was enough of a connection to ultimately draw Emily to doctoral studies at U-M. Unfamiliar with Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, Emily was impressed by the faculty she met in Native American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies when visiting the school. With many Canadian options, she and her partner took the leap and moved to the U.S.

At U-M, Emily began to look into historical moments between Black and native peoples. She took more history coursework to ground her research from a contemporary feminist theory to one with a strong historical perspective. She explains, “I gained the understanding of an 18th or early 19th century historian. From there, I worked with people focused on native histories that were centered on the power held by native people. Specifically around the Great Lakes, I found these moments of native women who owned slaves and land. Originally, that made me think in terms of assimilation, but the more I dug into the native history aspect of these stories, I learned about native slavery in the Great Lakes and it changed the perspective of the project.”

“These women were making strategic decisions, gaining property broadly – land, trade goods and slaves – and they used property to culminate in land, particularly for use by family and friends. They were a group of community builders making really strategic moves to hold property during changes like the American Revolution and building of national border lines. As they lived through these turbulent political periods, they both experienced racialized violence as they had to fight against EuroAmerican encroachment on their land, and enacted racialized violence as owners of slaves,” she describes.

Above and beyond her academic dissertation, she states, “I hope to tell histories that interest the general public as well. I’d like my histories to speak to a range of people, native communities, women, people who are interested in the Great Lakes local histories or historical events like the War of 1812. To understand a history of women in the region, you have to start with native women. I also hope my research speaks to people who never thought of this population. I hope it helps them think about history in a slightly different way.” At Michigan, Emily has learned new approaches to connect her work with the public, such as working on a collaborative team of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to produce a website on the history of slavery in Detroit, presenting at local history conferences, and participating in the Mellon Public Humanities programs, including an Immersive on publishing and open access.

Emily is roughly halfway through writing her dissertation. She’s spent a lot of time in archives and exploring the state of Michigan, much to her delight. She relates, “My partner and I are pretty outdoorsy, and neither of us knew how beautiful Michigan was before we came. The beaches, dunes, and landscape of Michigan were total surprises in a really great way. It’s been neat to explore the state to simply go hiking but also to blend a better feel for the history of the state and complete my research at the same time.”

Hailing from cities around the same size as Ann Arbor, Emily still notes distinctions between her current hometown and those from her childhood and college years in Canada. “Canada is more spread out, but here we have Detroit just 45 minutes away. It is nice to get out of town and have Detroit be so close to get away.”

Grad school has been busy but Emily sees the support around her as evidence that U-M was the right choice for her. She describes, “I have a really great department. Grad students in American Culture are all doing very different things but are really supportive of each other, and the administrative staff and faculty are really great. In the Native American Studies community, there are so many disciplines represented. While there is no formal graduate school certificate, we have a Native American Studies program and a wonderful Rackham Interdisciplinary Workgroup (RIW) through which we can organize a decent number of events throughout the year.”

Her RIW attracts students from American culture, history, anthropology, environmental sciences, psychology and other fields, looking broadly at areas and issues related to native studies that are interesting for members of the group. She says, “We have so much support within grad students and faculty and are constantly workshopping chapters and conference papers. It is more informal than a department, but it has been a really great community.”

“That Rackham has funding to do things like RIWs is really wonderful. I was just telling a prospective student from Canada that she won’t find this sort of thing anywhere else,” she says. Emily has participated in What Now? for the Humanities, a Rackham program designed to offer alternative career exploration to humanities graduate students. She will be a part of the Mellon Public Humanities Fellow program this summer, interning at the Charles S. Wright African American Museum in Detroit. Next year, she will be a fellow at the Institute for the Humanities, something she considers to be, “a really amazing Michigan interdisciplinary opportunity.”

Emily will apply for postdoctoral and tenure track positions in the fall both in the U.S. and in Canada for her first round of postgraduate school placement efforts. She sees positive opportunities on both sides of the border. She reflects, “In terms of community, I became more connected to other academics in the U.S. I’ve maintained ties with the academy in Canada, but feel the biggest part of my academic community has grown in here.” Open to any options ahead of her, she’ll look at positions in public history jobs, museums or historic sites as well.