For as long as she can remember, Tarene Thomas (’19 BA, English) has had two driving forces in her life: writing and community. And these forces have always been intricately connected.
“One of the main things that motivates me to write is the stories that come from the Indigenous community and my experience growing up on the reserve,” explains Thomas, who is Gitxan, Tahltan, Haisla and Cree, and was raised in Enoch Cree Nation.
Thomas spent her years at the U of A working to further both of these passions, pursuing a major in the Department of English and Film Studies (where she “maxed out” her creative writing credits) and numerous courses through the Faculty of Native Studies. She found strong mentors in these areas, including professors Keavy Martin, Christine Stewart and Tracy Bear.
Working with Stewart as part of one of her creative writing classes, Thomas was able to connect her studies directly back to her community by leading poetry workshops with high school students on the Enoch Cree Nation. “It was really nice for the students to just see people in their classroom who looked like them and who were practicing the arts, writing poetry at the university,” she says.
Thomas’s interest in working with youth also inspired her to take part in running an after-school arts program and a summer performing arts program in her home community, where students engaged in writing, acting, music and film-making.
On campus, she embraced challenges outside of her studies that allowed her to focus on her art and community work in new ways. For a year and a half, Thomas served as the Indigenous student blogger for the Faculty of Arts blog, writing about issues that were relevant to the Indigenous community and specifically Indigenous students on campus, including different activist movements that were taking place throughout Canada at the time.
English and Film Studies grad Tarene Thomas is part of the next generation of Indigenous writers and community leaders
Thomas was also a member of the Arts Working Group for Indigenous Initiatives. The group, which was formed in response to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, works to make the Faculty of Arts a more welcoming and accessible place for Indigenous students.
Thomas was involved in activities like organizing panel discussions about Treaty 6 and the history of Papaschase and trying to incorporate more Indigenous content into classrooms. As the only Indigenous undergraduate student in the group at the time, she played an important role. “I was able to bring a different perspective to the table,” she says. “To shine light on areas that weren’t really being talked about.”
Looking back at her time on campus, Thomas is grateful for the community she discovered here. “The Indigenous community at the U of A is really rich,” she says. “There are a lot of great people.”
“I was in a place where I was able to look at the world in a different way,” she adds. “I was able to learn how to think critically and navigate a colonial space.”
Thomas is currently working on her first novel as the thesis project for her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, with plans to continue her education afterwards by completing a PhD in Native Studies. She foresees a future where she’ll be writing and teaching, with an unwavering commitment to working with young people and giving back to her community.
“I’ll be working with youth, building relationships with other Indigenous communities, working on different projects in terms of trying to lessen the blows of colonialism and inter-generational trauma,” she says. “[That’s] one of the main things that drives me in my life and why I do the things I do.”