Meet Our Researchers: Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon

Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon is a research scientist in youth development at Child Trends, a Native Children’s Research Exchange cohort 11 scholar, and an adjunct faculty member at American University.

Dr. Gordon, can you briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Heather Sauyaq Jean Gordon (Iñupiaq, citizen of the Nome Eskimo Community). My Iñupiaq name is Sauyaq, which was gifted to me by my grandmother after the passing of her younger sister of the same name. Sauyaq means ‘drum,’ and I work to advocate for Indigenous rights, metaphorically beating the drum. My husband is Kissi from Kenya, and from his community I have been gifted the name Kwamboka, which means crossing a bridge—illustrated through my bridging of our two cultures.

Can you tell us about your primary research interest(s)?

My primary research interest is directly related to being a good relative and honoring my ancestors. My grandmother, Mary Jean Kaguna Yenney, is a strong family matriarch, and I spent a lot of time with her as a child and later in life hearing her stories about her life and Iñupiaq culture. Learning from my grandmother about our family’s experiences with colonization, boarding schools, assimilation, and racism was the inspiration behind my primary research interest: working with Indigenous Peoples to address colonization and the resulting historical trauma to achieve well-being for children, youth, families, and communities.

I approach research through listening and learning, knowing that the people I work with are the true experts on their communities, cultures, and lives. My research approach aligns with Indigenous methodologies by 1) being asset-based; 2) being participatory; 3) privileging Indigenous Knowledge and data sovereignty; 4) engaging in the co-production of knowledge; 5) engaging in free, prior, and informed consent; and 6) creating space for storytelling and trust building. I seek to help Indigenous Knowledge and voices be heard by policymakers and other decision makers.

What sparked your interest in research on Indigenous children, youth, family, and community well-being?

I arrived at this research focus as a result of learning about my family’s history and dealing with a series of academic experiences that minimized Indigenous Peoples. First, my undergrad race and ethnic studies classes rarely, if ever, mentioned Indigenous Peoples in literature or in class. Then, my first PhD program left out Indigenous Peoples in race and ethnic studies reading lists and exposed me to experiences of racism from a faculty member who minimized colonization and Indigenous Peoples’ importance in research.

I decided to elevate Indigenous Peoples’ experiences and Knowledge through my Master’s work with Kalaallit (Inuit Greenlanders) on building mutually beneficial relationships in research. I also sought a PhD program specializing in Indigenous Studies, a program that valued my choice to uplift Indigenous Peoples’ issues, experiences, self-determination, and Knowledge. Finally, I sought a career that would allow me to partner with Indigenous Nations and organizations on research questions important to them—to address colonization and well-being, but also to provide a space for elevating Indigenous issues and Knowledge in policy, academics, and decision making.

What books have most influenced you?

Two works have been central to my understanding of mutually beneficial research: Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, Māori) and Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods by Shawn Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree). The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi, The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon, and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere helped me understand how to articulate colonization and oppression and how to go about ending these circumstances through self-determination. Addressing colonization through self-determination is central to my approach to research and my own life. Outside of academic reading, I love the Dune series by Frank Herbert, continued by his son Brian Herbert and co-author Kevin Anderson.

What are your hobbies or interests outside of research?

I love animals (my cat Sasha), music, and being outside! I grew up near a very small town, Homer, AK, which is on the ocean and has an amazing view of snow-capped mountains across the bay. I love being in the forest, mountains, or on the beach, as well as hiking, soccer, snowboarding, biking, rollerblading, ice skating, cross-country skiing, kayaking, paddleboarding, swimming, and horseback riding (if I can find a horse). I also love to carry on Indigenous subsistence (fishing, berry picking, etc.) and beading I was taught by my grandmother’s youngest sister, Peggy Sauyaq (for whom I was named).

I love to spend time with family as well, which usually requires traveling. My husband and I live in Washington, DC but my family is in Alaska and his is in Kenya. Spending time with my Iñupiaq grandmother and her sister playing Skip-bo when I am in Alaska is a favorite of mine, as is listening to their stories. I also enjoy traveling and snorkeling, which stems from studying Arabic in Egypt for two semesters in undergrad.

To wrap up, can you tell us a fun or interesting fact about yourself?

I grew up near Homer, Alaska, on Ohlson Mountain Road on my grandmother’s (Mary Jean Kaguna Yenney’s) reindeer ranch. My grandmother brought reindeer to her homestead from White Mountain, Alaska on a 747 airplane. The reindeer were loaded four at a time into covered pickup trucks and transported the 30 minutes from the Homer airport to our ranch. As the reindeer were let out of the trucks, they all lined up at the water trough and took turns jumping in to cool off. I absolutely loved how our family would come together every spring for a reindeer roundup, an experience that let me spend wonderful time with my cousins.