by Chelsea Vowel
Indigenous women and two-spirited people are leading a resurgence movement in iyiniwi-ministik, the People’s Island. They draw on their traditional roles as protectors of the land and water to inform their work in our communities, and root themselves in their specific socio-political orders to counter colonialism and to revitalize language and culture. Rather than being defined as a struggle against patriarchal gender roles and the division of labour, Indigenous women and two-spirited people’s work combats the imposition of colonial barriers. The goal is not to attain gender equality, but rather to restore Indigenous nationhood, which includes gender equality and respect for gender fluidity.
As I write this I can hear Khelsilem Rivers (Skwxwú7mesh-Kwakwaka‘wakw), a community organizer from Vancouver, pointing out that not all Indigenous peoples have the same traditions, and that to avoid perpetuating Pan-Indian stereotypes, we need to have honest discussions about the diversity of our traditions. This is an important point indeed, as not all Indigenous nations have the same traditions with respect to the fluidity of gender roles. Romanticizing ourselves as a collective unfortunately plays into “noble savage” stereotypes and does damage in the long run. With so many Indigenous people disconnected from their specific traditions, even so-called positive stereotypes are a form of continuing erasure.
Even among nations with traditional binary gender roles or hierarchical socio-political orders, there is nothing that can accurately compare to the system of patriarchy imposed by colonialism which mainstream Settler feminism aligns itself against. Our internal struggles with traditional roles are not analogous to the issues that Settler peoples have with their traditions, and so using western liberal theory to deconstruct them is inherently incongruous.
Indigenous traditions are not frozen in time any more than other people’s traditions are. Our peoples have been trading more than goods for thousands of years, passing along ceremonies, medicines, and ideas just as easily as copper and fish. We are capable of change and have no reason not to embrace it, as long as that change respects our reciprocal obligations to one another and to the territories in which we live. We do not need to look to western liberal notions of individual equality, which so often ignore our communal existence and insist that land and resources must be thought of as property. Instead, we can look to the laws of our Indigenous neighbours if we need to review our traditions. It is precisely this approach that is being taken up by many women and two-spirited individuals in Indigenous communities as they pursue sexual health, revitalization of language and culture, and renewal of relationships with the land.
In a recent piece titled “Beyond Eve Ensler: What Should Organizing Against Gender Violence Look Like,” Cherokee scholar Andrea Smith points out that, “the very category of ‘woman’ has served as a tool of violence… Colonialism has operated by imposing a gender binary system in indigenous communities in order to facilitate the imposition of colonial heteropatriarchy.” She goes on to suggest that organizing around violence against trans and two-spirited peoples is central to any struggle against gender violence. It is important to understand that this struggle against gender violence is central to Indigenous decolonization efforts, and cannot be separated from that context.
The focus on trans and two-spirited people as central to decolonization is incredibly important. The groundbreaking work of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) epitomizes this approach. NYSHN works with “Indigenous peoples across the United States and Canada to advocate for and build strong, comprehensive, and culturally safe sexuality and reproductive health, rights, and justice initiatives in their own communities.” NYSHN provides pragmatic, honest, and clear information on sexual health, and also engages in the renewal and revitalization of Indigenous traditions related to all aspects of Indigenous health.
The barriers currently facing Indigenous women and two-spirited people are severe and informed by the history of colonialism. These barriers include the refusal of the Canadian government to institute an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as the ongoing removal of Indigenous children from their families in numbers that exceed those taken by the residential school system and the sixties scoop combined. This cataclysmic interference has taken a devastating toll on the health of all of our people, but colonially imposed gender imbalances ensure that Indigenous women and two-spirited people bear the brunt of the consequences. The added marginalization experienced by two-spirited people can sometimes be overlooked because the social outcomes for Indigenous peoples are already, in general, very grim. To look at any of this solely through the lens of Western feminism is to miss the larger picture.
The imposition of colonial patriarchy has marginalized Indigenous women and two-spirited people through Indian Act governance systems, and the Indian Act itself. Until 1985, when amendments were made to the Indian Act, an Indigenous woman who married a non-Indigenous man lost her legal status as an Indian, and was unable to pass on status to her children. In this way, generations of women and their children were denied their identities, and even their homes. The impact of the loss of legal identity is still being felt among Indigenous people through the struggle to reconnect with their families and communities.
Until very recently, two-spirited people were not recognized at all by Canadian law or society. In the eyes of Canadians they do not exist—they are concealed by the gender-essentialized structures of colonialism, which have abolished their traditional places in Indigenous societies. So effective were Church- and government-led erasures of our two-spirited peoples, that reconstructing traditional two-spirited roles and ceremonies is too often seen as peripheral to wider movements of resurgence. Andrea Smith’s call to recenter our resurgence around two-spirited people, and the work of groups like the NYSHN, reminds us that we must decolonize even our priorities as Indigenous peoples.
Structural erasures of Indigenous women and two-spirited people have had a role in shaping their work as agents of resurgence. In a way, the overwhelming masculinization of Indian Act governance systems has ensured that Indigenous women and two-spirited people are less likely to be co-opted by colonial powers, and less invested in maintaining those colonial structures. Indigenous women have continued to exercise power through traditional (and often unpaid) ways, maintaining traditional governance structures in many communities. Two-spirited people have not necessarily experienced the same retention of traditional roles, however, and much work is needed to reconstruct and recenter our two-spirited relations within our communities. Acknowledging and honouring two-spirited peoples is vital to resisting resurgence based on gender essentialisms that purport to “honour women” while simply recreating colonial patriarchal gender roles with a bit of “Indian flair.”
The deliberate exclusion of Indigenous women and two-spirited people from colonial structures of power has meant that almost by default, the work of these people is highly politicized, as it must happen outside those colonial structures. This is not to say that Indigenous women and two-spirited people have absolutely no access to colonial structures of power. In recent years, there has been more inclusion of women, though not necessarily of two-spirited people, in Indian Act governance systems. Yet one has only to do a head count of male to female Indian Act Chiefs to notice this recent inclusion shamefully mirrors the “inclusion” of women in Canadian politics, which is tokenism at best.
Indigenous women and two-spirited people experience all of the barriers faced by Settler women and LGBT people, as well as the barriers experienced by Indigenous people in a state defined by Settler colonialism. These barriers cannot be sifted out and separated from one another. If you understand this, it is much easier to comprehend the work being done by Indigenous people like Leanne Simpson, Cindy Blackstock, Andrea Smith, Christi Belcourt, Lee Maracle, Maria Campbell, Bridget Tolley, Jessica Danforth, and so many others. All of these people root their work in their Indigenous traditions, bringing forth traditional understandings in acts of resurgence so potent, and so compelling, that I urge every single person living in the People’s Island to become familiar with them.
Indigenous women and two-spirited people must bear a heavy burden, working to re-establish and revitalize Indigenous socio-political orders, exercise sovereignty, and live resurgence: indeed it can be very dangerous and draining work. It should not be required at all. We should not have to work so hard to overcome barriers imposed by people who were supposed to share these lands with us, as guests and eventually as kin. Nonetheless, to exist as an Indigenous woman or two-spirited person is an inherently political act. Simply resisting our erasure is part of our work.
Tania Willard, Secwepemc Nation, is an artist and designer based in Vancouver. Through her art and design she hopes to communicate the stories and voices we are unable to hear—the voices that are missing and erased from our histories and realities.
“Indigenous Women and Two-Spirited People: Our Work is Decolonization” is from our spring 2014 issue, Women’s Work
Most of the time when she is not dancing,
You see her tending to community,
When community is non-existent,
Fragmented conglomerations of identities,
There is a sound,
Of the jingles,
If you listen closely,
There is healing,
She has many gifts,
Often unheard or unseen,
She is cleansing,
Stepping through the dark caverns of her soul,
Of her family’s soul,
Of her communities soul,
Clearing the yellow haze of oppression,
She is the heart of our nations,
She deserves respect,
She deserves honor,
She deserves a safe home,
She deserves support in all forms,
She deserves love.
Colonial hands reached into the pockets of the young Native girl,
To take her money and she bought her way out of the rez,
To the curbside for work,
Banging on the door when it was locked,
This rez you know there is a lot of violence here,
Every place I lived the previous tenant was abusive of some sort,
That's poverty on the rez,
There was no job to be found anywhere on this land,
Especially for a young Native girl,
Banging on the door when it was locked,
What is culture on the rez if there is violence,
On the rez we left because were "not here half of the time,"
If she turned to what she was given,
This was unsafe,
Even in groups that stated she was safe,
Injustice swallowed in a meal meant for healing,
It was very cold,
And then a crisis came,
One billion rising on February 14th 2013,
And she couldn't rise,
From her house,
And she couldn't rise,
Under the dim light,
Under the bad wiring and flicking lights,
And she couldn't rise,
With snow falling upon the rez,
And she couldn't rise,
Because serving him and healing him became internalized,
This is not traditional,
Patriarchy is not traditional,
Subtle control of her spirit is not traditional,
So she lost herself,
In the maze of injustice,
In making the call,
And she couldn't rise,
Her body was frozen,
Back from the kitchen to the cold couch and to her room,
Tucked into corners,
Cleaned from corners,
Folded into clothes,
As she was ignored,
And remember why she couldn't rise.
Detroit organizer Charity Hicks on why a movement led by the "marginalized of the marginalized" can reset our relationship to each other and the Earth.
by Charity Hicks
A procession into the anti-fracking and land defence encampment at
Rexton, New Brunswick near Elsipogtog First Nation on October 7.
This is an exert from a longer interview conducted with Charity Hicks by Martin Lukacs in Detroit, Michigan, in the summer of 2013.
When you have leadership coming from the marginalized of the marginalized, the interlocking pressure of race and class and ethnic and gender hierarchies are shattered. Such women in leadership, those who have been subjected to wounds and trauma, represent a caring and concern. It's a beautiful place to be in, because as Idle No More idles no more, they're waking up and repairing relationships.
The first relationship you repair is the self to the self. So women that see themselves as the leadership, memory keepers and healers.
The second relationship of self to other selves. And here they're representing not just a returning but also a kind of reclaiming of the authenticity and relevancy of women, in the public space, in popular dialogue.
And the third relationship is of self to the earth. What's our relationship with our lakes and our streams and our waters and our food system and our ways of knowing? Everything about human beings and our culture are ways of being, but they're also ways of knowing. How do we know a tree, how do we know a plant, how do we know the fish are running at any particular time? It's because of memory, and women represent memory, the ancient memory flowering in the moment, being transmitted to future generations.
So Idle No More is profoundly restorative. It's what Canada needs. It's what the world needs. It's re-Indigenization.
But it's not just a movement, it's also a lived experience. Normally, when you're marginalized and you've been traumatized, you have normalized that. It becomes a part of your cognitive process. So to step into the public space and to really affirm your narrative is a huge risk. It's a profound leap from the margins, moving out from below the radar, and affirming a lived experience that we'd never heard, that we'd never known. So sometimes the biggest pushback comes from you. Sometimes you doubt your own voice; you doubt your own agency; you doubt even your own lived experience. To hold that, and to push back on it, is an empowering thing.
It's like the nervousness you feel when you know your people have been victimized, genocide has been wrought against your people, and here you are, with your mouth open. And you're somewhere beating a drum, or you're in public space, and you're like, this is what it is.
Indigenous peoples have been, just like African people, under twenty-five generations of root-shock. We relegated Indigenous peoples to the margins, placed them on reservations, treated them like children. And in that root-shock is pain, is profound depression, is hurt. And how you normally live with it is you drink, you self-medicate it.
In Indigenous communities, just like in African communities, there's this spectrum of reaction. Some of it is highly resilient and quiet and forever like embers, constantly on the burn. Some of it is non-resilient and extremely destructive. And you see all of that, the full spectrum in communities, in urban America. And what is beautiful about women, and authentic, is that in their standing, in their agency, in their voice, is the memory of all of our mothers, nurturance, re-connection. They're not only healing themselves, they're healing the most depressed parts of their communities.
Indigenous peoples are the ancestral memory of this place, they're the relationship translators of every piece of ecology in North America and all over the world. That memory, that voice, that leadership is what we need right now. Where-ever in the world Indigenous peoples are, to affirm themselves from positions of the margins, to take leadership and be authentic, rooted, and relevant, is so important.
It's a repairing on multiple levels. We're going to affirm ourselves, we're going to affirm our relations, and we're going to bring our values, our principles, our wisdom, our myth, our healing to the public space.
So Istanbul blows up, Tunis blows up, Cairo blows up, all of these public movements where people are en masse, a multitude. But it's the Indigenous multitude that is the most potent. Worldwide, there's like a movement of Indigenous peoples to reaffirm our humanity. It's saying: everything is not a dollar bill or currency, everything is not a consumer transaction. Wherever you are, on a reservation or not, the land is valuable. There's no hierarchy on the earth. There are ecosystems, and these exchanges, and they're all beautiful.
For people who are trying to re-Indigenize, and trying to question the social, political, economic order, Idle No More is like a harbinger.
That's not an easy thing to carry. Normally, if you're already marginalized, you have double and triple the amount of weight on you. So I'm very moved by Idle No More. I'm touched. I see it as a wonderful space to be in. It's healthy for us in this moment of economic and environmental crisis. It's beautiful to witness it, to hear drumming, to see round-dances, to hear the voice of women speaking traditional knowledge and memory and living a culture that speaks another language, that speaks of another way of being. We've gotten so far away from our roots.
As the oldest cultures that are place-based and rooted in ecosystem-based knowledge and exchange and reciprocity, that wisdom is like a roadmap. I'm not saying everything is with Indigenous people, but when we're all immigrants and all transplants and all in rootstock, they represent a way of knowing and being in place that we've lost. We pave over the environment to create roads so we can drive, we live in houses instead of in temporary structures, we heat them, we pool them, we place-make them on a human scale, but we never fully, unless we're camping, live in an ecological environment that challenges us to adapt and to be resilient.
So a lot of the abuse on the earth, on the fisheries, on the animals, on crops, on air and water quality, is going to have to be rethought on the basis of the question: what is our relationship to place?
The answer will not come from the elites. The international financial institutions and the United Nations are talking about carbon markets. But everything cannot be commodified. We're pimping the earth, we're externalizing the abuse, we're establishing markets so we can game nature. And the question from Indigenous communities is: "is that right?"
Why should the ecology “service” us? The arrogance, the narcissistic personality complex of humans to even craft a term like "ecological services"! That is just shocking. And we think we get to be the arrogant earth stewards of it all? We engineer water-ways, we are cloud brightening and geo-engineering. Excuse you, jet stream, you're not enough, we're going to value-add on you. Excuse you, mountain range, we're just going to blow you up.
So there's this profound question of integrity and ethics and principles and values afoot. Imagine that. Do you get to make money and abuse ecosystems at the same time? Some are now offering us the "rights of mother earth," led by Bolivia, from the south of the south. That helps us understand that we are a part of creation. We are part of energy exchanges. We're all feasting from the sun's energy. We're all living and breathing and dying in ecology.
To me, the earth is going to win in the end, because nothing trumps nature. Not even us and our arrogance. We're going to find out real quick what passing 400 ppm in the upper atmosphere of methane and carbon means. We're going to discover, particularly in our agricultural systems, on every continent, what climate shift means.
We're going to be billions of people in eco-adaptation strategies. And I don't know if we're all going to make it to those islands of elite eco-resiliency and 1% hoarding. But we're all going to be in trouble.
Now is the time when the women have to rise up. Now is the time when the drum has to be sounded. Now is the time to ask what do your mothers and fathers of generations of old have to say, about us being human and our relationship to everything.