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.
ARTIST STATEMENT: “BE A GOOD GIRL”“Be a Good Girl” (2006 woodcut print, courtesy of the Collection of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada) is a reflection on the gendered work expectations and training of women in the 1950s. I have explored this topic by looking at Indian residential schools, and the ways in which young Native women were trained in an effort to transform them into good working-class wives and workers. The Indian residential school system had a half-day labour program for girls, which was abolished in 1952 out of concern that children were not receiving an education, but were only serving the financial needs of the school. Residential schools forbade Native children from speaking their languages or practicing their culture in an attempt to mold them, for their “salvation,” into productive members of white, capitalist society. The residential schools were part of a dark history of racism and genocide in Canada and continue to have negative effects. This sort of gendered work training, however, was not reserved for the assimilation of Natives; training schools like the Ontario Training School for Girls rehabilitated young women with “loose” morals and other traits that were not tolerated in the ’50s. Both white working class and Native girls attended these training schools. This piece is about the conflicts, spiritual paradoxes, and societal expectations of young women in the ’50s.
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