Preface to the SW354 Indigenous Women and Decolonization Project

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This blog is a compilation and collaboration between seven students enrolled in SO354: Introduction to Indigenous Issues and Human Services.  As distance education students at the University of Victoria, we wish to acknowledge our place as visitors, whether virtual or in person, to the territories of the WS’ANEC’ (Saanich), Lkwungen (Songhees), Wyomilth (Esquimalt) peoples of the Coast Salish Nation.

As part of this project, group members recognized the importance of reflecting on our social locations and examining how this impacts our interaction with work produced by and about Indigenous women.  Each group member has contributed a short descriptor of their social location in the About Section to help readers understand factors that have influenced our construction of and approach to this project.

We also ask that you spend a few minutes examining the assumptions, education and experiences that you bring to our work and the content created by Indigenous women before proceeding.



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The project you are about to engage with is a brief but in depth look at the lives and experiences of Indigenous women.  As group members, we have come together to explore the role of Indigenous women in their pre-colonial existence, the tragedies they experienced through colonization, their marginalization and experiences of violence as well as their tremendous resilience and on-going activism and leadership within their communities.   Through our work and the sharing of Indigenous women’s voices, we hope to bring a greater awareness to the ways that we, as practicing and future social workers, can engage in a decolonizing practice that honours the wisdom and strength of Indigenous women.

Colonization and racism continue to have an enormous impacts on the lives of Indigenous women.  The negative perceptions that exist among Canadian society contributes to violence, oppression and traumas experienced by Indigenous women.  By bringing consciousness to the discrimination, de-valuing and negative stereotyping experienced by Indigenous women, we hope to begin undoing the knots that tightly hold them in marginalized places across communities and cultures.  We also hope to highlight how remarkable these women are in their ability to connect with each other and “reclaim their authority and rightful place in the community” (Muise in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 35). 

Most importantly, whether or not you are a future or current practitioner, we hope you will be inspired to begin your own process of decolonization.

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Photo credit: Cari Ionson

Indigenous Women prior to Colonization

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In order to begin engaging in decolonization, it is necessary to identify false stereotypes of Indigenous women in Canada and acknowledge the truth of what has happened in the past.   Gaining a greater understanding of truthful history allows practitioners to link past traumas to continued oppression in the present.

When looking at the historical context of Indigenous women in Canada before colonization, it is apparent that Indigenous relationships operated in harmony with each other and the environment.  Within traditional Indigenous cultures, all genders had a place and value.  Kim Anderson (2000), a Cree/Metis woman, writes that “our cultures promoted womanhood as a sacred identity, an identity that existed within a complex system of relations of societies that were based on balance” (p.57).   Women were seen as life-givers and were admired by children and looked to for knowledge by all members of the community.

Prior to colonization, “Indigenous women had powerful roles within their Indigenous communities; their roles were recognized by all as being important to the well-being of their community” (Wenona, 2007, p. 21).  Gender roles established in many Indigenous societies ensured peace through a balance of power and a mutual respect for one another and their responsibilities within the nation (Horn-Miller, 2005).  Women took on varying roles such as hunters, cooks, medicine people, mediators, and Matriarchs, depending on the nation or community that they belonged to (Gray, 2011).  Often these roles were shared with men or were complementary and depended on respect, cooperation, and assistance (Gray, 2011).

Indigenous women are also heavily involved in many forms of political decision-making, as nations acknowledged the importance of listening to all members of the community.  For example, within “traditional Iroquois system of governance, women’s political authority extended to choosing and depositing the chiefs” (Anderson, 2000, p. 66).   Today, Indigenous women continue to hold powerful roles; however these roles are not always recognized and are often undervalued (Wenona, 2007).  As the next section outlines, the process of colonization has had devastating effects for Indigenous women and their status and positions both within and outside their communities. 

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“It may seem incredible that this territory we know as Canada once hosted societies that afforded significant political power to those currently most marginalized: older women. Yet in “Indian Country”, the political authority of older women is not so far in the past. Many contemporary women can describe the political authority their grandmothers held in their families and societies, even after the introduction of western political systems. Jeanette Armstrong recalls that ‘it was traditionally always women who made decisions about resources, who made decisions about land, who made decisions about the wealth and who carefully constructed a balance of power in the family and a balance of work and tasking making and so on”

(Anderson, 2000, 67-68)

Supplemental: Two-Spirit Gender Identities

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Many Indigenous cultures also embraced “two-spirit” people who did not conform to specific gender roles or took on tasks normally associated with those of the opposite sex (Gray, 2011).

The fluidity of gender was inherent in Native cultural views of the world.  Some Native cultures understood that there were four genders rather than two: man, woman, the two-spirit womanly males and the two-spirit manly females” (Anderson, 2000, p. 89).

Often, these individuals were thought to be spiritually attuned and able to relate to both males and females; a trait which allowed them to take on roles as mediators (Gray, 2011).  Some would take on gender-specific roles of the opposite gender or act as Shamans.  The term Two-spirit was coined by academics as a way of recognizing First Nations beliefs of genders as more than strictly male and female.  Many First Nations LBGTQ individuals today now identify as Two-spirit (Gray, 2011).  Despite their healthy and honourable history, various levels of homophobia now exist among Indigenous individuals, families and communities.  As Gray (2011) points out, “This change was brought about through the introduction of euro-centric religious based beliefs that devalued LGBT people” (p. 36).

Experiences of Colonization

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Due to colonization, Indigenous women have been subjected to many historical atrocities, among them: small pox, Residential Schools, and The Indian Act.  Each of these incidents have impacted them in profoundly detrimental ways and the effects remain visible in Indigenous communities across the country.  As Anderson (2000) states “colonization is a process that began five hundred years ago and it continues today” (p. 58).   In order to understand the current realities facing Indigenous women and the ways that colonization continues to affect their lives, it is necessary to come to a deeper understanding of their past experiences.

Small Pox
The small pox epidemic of the 1600s caused a large and sudden reduction of the Indigenous populations.  This enormous loss contributed to a loss of cultural knowledge, morale, and weakened the traditional structure.  This destructive epidemic paved the way for missionaries to succeed in their efforts through promising survival if conversion to Christianity occurred and opened the door for other Eurocentric ideals of patriarchy that promoted the concept of ‘women as property’ (Horn-Miller, 2005, p. 60).

Residential Schools
Children from Indigenous families were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools where the goal was to assimilate the children into Canadian society as well as eliminate Indigenous cultures and resistance to colonialism.  Within residential schools girls and boys received differential treatment.  Generally, there was a gendered division of labour with boys taught vocational skills, while girls were trained to fulfill ‘duties of the home’ (Forsyth, 2004).  It is here that many values of patriarchy were instilled into the minds of young Indigenous children and traditional language and culture, which stress equality and balance, was actively de-valued and undermined.

The Indian Act
The Indian Act was a massive piece of legislation that worked to control every aspect of Indigenous life.  It was characterized by massive deprivation of land, the banning of traditional practices and was designed to facilitate the eradication of Indigenous cultures.

This act enforced Western patriarchal ideals within Indigenous communities through legislation.  Anderson (2000) explains that the Indian Act

“took away long-established rights for Native women and left with with fewer rights than Indian men. Native women were categorically denied the right to vote in band elections.  They could not hold political office, nor could they speak at public meetings” (p. 68).

In addition to limited their political and community involvement, The Indian Act also eliminated the ability for Indigenous women to pass along ‘status’ and property, even in matrilineal societies (Anderson, 2000, p. 69).  For example, if an Indigenous woman married a non-“Indian” she and her children would lose their ‘Indian’ status and any related benefits such as access to land on the reservation, post-secondary education, health care, housing and tax free status (Horn-Miller, 2005).  Wenona (2007) writes that, “Eurocentric and patriarchal legislation has adversely impacted the roles and responsibilities of Aboriginal women to the point where Aboriginal men have began to internalize Eurocentric and patriarchal beliefs while conveniently forgetting traditional teachings” (p. 21).  Eventually through the perseverance of Mary Two-Axe and other Indigenous women at the international level, Bill C-31 was passed and an amendment was made in 1985 that allowed an Indigenous woman to keep her status if she married someone who is not Indigenous.

Mi’kmaq author Pamela Palmetar, in conversation with Suk Yin Lee (October 27, 2012) on Definitely Not the Opera, explains how these colonial imposed pieces of legislation have impacted her.  In this interview she describes how her grandmother married a white man and as a result Pamela did not have the same access to her culture that her relatives had.  

Because the Canadian government had the power to define who was and who was not ‘Indian,’ many in her community understood this to mean who was or was not Mi’kmaq.  She was not allowed to live on the reservation, which meant that she could not live near her elders and be around those who spoke her Indigenous language (Lee, October 27, 2012).  

The Indian Act, which continues to be enforced today, still contains many sections and policies that discriminate against women.  According to Lynda Gray (2011), “once significant area that is lacking is matrimonial real property rights, which cover the on-reserve land and house that related to a common-law or married couple” (p. 193).   She explains that when an on-reserve relationship ends, Indigenous women currently have no legal right to property, and thus can find themselves evicted from their home with no where to go (Gray, 193).

Supplemental: The Long Hard Road of Sharon McIvor

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Sharon McIvor is a member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band and teaches law, political science and Indigenous studies at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.  

In 1985 she launched a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge to Bill C-31, an amendment intended to eliminate gender discrimination in The Indian Act (Gray, 2011, p. 53).  In reality, the amendment “simply put off the gender discrimination by a generation.  Women who married non-Indians and their children got status, but the women’s grandchildren did not, while the grandchildren of Indian men and non-Indian women did” (The long, hard road of Sharon McIvor, 2007).  

A news article titled “The Long Hard Road of Sharon McIvor“, originally published in the Vancouver Sun in November 2007, outlines some of the court battles McIvor undertook as part of her Charter case.  As a result of her 20 year legal battle, the BC Supreme Court directed the Government of Canada to amend the Indian Act in April 2010 (Gray, 2011, p. 53).

The only way to be sure that sex discrimination is totally and finally eliminated from the status registration scheme is to place descendants of status Indian women, that is matrilineal descendents, on the same foot as descendants of status Indian Men” – Sharon McIvor  (Gray, 2011, p.53)

McIvor continues to advocate for the legal and human rights of Native women in Canada and has spoken out strongly against Bill C-3 which she argues does not go far enough to protect the ability of Indigenous women to transmit their status to their descendants.

She has very recently launched a complaint against Canada at the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing that the Canadian Government continues to discriminate against Indigenous women.  (

Colonization and Indigenous Mothers

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Colonization had a unique impact on Indigenous mothers.  As discussed earlier, prior to colonization, Indigenous women were seen to have a sacred role as the givers of life and as mothers.  Family was an intrinsic element to Indigenous life and mothers were held in esteem and revered in their communities.

Residential schools, as well as foster homes, have taken Indigenous children out of their homes and left Indigenous mothers childless.  To understand the magnitude of loss that Indigenous mothers have endured, it becomes necessary to hear their voices which Robertson (2005) eloquently brings to life through the ‘Stories from the Aboriginal Women of the Yarning Circle: When Cultures Collide.’  The yarning circle brings Indigenous women together “to raise critical discussions where they share their insight into the issues that have been prevalent in the lives of many of their women, who have had their children removed and who have been denied their right to be mothers” (Robertson, 2005, p.35).

The Indigenous identity of these women served as the justification for questions to be raised about their ability to raise children. Robertson (2005) explains that “all white women had the inherent capacity and right to become mothers, this privilege was denied to Aboriginal women” (p.39).  Women characterized having their child taken by the government as ‘theft’ and the stories of removal are nothing less than traumatic (Robertson, 2005).

The concern of the frequency of Indigenous children being removed from the home continues.

The women of the Yarning circle explain: People seem to talk without interest about the number of our kids that were taken away and the number of our children that continue to be taken by governments and their representatives even today” (Robertson, 2005, p. 41).

The Yarning circle expresses that “we [Indigenous women] need to reflect on what has happened to our families and our parents whose children were forcibly taken away and we need to remember that they often did so because of sentiments that served a social purpose for others at the time” (Robertson, 2005, p. 41).

One woman of the Yarning circle exposes the challenge at hand for Indigenous mothers: 
It is every woman’s right to be a mother if that is what they choose and I think that is’ the challenge before us, to protect our rights to be mothers, to be sisters, to be who and what we want to be, whatever that may be. I think of the common factors that may have justified the removal of our children and I can’t think of anything other than prejudice and the statement that ‘it is in the best interest of the children’.  How can it be in their best interest, when there was nothing wrong in the way they were loved, in the way they were cared for? I am tired of hearing our women saying the same thing over and over: Why can’t I be a mother? Why can’t I be a mother? (Robertson, 2005, p. 43)

Indigenous mothers continued to be confronted with threats and concerns that their children will be taken away from them and out of their homes.  They experience more surveillance by the government because of their Indigenous identity and the legacy and continued experiences of colonization.  As practitioners, it is integral that we reflect and understand historical and current interactions between Indigenous mothers and social workers and their larger context.

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Colonial Construction of Indigenous Women

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Contemporary oppression of Indigenous women is a result of historical sexism and racism and many of the negative stereotypes that Indigenous women experience today can be historically situated (Forsyth, 2005).  The identities of Indigenous women are simultaneously gendered and racialized.  While white women were constructed as ‘pure’ and vulnerable, Indigenous women were, and continue to be, constructed as dirty and immoral.

Forsyth (2005) explains how colonialism benefitted from this construction; “The image of the dirty and immoral “squaw” was frequently employed to instigate moral panic about the downfall of the white race and to justify strict measures that would keep Indian women on reserve and preferably in the home” (p. 70).  This harmful depiction of Indigenous women served to justify policies that restricted the movement of Indigenous women off reservations and deflect accountability away from government and administrative agents such as the Department of Indian Affairs and the North-West Mounted Police (Forsyth, 2005).  Further, as conditions on reservations deteriorated and the negative impacts of poverty, ill health, violence and sexual abuse were apparent, Indigenous women were used as a scapegoat to explain these circumstances.

The status that Indigenous women once held in their communities was stripped away from them through the process of colonization.  Small pox, residential schools, and the Indian Act all had an impact on how Indigenous women were respected and represented in society.  Indigenous mothers have had their children forcibly removed from their homes, which has had devastating consequences on Indigenous women and the family structure.  The negative construction of Indigenous female identity and their marginalization and oppression can be directly linked to the high rates of violence against Indigenous women, examples of which are outlined in the following section.

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We are doing all we can: as mothers and grandmothers, as family members and tribal members, as professionals, workers, artists, shamans, leaders, chiefs, speakers, writers, and organizers, we daily demonstrate that we have no intention of disappearing, of being silent, or of quietly acquiescing in our extinction” – Paula Gunn Alien

(Iseke and Desmoulins, 2011, p.28)

Indigenous Women occupying spaces of violence

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Due to the historical relationships of colonialism and marginalization, violence has become all but naturalized as a part of Indigenous women’s experience. As stated by Anderson (2000)

Violence against women is so prevalent in our communities that it has become an ‘ordinary’ part of everyday life for many Native families, and Native women who have not experienced some violence are seen to be ‘the exception, not the rule” ( p.55).

Information gathered for the report “Researched to Death: B.C. Aboriginal Women and Violence” demonstrate the frequency and intensity of violence experienced by Indigenous women.   The report states that:

  • Indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44 are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as result of violence
  • Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely than non-Aboriginal women to be victims of violence (343/1,000 versus 96/1,000 respectively)
  • Aboriginal women are approximately 3.5 times more likely to experience some form of spousal violence than non-Aboriginal women.
  • Approximately 21% of Aboriginal people, in comparison to 6% of non-Aboriginal people, report experiencing some form of physical or sexual violence by a spouse
  • Approximately 75% of survivors of sexual assault in Aboriginal communities are young women under 18 years of age.
  • Approximately 50% of these girls are under the age of 14 and approximately 25% are under the age of 7.
  • Approximately 56% of violent incidents committed against Aboriginal people are perpetrated by someone who is known to the victim  (B.C. Government, 2005).

However, statistics alone are not enough to explain and demonstrate the various forms of violence experienced by Indigenous women in Canada.  Below, three works have been highlighted that outline various ways that Indigenous women have been relegated to occupying spaces of violence through racist discourses and institutional practices.   The documentary film “Finding Dawn” (Welsh 2006), the book “The Search for April Raintree” (Culleton 1989), and the article “Gendered racial violence and spatialized justice: the murder of Pamela George” (Razack 2000)  show a disturbing side of Canadian attitudes and perceptions of Indigenous women. 

They are also each, respectively, sites for resistance and social change. The authors and creators of these works are actively engaged in decolonizing discourses by making racist discourses visible and challenging the mainstream notions that have come to pervade the social and institutional realities of Canada.

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The Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Amnesty International and others draw a direct link to the negative effects of colonization including residential school experience as contributing factors that make First Nations people vulnerable to sexual exploration and trafficking”

(Gray, 2011, p. 110)

“Finding Dawn”

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The documentary film, “Finding Dawn”, (Welsh 2006) explores the ways that Indigenous women have been ignored and further marginalized by law enforcement agencies.  Welsh (2006), challenges the audience to move past the exercise of defining stereotypes to appreciating the humanity of the over 500 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, who are mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers, aunties and friends.

One of the key learning objectives from “Finding Dawn: A Guide for Teaching and Action” (Blaney 2009) explains the importance of understanding the stereotypes that Indigenous women face.  The film confronts some of the negative attitudes, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination that have had devastating consequences on Indigenous women’s lives and directly affected their safety.  They are dehumanized and devalued because mainstream society is ignorant of their historical and colonial experiences. “Finding Dawn” challenges viewers to reconsider various stereotypes and acknowledge the ways in which communities and Indigenous women’s groups are raising awareness and honouring the memories of the missing and murdered women.  

Supplemental: Seeking Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

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CBC News Article:  BC Highway of Tears investigated by Global Rights group

Supplemental Video – Sisters in Spirit Campaign

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Rev. Barb Shoomski speaks about murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada and the lack of police and societal attention to this important issue.

The Murder of Pamela George


In her article, “Gendered racial violence and spatialized justice: the murder of Pamela George”, Razack (2000) analyzes the trial of two white men, Ternowetsky and Kummerfield who brutally murdered Pamela George, a First Nations woman from Saskatchewan.

Razack (2000) unpacks the racist and colonial implications of the trial and its outcome, challenging the assertion that race was not a factor in this decision.  Through her analysis, Razack (2000) exposes the naturalization of violence in the social space of Aboriginal womanhood as well as the naturalization of violence and colonial brutalization inflicted on Aboriginal women by white men (Hanson 2012).

Pamela George
Photo source:

Pamela George was a First Nations woman and a mother who occasionally worked in the sex trade to support her two children.  The men who murdered Ms. George were white, middle class, university athletes that occupied a privileged social location. Razack (2000) argues that Ms. George was considered by those involved in the trial to belong to a place where violence occurs routinely and to have a body that is routinely violated.

During the trial, George was dehumanized as a gendered and racialized other. Her involvement in the sex trade resulted in the common assumption that “prostitutes are considered in law to have consented to any violence that is visited upon them” (Razack 2000, p.93). Ms. George’s degradation allowed the defendants to confirm their own identities as white males entitled to land and the full benefits of citizenship (Razack 2000, p. 93).  The two men were heard speaking openly about the killing, making remarks such as “She deserved it. She was Indian.” (Bourgeault,1997). 

Although Ms. George’s poverty and location in the inner city area clearly worked against her, it was the erasure of her racial and historical locations that were particularly damaging according to Razack (2000).   The killing of Pamela George by Ternowetsky and Kummerfield was not an isolated act of violence but can be linked to the climate of racism and white supremacy that continues to exist within Canada.

The verdict of manslaughter in this case was highly criticized by Indigenous leaders who argued “that the jury’s failure to find the two men guilty of first-degree murder means the justice system has again failed aboriginal people” (British Columbia Report 1997). The trial’s outcome provoked antiracist, women’s and Aboriginal organizations to organize and speak out against the trial. Demonstrations, vigils and public accusations were made about race and class bias in the justice system. The verdict led some leaders in the Aboriginal community to assert that there were two justice systems: “one for whites and the other for Indians” (Bourgeault 1997).

Supplmental: The Search for April Raintree

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The powerful and groundbreaking book, “The Search for April Raintree” by Beatrice Culleton, has been part of of the curriculum in many Social Justice and Indigenous studies classes. It tells the story of two sisters, April and Cheryl, who navigate the reality of living in neo-colonial Canadian society as Indigenous women.  It is a text that continues, twenty-five years after its initial publication, to call its readers to reflect on racism in Canada (Hanson, 2012). 

Culleton (1983) masterfully captures the complex systems, attitudes and perceptions operating in the sisters’ individual worlds and broader society.  The two girls are removed from the home of their parents at a young age due to their parent’s alcohol abuse.  The girls   experience living in a number of foster homes throughout their childhood years and while they are treated well enough in some fosters homes, in one particular they are abused.  Their attempt to run away results in their social worker giving the following speech about what she called the ‘native girl’ syndrome:

It starts out with the fighting, the running away, the lies. Next come the accusations that everyone in the world is against you. There are the sullen, uncooperative silences, the feeling sorry for yourselves. And when you go on your own, you get pregnant right away, or you can’t find or keep jobs.  So you’ll start with alcohol and drugs.  From there, you get into shoplifting and prostitution, and in and out of jails. You’ll live with men who abuse you. And on it goes.  You’ll end up like your parents, living off society. . . . Now, you’re going the same route as many other native girls.  If you don’t smarten up, you’ll end up in the same place they did.  Skid row! (Culleton 1983, p.62)

Throughout the book Culleton (1983) used the main character, April, to portray mainstream white perceptions of Indigenous people while simultaneously challenging those perceptions through the voice of her sister Cheryl.   Culleton’s (1983) depiction of April embodies the negative attitudes and dominant mentalities that exist towards Indigenous people in Canada.  Although April is part Métis, she deeply rejects that part of herself as she tries to assimilate and disappear into the world of white people.  She discovers early in her life that her pale skin will allow her to “pass” as white. Culleton expresses some of her views of white privilege, self-denial, invisibility, and the “risk of self-annihilation” through April’s attempts at passing. Hudson explains how April does this to “the extent to which the phenomenon of passing itself exposes the valorization of whiteness as treasured property in a society structured on racial caste” (Hudson 2012, p.18).  April conceptualizes Métis identity as a “degenerate space” and she begins to internalize the oppression targeted at Métis and other Indigenous people (Hudson 2012).

Cheryl’s voice “disrupts the linearity of April’s retrospective narrative, correcting its bias, enlarging its awareness and disputing its conclusions” (Hudson 2012, p.17).  While April loves Cheryl she also sees herself as separate from her racialized sister, whois unable to hide her Métis identity because of her dark skin.  Cheryl’s obvious skin colour exposes April as a Métis which leads April to desire distance from her sister.  Their paths diverge as April moves into her “promising future in white society” while Cheryl volunteers at the Native Friendship Centre and embraces her identity.  Cheryl challenges April on her views of Aboriginal people, and on the “shame” she exhibits, and seeks to explain the conditions of life for Indigenous people in a way that accounts for colonialism and dislocation. Unfortunately, Cheryl loses her self-respect and abandons herself fully to the degeneracy of the social space around her; quitting university, becoming an alcoholic, moving in with an abusive man and taking up work as a prostitute. Concurrent with April’s discovery that Cheryl has been pushed into “degenerate space,” April is raped—an event that constitutes her own forcible confinement in that space (Hanson 2012, p.18)

This story also provides a platform for a narrative of resistance and decolonization. Culleton has used literature as a tool for challenging Eurocentrism and racism (Hudson 2012).  She describes relations between race, space, and the law, in order to enable the denaturalization of Indigenous women occupying violent spaces. Culleton (1983) particularly challenges the construction of the concepts of “degeneracy” and “civility” as they are used to characterize racialized spaces where whiteness is characterized by civility and Aboriginality by degeneracy.

Perseverance – Lee Maracle

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There’s a dandelion on the roadside in Toronto.
It’s leaves a dishevelled mix of green and brown.
A dandelion scraggling ‘n’ limping along.

There’s a flower beside a concrete stump
on Bay Street, in Toronto.  Perpetually rebellin’
against spiked heels and blue serge suits.

The monetary march-past of 5 o’clock Bay Street
(deaf to the cries of this thing aging lion)
sneers: “Chicken-yellow flower…”

My leaves, my face… my skin… I feel like
my skin is being scraped off me.  There is
a flower in Toronto.  On the roadside

It takes jackhammers and brutish machines to rip
the concrete from the sidewalks in Toronto
to beautify the city of blue serge suits

But for this dandy lion, it takes but a seed,
a little acid rain, a whole lot of fight and a
Black desire to limp along and scraggle forward

There is a flower.

Lee Maracle

(Maracle, 1996)

“A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood”

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Part of moving forward and engaging in decolonization involves looking back and acknowledging the historical and continuing traumas that continue to affect Indigenous women, as we have tried to do in earlier portions of this project.  It involves recognizing how colonization has disrupted and negatively affected the identities and places occupied by Indigenous women in their cultures and communities.

It is equally important that the lives of these women on a whole become known and that we do not merely work to approach understanding from a deficit point of view.  We must also seek to understand Indigenous women as individuals who have endured so much, yet still remain strong and resilient and to show that they have fought and continue to challenge the indignity of colonization.

Much of that activism and struggle involves pushing back against stereotypes and negative portrayals of Indigenous women that continue to contribute  violence and marginalization, as clearly articulated in the previous posts.   Kim Anderson, a Cree/Metis woman, wrote  “A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood” to express her “vision of a society where every member has a place, a sense of value, a gift to bring” (2000, p. 13)    Anderson (2000) and other Indigenous authors argue that highlighting and putting forward positive messages about Indigenous female identity is a complex process of reclamation and reconstruction.   It does not require “simply springing back to a previous state, but is a dynamic process of adjustment, adaptation and transformation in response to challenges and demands” (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p. 85) faced by modern Indigenous women.

(Diagram adapted from Anderson, 2000, p. 16)

The diagram above, based on the traditional medicine wheel, outlines the elements that Anderson (2000) identifies as part of this identity reconstruction process.  She states that

very simply, the identity formation process that I have documented involves: Resisting negative definitions of being, reclaiming Aboriginal tradition, constructing a positive identity by translating tradition into contemporary context and acting on that identity in a way that nourishes the overall well-being of our community” (Anderson, 2000, p. 15).

The following sections are meant to highlight the ongoing resistance of Indigenous women, their activism and passion for carving out positive identities in the face of continued oppression, colonization and marginalization.   We would like to bring forward the achievements of Indigenous women and demonstrate how they are reclaiming position of authority, leadership and mentorship while becoming sources of hope and inspiration, instilling a renewed vision of the future for all Indigenous peoples.

Supplemental: Lisa Odjig – World Hoop Dancing Champion

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Indigenous Feminism

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Upon approaching the ideology: ‘Indigenous Feminism,’ the significance of situating/locating one’s self is highlighted. Indigenous Feminism recognizes that the location of being Indigenous and being a woman intersects in a unique way that the traditional, Western (white), Feminist model neglects to consider. The ‘traditional’ (Western) Feminist movement focuses on issues such as: sexual violence, reproductive rights, and equal pay; this viewpoint is grounded in socio-political rights for women. The framework outlining ‘Indigenous Feminism’ does not appear to be established with the same principles. Expressed by Lynda Gray (p. 130), “Most First Nations women are not worried about ensuring that women have the same rights as men, rather, the focus is on working together on our [Indigenous peoples] collective empowerment and healing journey.” There exists a fundamental theoretical shift that Indigenous feminism brings into the analysis where the emphasis is not only on gender emancipation, but the perspective looks through an anti-colonial and anti-racist lens. As earlier discussed, sexual violence and gender oppression have been tools of colonization and White supremacy.

There has been considerable resistance from Indigenous women to identify with the feminist movement (Smith, 2011, Yee, 2010). For Maracle (1996), her experience of feminism has been a continuation of exclusion and marginalization. In her book, I Am Woman, she colorfully discusses her frustrations with traditional feminism:

… feminism, indeed womanhood itself, was meaningless to me. Racist ideology had defined womanhood for the Native woman as nonexistent, therefore neither the woman question nor the European rebel’s response held any meaning for me. Ignorance is no crime. But when you trot your ignorance before the world as though it were part of some profound truth, that is a crime”. (Maracle, 1996, p. 15).

Recognizing the inherent difference in the conceptualization of ‘Feminism’ from these two worldviews is pivotal within the context of Social Work practice.  It reinforces the requirement that as practitioners, we listen to the stated goals of those we support instead of making assumptions from our locations about their potentially desired outcomes.

Where are your women?

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Where are your women? The speaker is Attakullakulla the Cherokee Chief renowned for his shrewd and effective diplomacy. He has come to negotiate a treaty with the whites. Among his delegation are women ‘as famous in war, as powerful in the council’. Implicit in the Chief’s question, ‘Where are your women?” the Cherokee hear “Where is your balance? Where is your intent?” They see the balance is absent and are wary of the white man’s motives. They intuit the mentality of destruction. I turn to my own time. I look at the Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…to the hierarchies of my church, my university, my city, my children’s school. “Where are your women?” I ask” – Marilou Awiakt, a Cherokee/Appalachian woman

(Anderson, 2000, p.65)

Leadership of Indigenous Women

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Indigenous women have listened to the stories of their grandmothers and aunties, and in the process of reclaiming their space, are sharing those stories in an effort “to support the well being of the community” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 73). “The process of colonization [created] divisions that undermine the power of the circle and cause women to distance themselves from one another” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 79), but Indigenous women are resisting.   They are creating “community support networks – going to visit other elderly women in the community” (Muise, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 34) and in the process of resistance “have reclaimed their authority and rightful place in the community” (Muise, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 35).

“Aboriginal women are the first to wake up to the process [of healing]… and the first to take up their responsibilities” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 71).

Sylvia Maracle (in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003) says “I have witnessed tremendous community development over the past 35 years, and much of it has been led by women” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 70). Women, in some cases forced to leave their place on the reserve behind, “have moved to urban centres, with their identities intact” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 71). In the cities they shared their homes and wisdom, just as their grandmothers had done since long before the settlers arrived.  Sharing, a form of reclaiming their culture, has led to the development of friendship centres, “social planning bodies, [and] social justice centres” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 72).

On reserves “men were the leaders in the formal sense,” (Maracle, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 73) but women were the natural leaders who promoted vision and action. When women came back to the reserve they knew that in order to “reclaim [their] sovereignty and take responsibility for this land… the women [of the reserve] would have to be convinced” (Muise, in Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 33).

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As native peoples entering a new millennium, we have much to celebrate. The fact that we still exist, that we are living and working within our own communities is in and of itself an achievement. We have many strong women and men who are capably leading us as we rebuild our families, communities and nations. We have elders who will guide us and children who give us our motivation”

(Anderson, 2000, p. 55)

Supplemental: Profiles of Indigenous Women Leaders

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As Indigenous women create new roles for themselves and reach higher levels of power and status, it seems some never lose sight of where they came from or their sense of collective responsibility.  Thus we would like to share stories with you about Indigenous women who have emerged from positions of authority in traditional tribal culture to more public roles and now leave a legacy of hope and inspiration. (Pember, 2008).

Ada Deer of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin “was the first woman to lead her tribe, the first Menominee to earn a master’s degree, the first woman to serve as the assistant secretary of Indian affairs in the department of the Interior and the first American Indian woman to run for Congress and for Wisconsin’s secretary of state” (Pember, 2008, p. 2). The author asserts that “Deer’s mother and tribe instilled her with a deep desire to do her part for her family and community and indeed the defense of her tribe and land was the main motivation drawing Deer into leadership” (Pember, 2008, p.2).   As it turned out “the tribe found itself devastated by poverty and at risk of losing its land which is what brought Deer back to the reservation to help organize opposition to the policy”(Pember, 2008, p. 2).  Deer and “other activists formed the Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders where she became the leader. In response to her leadership and dedication and her work,  President Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act in 1973, which ended the federal policy of tribal termination and reinstated their sovereign rights to land, hunting and fishing” (Pember, 2008, p. 3). Deer claims, “ her restoration efforts were the most important work of her life” (Pember, 2008, p.3).

Karen Diver of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the first female leader of the northern Minnesota band, started out as a single mother at 15.  While she struggled to take care of her daughter, she graduate with a degree in economics and a Master’s in public administration. (Pember, 2008)   Eleven years after leaving Fond du Lac to attend schools, Karen returned to her hometown and became the tribal band’s chairperson(Pember, 2008).   Essentially, “Karen’s philosophy encourages personal self-sufficiency for tribal members as the tribe emerges from a long period of dependency on federal and tribal programing” (Pember,2008, p.4).  She proceeded to implement programs that provide access to education from birth to the second year of college on or near the reserve which also led to the tribe instating a tribal scholarship for post secondary education. ( Pember, 2008, p. 2)

Supplemental: Indigenous Women Community Leadership Program

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Indigenous Women around the world

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Globalization is a concept that has been gaining a lot of attention in the past decade. It is not a term which is easily defined, but instead it is an interconnection of economic, political and cultural movements which links nations (Balasuriya, 1: 2000).  Tissa Balasuriya (2000) argues that globalization perpetuates colonial ideals in a post colonial world.

“Globalization is taking place within a socio-economic and historical background that is grossly unfavourable for the poor countries. This includes:

  • centennial unfavourable and unfair of trade towards presently poor countries, former colonies
  • already accumulated inequalities imputed foreign debt and debt servicing by poor countries
  • “other debt” of past colonizers, (not acknowledged by them)
  • land grab by colonizers, perpetuated under UN world order
  • technological advances benefiting the developed countries very significant changes in size of population of countries,
  • the prevailing understanding of human rights, that neglects socio-economic rights of peoples. (Balasuriya, 2: 2000).

Indigenous women face great challenges in communities all around the world, and they face double discrimination. In certain regions, the status of indigenous women was greatly reduced at the time of colonization, with the imposition of new political, economic, social and cultural systems. As stated at the Forum on Indigenous Women of Ecuador, which was held 7-11 September 1994, “Colonialism comes down to the loss of our lands, to the introduction of a language with no sense of poetry, of an irrational political and administrative structure irrespective of the laws of nature, and of the forceful imposition of a Judeo-Christian religion in which woman is synonymous with sin” (

However, what is rarely discussed is the vast impact that has been created by Indigenous women’s groups that  have served as a voice for social justice and solidarity in their communities.  During the Fourth World Conference of Women, Indigenous women were given an opportunity to raise public awareness of their experiences. As a result, they successfully lobbied their concerns in the Beijing Declaration in the following areas:

  • human rights: by promoting the human rights of indigenous women and translating human rights instruments into indigenous languages;
  • health: by reducing the negative effects of environmental degradation on the health and life of indigenous women;
  • education: by promoting a multicultural approach to education, taking into consideration the needs, aspirations and cultures of indigenous women.
  • economic development: by supporting the economic activities of indigenous women, taking into account their traditional knowledge, and encouraging their access to capital (

It may take decades to achieve these goals, but there is a great emphasis on the involvement of Indigenous women in political, economic and social decisions that affect their communities. There has been several mobilization efforts led by Indigenous women that have been critical in achieving social justice. The United Nations highlights some of these movements:

  • In Colombia, Eulalia Yagari, at the age of 14 and against her father’s will, was the first woman in her community to participate in a public awareness meeting on land recovery, a process successfully used by some Indigenous groups to regain possession of their ancestral lands. In Eulalia’s village, 900 people were living on 60 hectares of land. Because of her work, her community was eventually granted more land as a result of the land recovery campaign.
  • In 1986, in the Northeast of Brazil, Eliane Potiguara created GRUMIN (Grupo Mulher – Educaçao), an organization which mobilizes indigenous women, holds conferences and seminars and organizes vocational training to raise indigenous women’s awareness and to help them take control of their own lives. Ms. Potiguara who experienced problems as an indigenous woman herself, lived for a time in Rio de Janeiro and saw the way indigenous people were discriminated against in the cities. This gave her the impetus to return to her village to help her people, the Potiguara, who were suffering from social disintegration. GRUMIN has started a variety of projects, including opening a pharmacy of herbal medicines and creating community gardens, where families that have lost their land can grow food. Today, GRUMIN has grown into a nationwide organization, with an extensive network of offices. (

Diane Reed, President of the Cree Society for communications states “Now the women are rising up. And when the women rise up from a nation, they are the strongest voice that can be heard and it’s a voice that cannot be silenced” (



We appreciate you taking the time to go on this exploration with us. We hope that the material presented was useful (and enjoyable) for you. We welcome you to share your thoughts in the comment sections throughout the site. Knowledge becomes richer once shared!

As you reflect upon the presented material, we hope that you took the opportunity to engage in the process of locating yourself. As you know, we participated in the same process. Upon our examination, we named the ability to situate one’s self as the biggest implication of our work. Within the context of Social Work, this ability is guided by generalist practice skills. For example, values such as respect and empathy, and principles such as cognizance of cultural diversity, allow us to practice through an anti-oppressive lens while upholding our personal and professional ethics.

Evident in the stories and work that we have shared are the strengths and capacities that Indigenous women have to heal their communities. Even though colonial “divisions have undermined the power of women and caused them to distance themselves from one another, they have resisted and are more determined than ever to come together in support of their communities” (Anderson & Lawrence, 2003, p. 79). In fact, as a consequence of their resistance and their coming together with other Indigenous women, they are building community support networks which have led to the development of friendship centres, social planning bodies, and social justice centres. (Anderson & Lawrence, 2003) Clearly, Indigenous women are making giant leaps to reclaim what is rightfully theirs – respect and collective well being.

Moving forward in practice, we ask you:

In what ways will you support and serve as an ally to Indigenous women specifically in your practice? How might this be different from the way you would support and serve other members of the Indigenous community?