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Voices of Our Sisters: history of indigenous women

By Blake Sittler


SASKATOON — An overview of the history of indigenous women was presented as part of an ecumenical event held April 18 at Mayfair United Church in Saskatoon to reflect on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

Voices of Our Sisters was an ecumenical gathering of Christian leaders and community members who were asking how their churches could support those in the indigenous community who were struggling with missing and murdered family members.

Dr. Winona Wheeler of the University of Saskatchewan Native/Indigenous Studies Department spoke along with Glenda Abbott, the Visitor Services Manager at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, on the topic of The History of the Indigenous Woman.

Wheeler shared what she called the traditional circle teachings. “These teachings help us to understand our relationship to each other.”

At the centre of the concentric series of circles were the children, the heart of the community. “They inherit everything we do,” explained Wheeler. “Immediately around them are our grandparents . . . they are our past and (hold the) collective knowledge of our culture.”

“It used to be that grandmothers taught the little boys how to hunt and cook,” Wheeler pointed out. “They taught them about life and how to revere.” She explained how the grandparents raised the children and identified the skills of the children, nurturing and preparing them for their roles in the community.

“From the very beginning, children were valued and they knew they were valued,” Wheeler said. “This is important to a sense of identity and value.”

Wheeler explained how First Nations taught children about creation, their culture, the laws and expectations of their people, how to relate to each other, and about self-discipline in a seasonal cycle.

Abbott stressed the importance of language to this teaching process.

“The words for fire [iskotew] and woman [iskwew] are related,” she explained. “The community gathered around and revered both.”

Wheeler described the five stages of colonialism: the original “steady state” before the arrival of Europeans, followed by first contact, then the imposition of colonization, the internalization of colonization, and finally, de-colonization.

“In this first stage, the men and women were equal,” began Wheeler. First contact with Europeans brought a new set of values that included patriarchy, individualism and materialism, she said.

Even the basic concept of wealth acquisition was relatively foreign to First Nations. Early communities also recognized that they needed each other. One of the most severe penalties for a crime was banishment, which was tantamount to a death sentence.

“Our world was not perfect,” she admitted. “It wasn’t perfect but it worked for us.”

Many of the European technologies were attractive but changed and shifted values and priorities of the traditional communities. “Even a copper kettle or pot was revolutionary,” she said. “These new things though were attached to new ideas . . . (like) materialism and individualism.”

“When you think about how an idea like individualism would impact a society where your value was based on what you could contribute to the group and now you have people saying, ‘I’m now in this for me,’ ” Wheeler said.

Wheeler connected how capitalism, individualism, patriarchy began to breakdown the communities.

“When settlement started, there was nothing we had that the Europeans wanted except our land and resources,” Wheeler said. “Then they had to decide what to do with us.”

“The way the early Canadians decided to deal with the ‘Indian problem’ was to make us disappear through assimilation: intermarriage and education.”

Wheeler walked the audience through the treaty process, the formation of residential schools and the first Indian Act in 1840. She discussed how the Indian Acts was nearly genocidal because the legislation affected every part of life and aimed at reducing the number of Aboriginal people who had legal status.

“But the old people dug in their heels,” she said. “They continued to pass on the traditions to the children.”

It was at this time that the Europeans sought ways to break the Aboriginal pedagogy of how culture was passed down from elders to grandchildren. This was the beginning of the American-based industrial school system. “It was a systematic, destructive, pre-conceived breakdown of our communities,” Wheeler asserted.

The fruits of this history — addictions, violence, incarceration — have led to the situation in which indigenous women find themselves today.

Wheeler described the last piece of the cycle as de-colonization. She described it as the decision to reject the values that harm you as an individual and as a community.

“It’s like an addiction: trying to quit,” Wheeler pointed out. “It’s hard. It makes you grumpy. And for many of us, it takes a lifetime.”

Abbott’s list of proposed actions included: restoring funding to youth and urban Aboriginal programs, improving housing both on and off reserves (and not using housing as an excuse for removing children from families and placing them in the child welfare system); providing more grassroots services such as safe houses, shelters and foot patrols; and improving the education system by teaching the value of indigenous people and their culture to Canada.

“There are many reasons as to why indigenous women and girls are experiencing this violence,” Abbott concluded.

“Days like this are important (because it is) where we can educate ourselves so that we can change something about our next interaction and change the way we think about this issue.”

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