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Scholars discuss indigenous feminism

By Andréa Ledding


SASKATOON — Three renowned scholars discussed indigenous feminism as part of a panel discussion March 16 at Station 20 West in Saskatoon. Kim TallBear, Audra Simpson, and Kim Anderson spoke about how colonial imposition on the Americas has been detrimental to First Nations women since first contact.

TallBear, a professor of native studies at the University of Alberta, examined her gradual path to feminism via science. Kim Anderson, a professor of native studies at Wilfred Laurier University, also confessed herself initially reluctant to identify as a feminist, while Audra Simpson, a professor of native studies at Columbia University, traced her path in a circle around various forms of feminism.

“We were tasked with talking about the role of indigenous women and decolonization, but I don’t often use the word decolonization,” noted TallBear. “What I think of instead of decolonization is being in good relation. That sounds vague in English. I think about being in good relation with human beings and non-human relatives. Feminism is another word that stands in for me, as being in good relation.”

It was later suggested that many indigenous women are uncomfortable with the word feminism and perhaps another word is needed, in indigenous language and translations.

“The second thing I think about is dismantling hierarchies, and how I dismantle hierarchies in science is actually what brought me to feminism,” TallBear reflected. She noted that, since early days, science has been practiced on both indigenous peoples and the land, so she attempts to flip the gaze by putting the focus on the way scientists and colonizers think and practice.

“The Nazis learned eugenics and physical anthropology from the American School of Anthropology; one of the major centres of that was Harvard University. Our bodies, like our lands, were the raw materials for the development of the settler nations, practiced upon our bodies as well as our lands,” said TallBear.

Feminism helped her analyze politics and science — the fundamental hierarchy she pays attention to is the notion of civilized versus savage, the fundamental divide — nature versus culture, men versus women, white people versus the rest. These all rest upon the “who is more civilized” question, a false dichotomy she tries to dismantle, noting that human exploitation by science is not civilized, whereas living peacefully with nature is not savage in terms of stewardship. She notes that engaging with science and technology is the basis for indigenous sovereignty.

“I don’t think there’s just one road to feminism,” noted TallBear, adding that women are caretakers of community as part of a caretaking society. However, she prefers to relate to women caretakers as people rather than breaking them into gender, which reflects the white power structure and binary mindset. She urged indigenous peoples to develop newcomer relationships so that those coming into the country aren’t fed the lies of the settler state, but instead learn relationships with First Nations.

Kim Anderson, a Métis scholar, talked about how her indigenous feminist practice gradually grew.

“The first thing about indigenous feminist is resisting the “f” word,” noted Anderson, observing that feminism is often hard for people to accept. “It’s hard to accept a wide-spread oppression . . . it’s been given a really bad rap in the media and popular discourse.”

Part of the added resistance in indigenous ideology is that it was often traditionally a strong matriarchal society; and it’s argued that sovereignty would solve problems around gender discrimination, or that it’s more of a white woman’s issue, or that it attacks traditional roles around mothering or motherhood, or that it’s about rights versus responsibilities.

Motherhood was what brought her to first considering women and women’s issues and women’s bodies, as she experienced her first pregnancy. She went on to consider how nationalist movements are built with male dominance, and oppress women through patriarchal governance. Traditionally, indigenous societies were feminist societies with equality of the sexes. Women’s abilities and governance were recognized, and they had political authority.

“We were feminist societies. We had political, economic and social equality among the sexes,” Anderson said. “We had places for women to have governance: hereditary women chiefs, advisories, women’s councils. Socially it doesn’t get much more powerful than grandmother: we were a kin-based society and women managed the kin networks.”

This authority, in balance with the men, meant women were in charge of resources, both in disbursing and storage, which was equivalent with economic authority. Spiritually they were leaders, until they were “de-feminized” by the colonial system with an extended campaign to break down families and to impose male dominance at the most basic level.

“What happened to the men in terms of being stripped down in their authorities, the sacredness of them, their roles and responsibilities . . . . and handed this dominance and authority which was all they were given by settler society,” said Anderson, noting that she has explored this issue through her latest collection, indigenous men and masculinities.

Audra Simpson observed that “decolonization” is not a part of her daily thought process.

“It is a space of aspiration, perhaps . . . but it involves a return of the land, and I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon,” Simpson observed. “It is the complete recalibration of the way we think, about ourselves, and about others, and it is about the re-instantiation of our governance systems.” She added that like, decolonization, feminism is not a part of her daily thought process either, but she is optimistic that feminist practice is starting to move things: not just white feminism, but indigenous feminism which recognizes the land, water, and familial authority of women.

“I see us defending our land. I see us pointing at our land and saying, ‘that’s ours.’ And I see the people doing that defending as being women. That does not surprise me one bit; that is consistent with where we come from, our philosophical standpoints, our creation stories,” said Simpson, who notes that she grew up as a Mohawk who saw her female relatives standing up in her community, and went from white feminist friends in New York back to her reserve issues of Bill C-31, settler encroachment on land, and other critical problems. “Land is central, and the disempowerment of our women.”

“I stopped being the other kind of feminist, and started being a responsible Mohawk,” said Simpson, noting that she then got lured into indigenous feminism by persuasive arguments. “What then got me was, I liked the focus on indigenous women as a centre of analysis.”

She then identified gender dispossession with land dispossession, and began to embrace more mainstream feminism. There is still some residue, but overall she feels she can ask deeper questions about privilege of place, doing something that hasn’t been done before, and that in itself “is a restoration of power which has been taken from us, along with land, along with energy.”

Some 200 people attended the talk, which will be uploaded on YouTube.

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