21 Indigenous Women’s Literature: The Power and Truth of our Words
Woman’s body found beaten beyond recognition.
You sip your coffee
Taking a drag of your smoke
Turning the page
Taking a bite of your toast
Just another day
Just another death
Just one more thing you easily forget
You and your soft, sheltered life
Just go on and on
For nobody special from your world is gone
(Sarah de Vries, shared in Maggie de Vries 2003, 233)
The above words are shared in “a poem that resonates with particular force now that [Sarah] is gone” (233). Missing Sarah: A memoir of loss honours the story of Sarah de Vries, one of the women who went missing from the downtown East side of Vancouver. Her sister wrote the memoir describing it as a “collaboration between two sisters, one living and one dead” (268). By drawing on Sarah’s journals, Maggie brings forth a powerful message; one that Sarah wanted people to hear. For as Maggie writes “throughout her journals, she addresses a readership. When she wrote, she imagined readers. She imagined you” (xv).
Sarah’s words express the lack of value placed on Indigenous women but also serve as a profound call for action. Indigenous women have been actively working to bring the issue of racialized and sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls to the forefront. They have been doing so through creative acts of resistance such as poetry, literature, artwork, craft, and film. Their work not only raises awareness, demands action, and invokes compassion; it also serves as a counternarrative to the victim-blaming stories often presented about Indigenous women. Within a society that devalues Indigenous women, Sarah’s poem demands that Indigenous women and girls are valued. Her poem also addresses an important truth—that too many people turn a blind eye to this crisis.
This chapter prompts readers to delve into the Indigenous women’s literature that shares the hard truths expressed in Sarah de Vries’ poem. I will reflect on my own experiences teaching Indigenous women’s literature courses and offer a glimpse into the literatures that students are called on to theorize. My intent is to share the power and truth of Indigenous women’s words and call upon readers to consider the lessons that are embedded throughout their stories. As we work to put an end to the racialized and sexualized violence that threatens Indigenous women and girls, Indigenous literatures must become part of the informed national dialogue.
I first became aware of the extent and severity of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls during my last year as an undergraduate student at Brock University in 2006. Later that same year, our community was planning a twenty-four-hour drum feast to bring awareness to Amnesty International’s Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to the Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada and ultimately to honour our stolen sisters, their families, and promote community healing. Two years later, I began working for student services at the local college where I noticed a poster on the wall of a missing woman from Six Nations of the Grand River, my family’s home reserve. I did not know who Tashina General was at the time but coming from the small and close-knit community of Six Nations, I would soon learn that she was well known to family and friends from the Six Nations community.
I completed my master’s degree and became more involved in the Indigenous academic community and attending academic conferences. There are many differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous conferences. For example, ceremony and the presence of Elders and Traditional Knowledge Holders tend to be prominent at Indigenous conferences and the events are opened in a traditional manner to bring attendees together, establish relationship building, and honour the good mind teachings that are important to a successful gathering. A common occurrence during these traditional openings is a moment of silence to honour a young woman or girl who is missing from the local community or the community of an attendee. In these moments, we stand in solidarity and offer our support for the families who have lost a loved one. This is a disheartening reminder of the violence surrounding Indigenous women and girls. The moment of silence is also a constant reminder of the racialized and sexualized violence that all Indigenous women in the room are faced with. The shared threat of violence became strikingly clear as I pursued my research on Indigenous women’s educational experiences.
My research involved revealing the barriers that Indigenous women face within university institutions and promoting both access and success. I learned general statistics on Indigenous women in education, and I quickly realized that the statistics I was using in my research mirrored the statistics of both Indigenous women in prison as outlined by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies as well as Indigenous women who are missing and murdered as documented by Amnesty International. As I did my research, I developed a statement that reflects my reality as an Indigenous woman in Canada.
As an Indigenous woman in Canada, I can anticipate a life-expectancy rate that is ten years less than that of other women in Canada (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996). Data from the Canadian Population Health Initiative tell me that I belong to the unhealthiest group in the country. As an Indigenous woman, I am likely to earn 30 percent less than non-Aboriginal women. I am three times more likely to contact HIV, and I am five times more likely to die as a result of violence (Amnesty International 2009).
In addition to the above statistics, I can reasonably expect to face racism from police officers, health care professionals, and the children’s aid society. In fact, it is reasonable to fear that family and children’s services will intervene in my life at some point; as a younger mom this fear was constant. The threat of state apprehension is common among Indigenous women regardless of our credentials as shared by the late Patricia Monture-Angus, lawyer and professor, in her work Thunder in my Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks (1995). In her book, Patricia shares her own experiences with the child welfare system, describing the time she took her infant son to the hospital for a broken arm, later found to be the result of a bone disorder. Noting that the doctors at the hospital “vigorously pursued the abuse allegation” and “laughed when they heard [her] professional credentials,” she described her experience as being “of layer upon layer of racist treatment” (208). Her son was taken from her for eight days. Monture-Angus notes the fear of taking her children to the doctors knowing how easy another allegation of abuse can occur. In a country where Indigenous women are flown into a hospital to have their babies delivered and leave with tubal litigations as a result of being coerced into a procedure following birth, often during moments of vulnerability, the connection between fear and ongoing violence in the places we should feel safe is clear. I understand this threat as an extension of settler colonial violence as I will describe later.
As I moved forward with my research, the continued examples of violence haunted me. I was completing my master’s thesis and in my first year as a sessional instructor teaching Indigenous women’s literature when I found out that Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman, was missing. Loretta had been working on her undergraduate thesis on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls when she went missing. Her disappearance brought a new lens to the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls for the approximately twenty Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in my class. The class was delivered through a seminar style that allowed for engaged discussion and personal connections to course material.
The Indigenous women’s literature course highlights the connection between stereotypes in mainstream literature, media and film to the high rates of sexualized and racialized violence against Indigenous women and girls. Extending this, I share the work Indigenous women are doing by counteracting these stereotypes and presenting positive images of Indigenous womanhood. The stories highlight the bravery, the warriorship, and the resilience of our women who overcome extensive tragedy and are still standing tall and sharing beautiful stories of cultural transmission. I have now taught Indigenous women’s literature for seven years and other Indigenous-focused courses that cover the topic of violence against Indigenous women and girls. I teach to raise awareness and bring honour to the stories of the women and girls and their families and to position Indigenous women’s literature as a counternarrative to racialized, sexualized and colonial violence.
In my first five years of teaching, I would survey the class to find out how many students were aware of the topic. In most classes, only one or two students would raise their hand to indicate they were aware of the extent of the violence. The students who were aware were among the Indigenous students in my class. In my sixth year of teaching, this changed; half of the class, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, raised their hands. For the most part this was because the launch of the National Public Inquiry had been all over the news. Finally a different kind of media coverage, or so I thought.
In August 2014, fifteen-year-old Tina Fontaine disappeared. Her body was later found in Winnipeg’s Red River while police were searching for a missing man whose disappearance was unrelated to Tina’s. I will not repeat all of the insensitive headlines of the news reports that were released when Tina’s body was found, but I would like to highlight the words of Winnipeg’s Police Sgt. John O’Donovan who declared, “She’s a child. This is a child that has been murdered . . . Society should be horrified” (National Post). Tina’s case became part of the push for immediate action as Indigenous women and allies across the country demanded action from the federal government of Canada. On December 8, 2015, the Government of Canada announced plans for the launch of an independent national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The government pledged $53.86 million over the course of two years for the inquiry and held a “pre-inquiry” to seek input from stakeholders across Canada.
In some ways, when I consider that over fifty reports with 700 recommendations have already been put forth, I am reluctant to put my faith in the inquiry. Moreover, we have seen a significant number of commissioners and other staff resign from the commission as it appears this is not the inquiry that Indigenous communities have asked for; Indigenous people and allies have a deep-layered understanding of why Indigenous women and girls remain the target of violence. Indigenous women’s narratives echo this understanding, and, through literature, have been calling for attention to the misrepresentations of Indigenous women and girls for well over a hundred years, as I will elaborate below.
The legacy of Tina Fontaine also highlights this deep-layered understanding. Tina was failed by a number of people leading up to her disappearance. For one, she was a child who was in the care of Winnipeg’s Family and Children’s Services and she was being housed in a hotel with minimal supervision. For a moment, consider the word ‘care’ and remember that she was, in fact, a child left alone in a hotel room by child protection services. As a mother of a fifteen-year-old, I am horrified and heartbroken when I think about the lack of care for her safety and well-being. Tina was in contact with hospital staff only hours before her disappearance and was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over by two officers who let the vehicle go after asking a few questions. The officers allowed this man to drive off with Tina even though she was listed as a missing person.
Earlier this year, the Globe and Mail released a victim-blaming report titled: “Toxicologist testifies Tina Fontaine had drugs, alcohol in system when she died.” This report, published on January 30, 2018, is only one more insensitive and shameful response to the death of an Indigenous child. As the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs noted, the article “helps shape the discourse on the bigger issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.” Moreover, as Grand Chief Arlen Dumas wrote, “it isn’t until the fourth paragraph that the reporter reveals that the alcohol and THC levels could be artificially high.” Further, Arlen Dumas pointed out that “most readers do not read that far into a story. . . . the public opinion has already been formed. It was formed with the headline” (Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Open Letter).
As an educator on these issues, I am far too familiar with the kind of public opinion that demonstrates the effects of victim-blaming headlines when it comes to issues of racialized and sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Intertwined within the grand narratives that racialize and sexualize Indigenous women and girls are a slew of other ideas that manifest in the multiple stereotypes reflected in normalized experiences of racism. In #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women, stories of the effects of these stereotypes are expressed by Indigenous women. Co-editor Lisa Charleyboy dedicates the collection to “every Indigenous woman who has ever been called ‘Pocahontas.’ ” I have personally been referenced by the name numerous times and, like the contributors of #NotYourPrincess, have been on the receiving end of seemingly harmless comments.
Similar stereotypes are initially held by students when they enter my courses. Now, with a distinct shift in the number of students who have heard of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, from one or two to nearly the entire class, I better understand the perceptions they hold about the reasons for violence against Indigenous women and girls in this country. One of the questions that I am often asked is why so many Indigenous women are involved in the sex trade. Yes, some women are involved in the sex trade at the time they go missing; this does not make their lives any less valuable than the lives of other women. The opening poem by Sarah de Vries makes this point clear. However, contrary to what media reporting has led the public to believe, only a percentage of Indigenous women are involved in the sex trade when they go missing. Others are children in state care and some are university students. Making assumptions that perpetuate victim-blaming narratives further removes settlers from the violence, which they believe exists in particular areas from which they are far removed. Perhaps this notion of being far removed allows others to remain untroubled and undisturbed; to completely ignore the violence and easily digest what is happening along with their morning toast as the opening poem by Sarah de Vries points out.
Surely such perceptions are, in part, informed by the prevalent victim-blaming headlines along with a long history of harmful stereotypes against Indigenous Peoples. Some students express their belief that Indigenous men are the perpetrators of the majority of violence against Indigenous women and make remarks about the consequences of the high-risk lifestyles that Indigenous people lead, akin to the “Indian Problem” narrative. Sarah Hunt articulates the connection between the media reports and the “Indian Problem” narrative by asking: “Why are we so hesitant to name white male violence as a root cause, yet so comfortable naming all the “risk factors” associated with the lives of Indigenous girls who have died? Why are we not looking more closely at the “risk factors” that lead to violence in the lives of the perpetrators?”
As a counternarrative to the “Indian Problem” narrative and the associated stereotypes, I draw on the stories presented within Indigenous women’s literature as a pedagogy of humanity and compassion. As Hillsburg (2015) expresses, Indigenous women writers have contributed to a particular kind of literature that brings “their experiences back into focus” while refuting “a long-standing pattern of policies and societal beliefs that naturalize racial segregation, reify the legacy of colonization and ultimately blame Aboriginal women for the violence they confront” (300). Moreover, as Hillsburg explains, settler responses to Indigenous women’s writing involves a recognition of the “invisible and unearned privilege that many Canadians enjoy.” Indeed, this recognition is certainly part of the counternarrative of Indigenous women’s literature.
The Power of Indigenous Women’s Words
I position Indigenous women’s literature as a counternarrative to the stereotypical representations that continue to be propagated about Indigenous women. I do, however, acknowledge that Indigenous women’s literature cannot simply be reduced to a counternarrative as it draws from something much deeper and exists as something much more powerful. Alongside themes of resistance and stories of survival are testimonies of resilience, cultural continuity, rebirth, and renewal. Some writings extend the Indigenous storytelling tradition. Moreover, the contemporary realities of Indigenous women, communities, and families shape Indigenous women’s writing in moving and profound ways. The racialization and sexualization and the violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls is expressed in numerous stories that bring back the honour and humanity that is dismissed by the insensitive victim blaming reports. As Lisa Charleyboy expresses in #NotYourPrincess: “Too often I’ve seen, we’ve all seen, those headlines that send shivers down spines, spin stereotypes to soaring heights, and ultimately shame Indigenous women. Yet when I look around me, I see so many bright, talented, ambitious Indigenous women and girls, full of light, laughter, and love (Foreword).
Other stories do not speak of this violence but present the beauty of Indigenous cultures and the “light, laughter, and love” noted above. Some share memoirs of motherhood, stories of the land, voices of resurgence, and present “a recognition of being” (Anderson 2000) and a strong sense of Indigenous identities that are significantly different from the words that have been written about Indigenous women by others. For Indigenous women, as the late Beth Brant (1994) says, literature becomes a source of power: “Pauline Johnson’s physical body died in 1913, but her spirit still communicates to us who are Native women writers. She walked the writing path clearing the brush for us to follow. And the road gets wider and clearer each time a Native woman picks up her pen and puts her mark on paper” (7–8).
The following quotations are from an Anthology titled Reinventing The Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Women’s Writings Of North America. I share them here to express the depth of Indigenous women’s literature and to highlight the shared realities that call Indigenous women to write; the anger, the passion, and the wisdom:
“The purpose of my writing has always been to tell a better story than is being told about us. To give that to the people and to the next generations. The voices of the grandmothers and grandfathers compel me to speak of the worth of our people and the beauty all around us, to banish the profaning of ourselves, and to ease the pain. I carry the language of the voice of the land and the valiance of the people and I will not be silenced by a language of tyranny.” Jeannette Armstrong, Okanagan
“I write for the same reason that mountain climbers do what they do: because it’s there. As a younger woman, I remember a few dreadful weeks when I wept and raged because all I did was write when there were so many ills to correct, so much to be done. Eventually, I came to understand that the pen is mightier than the law books, and that the image is where the action is begotten.” Paula Gunn Allen, Laguna Sioux
“Ultimately, writing is a process of confronting what is human in oneself as well as in others. Good, honest writing makes us tell the truth about the oppressor and the oppressed in us all. This is also why we must write about “all our relations.” Emma LaRocque, Cree and Métis
“I write about the issues that trouble me, stories of my family and my people and myself that keep me awake at night, the stories that call me to drive dark roads at midnight, to return again to the small lakes and streams that are lit by moonlight. I write to find understanding, to find peace. I write in the hope that I will give voice to those who have never had an opportunity to tell their stories. I write to give voice to myself.” Debra Earling, Flathead
To further express the depth of Indigenous literature, I draw on the following passage shared in 1994 by Beth Brant:
“The amount of books and written material by Native people is relatively small. Yet, to us, these are precious treasures carefully nurtured by our communities. And the number of Native women who are writing and publishing is growing. Like all growing things, there is a need and desire to ensure the flowering of this growth. You see, these fruits feed our communities. These flowers give us survival tools. I would say Native women’s writing is the Good Medicine that can heal us as a human people.” (9)
Since these words were shared in 1994, the number of books and written material by Indigenous women has certainly grown and continues to fill our bookshelves and feed our spirits. As Maria Campbell writes in the Foreword to Kim Anderson’s (2016) A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood:
When I published Halfbreed in 1973 there were very few books about Native people and even less written by Native authors. I could walk into any bookstore and buy all the titles— and I did—saving money, going without so I could buy native authors’ works. I did this because I was hungry to see myself and my people. Today I cannot go into a bookstore and buy all the books written by Native authors, as there are so many. Thousands in fact, and it is those books that have given me strength and inspiration to continue my work. (xi)
Campbell’s work draws attention to the empowerment that comes through Indigenous literature. As she wrote, “recognition is powerful.” Her work documents and positions Indigenous women’s literature within a long history of confronting the colonizers and moving Indigenous women to action by organizing and marching. Campbell recalls the feelings that were stirred during a reading of nineteenth-century Mohawk poet Tekahionwake’s (E. Pauline Johnson) The Cattle Thief at a 1990 women’s gathering in Edmonton, AB. Campbell describes being “woken up” by the keynote speaker Maryanne LaValley who shared stories of Indigenous women, the aunties, the grandmothers, and the songs they shared. As Campbell noted, by the end of the day, they were so moved that they had organized a march to the legislature building. This is the power of Indigenous women’s literature. It propels us into action by naming injustices and presenting or reawakening a strong “recognition of being.” I have witnessed students in my class become propelled to action upon learning about the shared experiences of violence Indigenous women and girls face and organizing events on campus to spread awareness. Other students have now published work including academic essays and poetry to continue to spread that awareness.
Deconstructing the Squaw/Princess Binary
“Her ears stung and she shook, fearful of the other words
like fists that would follow. For a moment, her spirit drained like
water from a basin. But she breathed and drew inside her fierce
face and screamed until the image disappeared like vapour”
(Marilyn Dumont cited in An anthology of Native Canadian Literature, 436–437).
The above words are part of Marilyn Dumont’s Squaw Poems, a poem in which she writes “Indian women know all too well the power of the word squaw” (437).
The princess/squaw binary that reduces Indigenous women’s humanity through racialized and sexualized objectification is certainly not part of our own recognition of being but rather something imagined by the colonizer’s gaze. However, this gaze filters into the everyday threat of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Within this context we understand what Beth Brant meant by the “survival tools” of Indigenous women’s literature. The extent of the princess/squaw binary is the tragic and disheartening reality of the horrific numbers of Indigenous women who go missing. E. Pauline Johnson wrote about these stereotypes 125 years ago. In an essay titled “A Strong Race Opinion: On The Indian Girl in Modern Fiction,” which was originally published in the Toronto Sunday Globe on May, 22 1892, Johnson spoke out about the images of the “Indian squaw” that were presented in mainstream literature and called on writers to move beyond their fantasies of Indigenous women: “Above all things let the Indian girl of fiction develop from the ‘doglike,’ ‘fawnlike’ ‘deer- footed’ ‘fire-eyed’ ‘crouching,’ ‘submissive’ book heroine into something of the quiet, sweet womanly, woman she is, if wild, or the everyday, natural, laughing girl she is, if cultivated and educated; let her be natural, even if the author is not competent to give her tribal characteristics (163) as cited in Fee and Nason).
Similarly, in her book, Iskwewak — Kah’Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaws (1995), author Janice Acoose also draws attention to the racialized and sexualized legacy of settler colonialism that has led to an acceptance of violence. As Acoose wrote, these colonial attitudes have justified many of the legally sanctioned policies that have targeted Indigenous women and families, such as the Indian Act and residential schools. Indigenous women’s literature bring the effects of Canada’s deep history of settler colonialism on Indigenous families and communities to the forefront to shape understandings of the pervasive mindset that fosters violence against Indigenous women and girls.
Indigenous women’s literature—including autobiographies, short stories, and poetry—expresses the social, historical, colonial, and political contexts of Indigenous women’s identities. The literature also includes Indigenous maternal identities, contemporary realities, and connections between the two. Powerful autobiographies include Maria Campbell’s (1973, restored edition 2019) Half-Breed and Morningstar Mercredi’s (2006) Morningstar: A Warrior’s Spirit, which showcase the life stories of the authors who overcame oppressive forces that led them to prostitution and addictions and of their journeys toward recovery that brought them to their vocations as writers, mentors, and frontline workers. Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree (1983) and Come Walk With Me (2009) offer powerful narratives that highlight hardships to which many Indigenous women can relate and also inspire hopes and dreams through examples of perseverance. The short stories of Lee Maracle and Beth Brant weave in cultural and historical memory and connect it with contemporary realities. Poetry, from the earlier works of Pauline Johnson to the works of Chrystos, Marcie Rendon, and Marilyn Dumont to the recent works of Lesley Belleau, Katherena Vermette, and Sara General present cultural teachings that connect past, present, and future. Indigenous women’s literature also provides a space for presenting queer Indigenous theory by drawing on the work of scholars such as Beth Brant (1988) and Chrystos (1988). For me, this body of Indigenous women’s literature has become a teaching tool that inspires cultural identity development while also complicating the patriarchal influences that have suppressed the variations of gender performativity within Indigenous communities. Indigenous women’s literature also offers a space to consider the threat of settler colonial violence, specifically a particular kind of hyper-masculinity that is rampant throughout society. Unfortunately, it is still not a recognized part of the threat by reporters and politicians as Sarah Hunt points out: “It seems that while reporters and politicians feel entitled to weigh in on what First Nations should do to address this issue, they are unwilling to name what is right in front of them. They are unable to see the culture of whiteness that excuses violence against Indigenous women and girls by blaming Native people for the violence they face” (2014).
A hyper-masculinity is now being confronted by Indigenous scholars who consider the ways in which it implicates Indigenous wellbeing (for example, see Innes and Anderson 2015). Through such work, Indigenous literatures help bring wholistic understandings of settler violence against Indigenous women and girls to the forefront. The power of Indigenous women’s literature is such that it not only moves us to action but it unravels deeply ingrained misperceptions about our daily lives and serves as a pedagogy of humanity and compassion.
Indigenous Women’s Literature: A Pedagogy of Humanity and Compassion
“To begin to understand the severity of the tragedy facing Indigenous women today you must first understand the history.” Nick Printup, Director and Producer of “Our Sisters in Spirit.”
The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada is as old as the development of Canada itself and must be understood within the historical context of settler colonialism that has led to the ongoing racialization and sexualization of Indigenous women. Historically, Indigenous women were sexualized and held against dangerous cultural attitudes that defined them as promiscuous and dangerous. Today, these stereotypes permeate many facets of Canadian society and Indigenous women and girls continue to be sexualized. My Indigenous women’s literature course begins with reading Janice Acoose’s (1995) Iskwewak Kah’Ki Yaw Ni Wahkomakanak: Neither Indian Princesses nor Easy Squaws, providing an opportunity for the students to learn about White-Euro-Canadian-Christian-Patriarchy (WECCP) institutions and their associated ideological forces that have interfered with the lives of Indigenous women. Acoose writes about her points of contact with WECCP institutions throughout her life and connects the authority of WECCP institutions to the negative images of Indigenous women that have been expressed and maintained throughout mainstream Canadian literature. According to Acoose, literary representations describing Indigenous women as lewd, licentious, dissolute, dangerous, or promiscuous, along with those that lean more towards the polar opposite Indian Princess representation, trap Aboriginal women within a Squaw/Princess binary; one that simultaneously renders Indigenous women’s identities highly visible and invisible. Indeed, such ideologies continue to inform public notions of Indigeneity through the troubling headlines noted earlier. As Acoose writes: “Indigenous women are misrepresented in images that perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes. . . . [T]hose images foster cultural attitudes that encourage sexual, physical, verbal, or psychological violence against Indigenous women. Stereotypic images also function as sentinels that guard and protect the white eurocanadian-christian-partriarchy against any threatening disturbances that might upset the status quo” (55).
Acoose explicitly connects the derogatory images of Indigenous women presented in mainstream literature to the racialized and sexualized violence we continue to face. To explain this further she notes, “In much of canadian literature, the images of Indigenous women that are constructed perpetuate unrealistic and derogatory ideas, which consequently foster cultural attitudes that legitimize rape and other kinds of violence against us” (71). This is further clarified through the story of Helen Betty Osbourne who was a nineteen-year-old student when she was abducted by four white men and killed in 1971. As Acoose explains, the young men who killed her were influenced by particular cultural attitudes and she draws on the Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba that notes: “the attackers seemed to be operating on the assumption that Aboriginal women were promiscuous and open to enticement through alcohol or violence. It is evident that the men who abducted Osbourne believed that young Aboriginal women were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification” (70). It took sixteen years for any charges to be laid in the death of Helen Betty Osbourne and only one of the four men who abducted her was charged. As Holly McKenzie (2010) points out, such cases set a dangerous precedence as “these men may also choose to attack Indigenous women based on the assumption that they will not be held accountable by the justice system because of the indifference of white-settler society to the well-being and safety of Aboriginal women” (144). McKenzie’s work connects this to Indigenous women’s exclusion from Canadian society that has pushed women into vulnerable situations such as homelessness, poverty, and sex work.
The Violent Erasure of Indigenous Women and Girls
“Indian women ‘disappear’ because they have been deemed killable, able to be raped without repercussion, expendable. Their bodies have historically been rendered less valuable because of what they are taken to represent: land, reproduction, Indigenous kinship and governance, an alternative to heteronormative and Victorian rules of descent. Theirs are bodies that carry a symbolic load because they have been conflated with land and are thus contaminating to a white, settler social order.” (Audra Simpson 2014, 156)
As Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Cree lawyer and honourary doctorate expresses, “It is women who give birth both in the physical and spiritual sense to the social, political and cultural life of the community” (cited in Anderson 2007, 774). Her words describe the power of matrilineal and egalitarian societies that honour the role of Indigenous women. Consider this statement in light of the well-known Cheyenne Proverb: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong its weapons.” These two statements on their own tell of the vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples when women are targets of violence; together they illuminate the intentions of settler colonialism and the multiple attacks on Indigenous women through both legislated policy and the dangerous ideologies that have governed the development of “Canada.” Indeed, the ennoblement of the stereotypical beliefs and the associated policies that control Indigenous women’s bodies have a long history rooted in assimilation and dispossession of land.
I familiarize students with the work of Sarah Carter (2008) who documented the increasing segregation of Indigenous peoples and settlers and described the 1880s as a time when there was a “sharpening of racial boundaries and categories” and “an intensification of racial discrimination in the Canadian West” (146). As Carter points out, assimilationist policies were justified by images of Indigenous women as “dissolute, dangerous, and sinister” (147) and these negative images were promoted by government officials, political leaders, and the national press. Students learn that these representations are not only upheld by WECCP institutions, but they have been used to justify many of the legally sanctioned policies that have targeted Indigenous women. If Indigenous women were deemed dangerous and promiscuous, the policies designed to control them were welcomed by settler society. I raise these conversations in the classroom to identify this particular form of racism and structural violence as ongoing and position it as a platform for understanding contemporary realities that continue to target Indigenous women and girls today. Indeed, as the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded in a supplementary report: “Genocide is a root cause of the violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls, not only because of the genocidal acts that were and still are perpetrated against them, but also because of all the societal vulnerabilities it fosters, which leads to deaths and disappearances and which permeates all aspects of Canadian society today” (8).
Students learn about the gender discrimination embedded in The Indian Act of 1876, with emphasis on Section 12(1)(b)—the removal of status upon marriage to a non-status man; repealed in 1985 under Bill C-31 and they come to understand the ongoing forms of gender discrimination that still exist in the Indian Act today. Students learn about the eugenics movement, which involved the forced sterilization of women deemed unfit to have children. They learn that Indigenous women were specifically vulnerable to these racist and sexist procedures and often deemed unfit to have children. The Sexual Sterilization Legislation in Canada was repealed in 1973, however cases of forced and coerced sterilization of Indigenous women in Canada continues today (Boyer and Bartlett 2017). Students learn that the pass system of 1882 to 1935 was created to control Indigenous movement off the reserve. Without a pass from the Indian Agent, Indigenous men and women could not leave their reserve. This severely limited their access to resources and employment opportunities and left them in positions that further justified intervention from family and children’s services. Students also learn that the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop were attacks on the very rights of Indigenous women to mother their own children. Policies against Indigenous women were deeply entrenched in gender discrimination in the Indian Act. This continued through the pass system, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop. They were the result of deliberate and forceful efforts to assimilate Indigenous Peoples by restricting their movement to reserve lands so that development and settlement could quickly take place by non-Indigenous settlers across Turtle Island. This is a form of structural violence described as a deliberate “tool of genocide” (Leanne Simpson 2017). Many years later, the trend of targeting Indigenous women and girls continues and is reflected in the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in child protective services, the lack of protection for Indigenous women and girls, and the disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Thus, as Acoose expressed, the dangerous ideologies embedded in mainstream literature media and film serve a purpose, one that is indeed connected to the racialized and sexualized violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls today.
The stories shared in Indigenous women’s literature expose the everyday experiences of racism that are deeply rooted in the aforementioned history of Indigenous and settler relationships. As an example of what I mean by everyday experiences of racism, Francine Cunningham (2017) shares her experience in a poem entitled “A Conversation with a Massage Therapist,” noting some of the comments that I think many Indigenous women have heard on multiple occasions. Her entire poem resonates with my own personal experiences in numerous settings. The poem describes a conversation with a massage therapist where a woman is asked about her identity, told she does not really look “Native,” asked if she lives on a reserve and then told she is not a real “Native.” When the woman explains she is pursuing a master’s degree the response is “good thing you got the taxpayers to pay for it” and then told, “you’re not a drunk or anything, good for you” (59). It is important to understand that these kind of offensive interactions take place so often and are not isolated incidents. Offensive comments similar to those noted above are made by educators, officers of the law, and health care professionals and reflect a grand narrative about the racialized and sexualized perceptions of Indigenous women. . This deep-seeded narrative remains rooted in the dominant colonial mindset and has existed for many generations. Keep in mind, this is the mindset that exists among the very people who Indigenous women and girls are expected to trust and turn to for safety This is evident in a 2012 interview with an RCMP officer and an Indigenous girl who was reporting a sexual assault. A video of the troubling two-and-a-half-hour interrogation was released in 2019 showing an RCMP officer asking the young girl if she was turned on by the rape and questioning the truth of her story.
As Maria Campbell declared during her opening address at the 2008 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Conference held in Regina, SK, “Patriarchy and misogyny are so ingrained in our society, and our silence makes them normal.” These words describe the society we live in today: A society where women disappear and nobody seems to have seen or heard anything. The aforementioned Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba made this silence evident as it took 16 years for anyone to be charged with the death of Helen Betty Osbourne who was killed in 1971. In the same province today, Indigenous communities call for justice into the death of Tina Fontaine. There is a deafening silence that perpetuates the violence against Indigenous women and girls. The numbers of students I have taught over the years who had not heard of the Stolen Sisters report or the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls awareness are testament to this silence.
The slogan “Silence is Violence,” highlighted on Amnesty International’s 2004 Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to the Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada, takes on a deeper meaning for students who are urged to reflect on the silencing of Indigenous women in spite of their powerful roles in matriarchal and egalitarian societies. I urge students to think critically about the Indigenous leaders written about or documented more widely throughout history. Names like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse usually come to mind. The erasure of Indigenous women from dominant Canadian narratives is evident in the words of Marcie Rendon, Anishinaabe: “My own grandmothers have no names, their heroic actions erased from history’s page. Freedom stories left untold . . . shared only in the deepest dreams. In lessons to the world, the enemy has recorded our greatest warriors’ names: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise. Resistance fighters all . . . yet my own grandmothers have no names, their heroic actions erased from history’s page.”
I ask my students to consider the names of Indigenous women throughout history and the students usually name Pocahontas but no one else comes to mind even though they many played valuable and very powerful roles in traditional societies; there are few stories known to my students of Indigenous women leaders throughout history. To extend my argument and connect it to the binary described earlier, the story of Pocahontas that is most familiar to my students is one in which she is presented as the young highly sexualized virginal princess. By drawing on the squaw/princess binary that imprisons Indigenous women, I express the importance of literature written by Indigenous women as expressions of traditional and contemporary identities that provide true representations of Indigenous womanhood. With the story of Pocahontas, for example, Beth Brant (1994) offers a different version in “Grandmothers of a New World” where Pocahontas is described as a woman of authority who fought for her Nation until her final days. By deconstructing mainstream literature, Indigenous women can find liberation from the false images perpetuated by the squaw/princess binary (Acoose 1995) and today more and more Indigenous women writers take on this role.
Prevailing Attitudes toward Indigenous Women
In July 2015, two paintings appeared on a storefront window during the Hospitality Days cultural festival in Bathurst, New Brunswick. One painting depicted two Indigenous women with their hands tied behind their backs, their ankles tied and their mouths forced shut with what appeared to be duct tape. These images appeared during the height of the push for a National Public Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In response, social media backlash prompted the removal of the images. In an article published by The Halifax Media Co-op Miles Howe documented the reaction of Patty Musgrave, one of the hosts of the local annual Sisters in Spirit Vigil and Indigenous Student Advisor for New Brunswick Community College. Musgrave wrote a letter to city council “to address the appalling disregard to First Nation people in [New Brunswick] and across the country” and expressed that the paintings trivialized violence against Indigenous women. According to Musgrave, after an apology that links readers to the legend of the phantom ship, a sincere and suitable apology should be made as well as further action including consultation with Indigenous communities prior to such images being presented. President of the Bathurst Art Society, Rita May Gates expressed “We just didn’t think at the time that the images would be painful and upsetting and of course we do respect their culture and stories very much. This depiction does open thought and dialogue regarding the plight of Aboriginal women, the abuse and femicide they have suffered over the centuries. We just send prayers for hope and healing going out to First Nations’ people. It was never our intention to hurt anyone” (Howe 2015).
The issue of the paintings, especially at the height of the push for the national public inquiry demonstrate that there is much work to be done in many facets of society as prevailing attitudes have not changed much since the time when E. Pauline Johnson published “A Strong Race Opinion: On The Indian Girl in Modern Fiction,” in May 1892. Nor have we seen an answer to the calls for justice into the death of Helen Betty Osbourne in 1971 that prompted the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. Today, families across the country call for justice for Tina Fontaine and the thousands of Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing since contact.
A mother that wakes and finds her babies gone
A young girl with blood down her thighs
A grandmother without any daughters left
And a lone woman under a man that she loves
Breathing to the drum of one heart
And giving themselves to morning
To wash this all away and return to a place like home
Where these things never happen
Where men don’t take these women
In IndianLand Lesley Belleau shares poems of home, of memory, and of missing Indigenous women and girls. Lesley’s poetry is a profound expression of the home that Indigenous women and girls have always called Turtle Island and her words are testament to the memories that echo throughout the land and reverberate within our waters. In her poem Niibinabe she asks, “how many missing and murdered Indigenous women are there? . . . [f]amilies and memories speak thousands and thousands until our lips are closed.” She asks readers to “Imagine a woman. Your mother. Imagine a woman that created your first stories. And then she is gone” (47).
For Indigenous women, Belleau’s poetry resonates all too well. The extent to which stories of settler violence against Indigenous women are deeply rooted within Indigenous literatures tells us that these are not isolated incidents. Rather, they are powerful expressions of the violence that threatens all Indigenous women and girls. Settler violence is indeed a sociological phenomenon that has taken place on these lands since contact because theft of Indigenous lands has become intertwined with theft of Indigenous women’s bodies.
Beth Brant’s (1994) description of Indigenous women’s writing as “recovery writing” against repeated attempts of “cultural annihilation” at the hands of the “State” (18), highlights Indigenous women’s literature as a “survival tool” that serves as a weapon against colonial violence. In a recent class, a student furthered this sentiment by describing Indigenous women’s literature as a powerful source of protection and spiritual medicine against the collective threat of violence. By serving as both a pedagogy of humanity and compassion, and a weapon of protection, Indigenous women’s literature calls attention to this ongoing and pervasive threat of settler violence and reawakens us to a time when “Turtle island women had no reason to fear other humans” as shared by Lee Maracle in Daughters are Forever.
I will end by drawing attention to the Haudenosaunee narrative “Thunder Woman Destroys the Horned Serpent” as described to me by Alyssa M. General and the stories of Jikonsaseh as shared by Sara General in Spirit and Intent: A collection of short stories and other writings. Inspired by Alyssa’s artwork that covers the front of Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, I consider the Haudenosaunee story of Thunder Woman to be a story of strength, determination, and protection. Thunder woman destroyed the horned serpent, offering a profound lesson about the threat of patriarchal violence and the strength and power of Indigenous women to call an end to colonial violence. Not only does the story of Thunder Woman teach us that we are survivors and we carry the strength to overcome the forces that bring danger into our lives, but it also teaches us that this is a collective strength. I was reminded of this vision of a collective strength when I read Sara General’s short stories about Jikonsaseh who is referred to as the Peace Queen. As Sara eloquently expresses, in the work that Indigenous women are doing to collectively bring us back to a time of peace, safety, and love when we can freely write our stories, create our art, sing our songs, dance our dances, and speak our languages, perhaps Jikonsaseh is a part of all of us. Her legacy lives through us and, like Thunder Woman, our literatures will help us to destroy the horned serpent. Through connections of the past, present, and future, Indigenous women’s literature shares deep-layered understandings of a long history of colonial violence through stories that bring humanity and compassion and honour the legacies of our missing women and girls. I dedicate this chapter to the spirit of Tina Fontaine and all of our missing sisters, daughters, aunties, and mothers. Their stories leave us with a powerful legacy of hope as we continue to do this work by destroying the horned serpents, naming the genocide we continue to face, and collectively calling for justice.
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