22 Indigenous Masculinities: A Reflection
“You can’t understand the world without telling a story . . . there isn’t any centre to the world but story. . . . The thing I remember mostly about stories—whoever was telling them: my grandmother, my uncles, the kids, even my mother—the thing that I remember most vividly is the idea of being set free.”
Tanshi, I am a Metis/Cree-Ukrainian woman originally from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. I work as the Coordinator of ê-sihtoskâtoyahk Indigenous Students’ Centre at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Saskatoon Campus, but I have also developed and delivered a university course on Indigenous masculinities at Luther College, University of Regina. My course examines the ways that historical and contemporary constructions (or stereotypes) of Indigenous masculinity in popular culture have shaped Canadian society’s understanding of what it means to act as and be an Indigenous male in this country, particularly in the west. Students engage with and deconstruct colonial history, examining events and ideas like Indigenous autonomy, the settlement of the West, the construction of isinamowin (the Cree term for “Whiteman’s Indian”) in literature and film, and the ways Indigenous resistance movements over the past two hundred years have been framed by media discourse.
When I was invited to create a reflection piece about this course and my thoughts on Indigenous masculinities, I thought, “Easy enough, right? I can simply look at my syllabus and course notes, and it will all come together in some sort of coherent and eloquent way.” But months went by with little progress; finally, I decided to go and talk to the person who normally can help me through my writer’s block: my father, Gerald. I asked him, “How do I write about this? It all feels too technical and I don’t know what to say.”
He looked over my outline and agreed with me. He told me, “It looks like you’re missing the most important thing: how did you get here? Why did you do all this in the first place? You need to tell the story.”
Growing up in Northern Saskatchewan in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I didn’t want to be Indigenous. Like in many small towns, racism towards First Nations and Métis Peoples was alive and well, and as a child I tried to hide the fact that my father, his siblings, and my grandparents were not white. Cultural days at school involved my toting a large picture of my Ukrainian great-grandparents to class or chatting about my French ancestry. And because I had fair skin, I only really had to confront the reality of my ethnicity when I was around my father or when we visited relatives in Prince Albert and Edmonton. Coming home from these visits, I always felt a great deal of shame—not because I didn’t love my family, but because I had come to associate being Indigenous with poverty, mental illness, alcoholism, and stories of violence. And while that was neither fair nor true, try telling that to a ten-year old who desperately wanted to live in the suburbs.
By the time I was a teenager, I realized that The Brady Bunch wasn’t really a thing and that people in the suburbs were dysfunctional too. I started identifying as ‘Aboriginal’ because that’s how my father identified, but there was a disconnection between what I said I was, and what that actually meant. I knew that my ancestors were originally from Red River and later settled in Green Lake, but that’s all I knew. My family seemed not to know why or how they came to be there, and if they did know, they weren’t talking. This included my grandfather, John Jeancart, who later became a focal point in my research on Indigenous masculinities. I remember, as a child, visiting his small cabin in St. Cyr. He would often speak French to me even though I didn’t understand him. But what I did comprehend, even at a young age, was his emphatic rejection of his own Indigeneity, often expressed in viewpoints that were prejudiced and bigoted towards First Nations and Métis peoples. His ideas about the world made for a strained family relationship, and over time my family grew increasingly estranged from my grandfather. This dynamic, coupled with an almost non-existent Indigenous curriculum in elementary and high school, only served to deepen my sense of how much I didn’t know.
It wasn’t until I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Regina that I first learned about colonization—oddly enough in an English literature course that focused on anti-colonial narratives and taught by a professor who had a profound impact on my academic life, Dr. Florence Stratton. From there, I gravitated towards Indigenous Studies, taking as many courses as I could. And while I learned a great deal, I found myself frustrated at times with some of the course content because I didn’t understand how my family’s history fit into the larger narrative of colonization. Much of the history and many of the works that I read didn’t speak to the urban Indigenous experience or account for the stories of those who had become disenfranchised. This left me at times feeling exasperated: I wanted more than anything to be able to explain to my family why things were the way they were.
Looking for a deeper perspective on these issues, I started to consume works written by Indigenous women, particularly writers like Maria Campbell, Kim Anderson, Emma LaRocque, and Dawn Martin Hill. It was their writing that inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in Indigenous Studies at Trent University, with the goal of exploring Indigenous feminism and literature. But a course specifically looking at Indigenous women’s issues actually provided the idea to shift the focus of my research to Indigenous masculinities. We had just finished reading Brendan Hokowhitu’s article “Tackling Māori Masculinity: A Colonial Genealogy of Savagery and Sport,” in which Hokowhitu “deconstruct[s] one of the dominant discourses surrounding Māori men—a discourse that was constructed to limit, homogenize, and reproduce an acceptable and imagined Māori masculinity” (Hokowhitu 2004, 262). Hokowhitu’s discussion examines not only the ways in which many Māori men internalized such social and cultural constructions as a hyper-masculine physicality and “natural” Māori athleticism, but also how these constructions of masculinity become normalized by wider society. I had so many questions: how could this analysis relate to the construction of gender and sexuality in Canada? How have educational and governmental policies, as well as media discourse, contributed to creating notions of Indigenous male identity right here at home? Back in 2009, not a great deal of study had been performed in this area. I decided to switch the focus of my graduate work to masculinities, and while my professor, Dr. Paula Sherman, thought it was a great idea, she advised me that I needed to go about it in the right way, so as not to appropriate the stories of Indigenous men. With advice from my graduate advisor and my father, I decided that the most ethical way to pursue this area of study was to ground the research in my own familial narrative—how did negative portrayals of Indigenous men impact my family’s ideas of masculinity?
In the summer of 2009, my parents, my brother, and I hopped in the car to do field research. We drove to Glen Mary, pêhonân, Winnipeg, St. Boniface, and Edmonton, exploring archives and cemeteries along the way. I spoke with my grandmother, Theresa Jeancart (nee Umpherville), and interviewed family members about their views on masculinity. They shared with me their thoughts, any genealogy or documents they had, and their stories from the past. I couldn’t speak to my grandfather, as he had passed away in 2005. But he left behind numerous journals and manuscripts—including fiction that he wrote between the 1950s and the 1970s. From all of this shared knowledge and my grandfather’s writing, I pieced together a narrative—one that unearthed a rich family history that had been deeply impacted by colonization.
My grandmother, Theresa, was originally from pêhonân. Her grandfathers were at the signing of Treaty 6 and took part in the Northwest Resistance. In the 1940s, however, her immediate family was relocated under the aegis of the provincial government’s “rehabilitation” program, where they moved Métis peoples—those the government deemed destitute—to a newly formed colony at Green Lake. This was a program designed to get rid of the ‘Indian problem’ down south, in hopes that northern living would somehow ‘civilize’ the Métis peoples.
My grandfather, John, was originally from Jackfish, later moving to Green Lake when his father Fernand, a Belgian immigrant, was looking for work. He married Agnes Louisa Nolin, and I was told that all of their six children could speak Cree and French before they learned English. They were, however, sent to Catholic school where they stopped speaking Cree and were taught Latin instead. Fernand was not a kind man, and although he was married to a Cree/Métis woman, he would often make negative comments and perpetuate stereotypes about Indigenous peoples, further making harmful distinctions between “half-breeds” and the French Métis. Agnes’ family was from Red River. Her ancestors were fur traders who settled at Red River Colony around 1815. They were active members of the community throughout the 1800s, from education and politics, to acting as interpreters and participating in the buffalo hunt.
By the 1950s, my family’s stories of resistance and our connection to the land had faded due to the impacts of colonization and the inherent racism in the educational and political systems in which my family found themselves. Their stories of resilience were not captured by historians of the past, and that, coupled with the commodification of negative portrayals of First Nations and Métis peoples in popular culture, caused many Indigenous peoples, including members of my family, to feel disconnected from and/or ashamed of their past, culture, and stories.
This experience became integral to my research on Indigenous masculinities and culminated in my masters thesis, Imposed Identities: The Colonial Construction of Indigenous Masculinity that I defended in 2012. In 2013, I was back living in Saskatchewan and was asked by Luther College to create and develop a course on my thesis work. This was an opportunity for me to not only teach Indigenous history but to also tell a story that spoke to the disconnection and disenfranchisement in the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples—what I had felt was lacking in my own student experience.
The course I ended up creating discusses those shared experiences and further examines how and why detrimental stereotypes regarding Indigenous men have prevailed in Canadian society, even after such discriminatory ideas have been exposed as false. As such, I chose texts and reading materials that highlighted the lived experiences of Indigenous men (from Indigenous perspectives) as well as works that analyzed depictions of Indigeneity in popular culture throughout the last two hundred years. For this, I used a host of supplementary materials—articles, films, videos, art, etc., with the two main texts being Sam McKegney’s Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood and Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Carmen Robertson and Mark Cronlund Anderson. The course includes themes such as the establishment of Indigenous autonomy; theoretical considerations in Indigenous masculinities; the settlement of the west and early image makers; resistance movements (the Red River Resistance, Northwest Resistance/ ê-kî–mâyahkamikahk— “where it went wrong.” Anishinaabe Park Occupation, Oka, etc.); representations of Indigenous men in popular culture from 1890 to present; Indigenous men in the global context; and Indigenous women.
Learning about how my family story connects to the larger historical narrative has not only had a deep impact on the way I teach, but reclaiming that story has anchored me to a place—a place from which I can better understand the legacy of colonization and engage with, and be proud of, the stories of resistance and resiliency that have often been marginalized in the interpretation of Canada’s past. I am intensely grateful for the opportunity to introduce students to these themes as well as for the chance to teach Indigenous history, to help students engage with a narrative that has been often neglected by historians. My goal is for ê-sihtoskâtoyahk Indigenous Students’ Centre to continue as an environment where students can come to a deeper understanding of their world through discussion of their own lived experiences, telling stories, and learning from each other.
Hokowhitu, Brendan, “Tackling Māori Masculinity: A Colonial Genealogy of Savagery and Sport,” The Contemporary Pacific 16, no. 2 (2004): 259-284.
- Excerpts have been taken from my graduate thesis, Imposed Identities: The Colonial Construction of Indigenous Masculinity, p 2-3, 2012. ↵