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A few women, bold enough to ask "why is this the case?" have been subtly cautioned that politics is, and always has been, the "traditional" stronghold of men: The political arena is our contemporary war zone and our political leaders are our contemporary warriors. When a few of us try to gain entry into the political realm we are told that "traditional" Native women left diplomatic matters to the men folk. After all, men are by nature more aggressive, strong, and worldly. Women, conversely, are nurturing, weak, and domestic. Seemingly, many women accept their allotted positions and in doing so, have forfeited an active role in the decision making process which directly affects the future of their children.
Contrary to these pervasive beliefs, men and women were not always so rigidly bound to sex-differentiated occupations. Prior to the reserve era, there was tar more equality between the two. It is true that historically most Native women centered their lives around camp, bearing and raising children, and providing domestic support to their families and communities. What is not widely known, however, is that they did so by choice. Women had the freedom to set aside their traditional tasks and take up 'men's work.' Most women, for example, had local traplines; others hunted and trapped on their own or alongside men. And there were Women Warriors.
"Woman Warriors" existed in North American Indian societies and in many other indigenous societies throughout the world. They fought traditional enemies and they are fighting colonial invaders side-by-side their brothers, uncles, fathers, and husbands.
Amongst our own people, such women were not abnormal, deviant, or idiosyncratic. As individuals they were characteristically healthy, resourceful, and independent. They became hunters and warriors for many of the same reasons men did: Personal inclination and circumstance. Women fought for survival, self-defense, revenge, glory, prestige, and wealth. Furthermore, they were judged on the merits of their accomplishments: If they were successful warriors they were accepted and treated as such.
Woman Warriors were also not that uncommon. In fact, in some Plains Indian tribes they were numerous enough to warrant their own societies. Warrior Women belonged to the Blackfoot Ninawaki society, the Dakota Winoxta society, and the Piegan Manly-Hearted Women society. As warriors they were accorded power, prestige, and respect in an area conventionally identified as 'man's world.'
Little girls grew up knowing they had a wide variety of occupational possibilities open to them. First-born daughters often received the benefit of both women's and men's training. For example, they would be taught the skills of a silent stalker, a marksman, and a horseman by their fathers or their mother's brothers. The training these young women received not only provided a variety of occupational choices, but it also served their families and communities. For example, when men were away from camp, these young women would protect old people, women and children from enemies and keep everyone well provided in game. Such women were especially valued in communities depleted of men folk through warfare.
The historical existence of Warrior Women challenges pervasive notions that Native women were "traditionally" passive, dependent, and confined to some idealized women's sphere. Our societies were tolerant, flexible, and had great respect for brave-hearted people, regardless of gender. So what has happened in the past 150 years? How did we come to be denied positions of influence and prestige as warriors and leaders? A closer examination of the impact of European colonialism and Euro-Canadian internal colonialism on Indian societies can help us understand our present dilemma.
One of the inherent features of colonial relations is that the colonizing group vehemently strives to impose its own values, norms, and ideologies on the colonized group. For example, our European colonizers found the equal and valued position of Native women intolerable. In Europe, women were considered the "property" of men. European women had no occupational choices, no say in their own future or the future of their children, and no rights to own person property. Native women did not experience such domination and subordination, which at first confused then outraged European colonists.
In pre-contact Native societies and during the early post-contact era, women were autonomous; they made their own decisions regarding the type of work they performed and they personally owned the products of their labour. For example, when women produced extra moccasins or clothing, they could exchange or trade their wares for whatever they personally desired. When men collected the furs and women processed or prepared the hides, both had an equal say in the exchange or distribution. However, when European fur traders arrived on the scene, women gradually lost control over the distribution of their share of the products. Women's role in the preparation of skins became secondary as Native men increasingly controlled the skins in the actual exchange. When this occurred, the mutual balance of power between men and women in Native societies began to crumble.
The second agents of colonialism to reach our shores were missionaries and they strongly disapproved of the status of women, as the following quotation from Father Paul LeJeune in the early 1600s indicates:
Women have great power here. A man may promise you something and if he does not keep his promise, he thinks he is sufficiently excused when he tells you that his wife did not wish him to do it. I told him he was the master and that in France women do not rule their husbands.
Missionaries imposed the European family structure and social relations on Indian societies; male authority and dominance, female subservience, and the elimination of the right of divorce, to name a few.
After a few generations of missionaries instilling the notion of male dominance and the fur trade undermining women's autonomy and economic position, along came the federal government. The legal position and status of Native women was thereafter defined and determined by British law, and likewise imposed on us.
Over time, Native men and women alike have adopted many European ideas about the role, status, and place of women in our own communities. However, because we have been under colonial rule and influence for about 200 years in Saskatchewan (up to 400 years in some Eastern Canadian regions) it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between cultural values of our past and those we gradually adopted from Euro-Canadian society.
Native people today are in the process of balancing two worlds. On the one hand, we are striving for educational, economic, social and political parity with the rest of Canadian society. On the other hand, we are striving for the continuity of our cultural and sovereign integrity. Until such time as we sift through and toss aside all the cultural baggage we have inherited under colonialism we will never achieve total liberation as a people. The re-instatement of Native women alongside Native men in the political arena will be a gigantic step towards our ultimate goal.
Marla N. Powers, Oglala Women: Myth, Ritual, and Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Ron Bourgeault, "The Development of Capitalism and the Subjugation of Native women in Northern Canada,' Alternate Routes: A Critical Review, Vol. 6, no. 15 1979): 111-140.
Beatrice Medicine and Patricia Albers, eds. The Hidden Half. Studies of Plain. Indian Women. New York: University Press of America, 1983.
Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance: Collected Articles on Women Cross - Culturally. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981.