«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Indigenous women have rebuked the mainstream women’s movement for not having made ongoing colonialism, Indigenous women’s issues and/or white settler women’s complicity in oppressive structures central to their analyses.26 In this context, Indigenous women are thus at best rendered only partially visible as historical agents, as Joyce Green (2007c) notes, due to the unthinking racism of a movement that has often failed to see Indigenous women in their full historical and contemporary contexts: as simultaneously Aboriginal and female, and as contemporary persons living in the context of colonial oppression by the occupying state and populations of, for example, the U.S., Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia, with their racist mythologies, institutions and practices. (p. 20–21) Several Indigenous scholars cite the complicity of whitestream feminist theory in maintaining this invisibility, particularly through a depoliticized embrace of difference (Clark Mane, 2012).
Moreton-Robinson (2000) finds that “white feminist discourse on ‘difference’ continues to be underpinned by a deracialised but gendered universal subject” (p. xviii), which for Sandy Grande (2004) leads to the continue privileging of “the desires of the white bourgeois, female subject” (p. 148).27 Grande (2004), a staunch critic of the so-called linguistic turn in “thirdwave” feminism, argues that this turn can operate to deflect attention away from the historical critiques of mainstream feminism as exclusionary, white and middle-class as well as from the “ubiquity of the colonialist project” (p. 138). This is accomplished by two discursive moves, which “(1) decenter the subject entirely (conveniently blurring the boundaries between margin/center, oppressor/oppressed); and (2) remove feminism from the political project, rearticulating it as a struggle over language and representation” (Grande, 2004, p. 138). Also concerned about how oppression can be relativized, Makere Stewart-Harawira (2007) takes to task “post-” arguments that would effectively “inscribe difference as the new totalizing discourse” (p. 128) and thereby negate power differentials between oppressor and oppressed.28 Consequently, as Moreton-Robinson (2000) notes, mainstream feminist methodological frameworks do “not allow for the theorisation of Indigenous women as socially situated subjects of knowledge” (p. 91). For these scholars, the result has been an ethnocentric, universalizing and exclusionary women’s movement concerned primarily with the interests of white middle-class women of Euro-American descent. As if to prove the point, Donna Greschner (of European ancestry) admits to her own “arrogant universalism”; she applied her own “understanding of patriarchy within White society,” which meant assuming that “Aboriginal women were at the bottom of the heap in Aboriginal society [as were white women in white society] and therefore they were the worst-off of the worst-off” (Johnson, Stevenson, & Greschner, 1993, p. 158).
For many scholars, this ethnocentrism derives from the Western individualistic notion of personhood “based on the denial of even the existence of community” (Lawrence quoted in Anderson, 2000, p. 275). This construction has led to a false binary and ideological impasse within Indigenous communities and beyond—pitting the so-called individual rights of Indigenous women against the collective rights of Indigenous peoples (FIMI, 2006; Green 2007a; Jaimes Guerrero, 1997; Maracle, 2006; Smith, 2005a; Sunseri, 2000).29 Indigenous epistemologies, however, provide a lens that supplants liberal notions of the autonomous individual: “Individual rights exist within collective rights, and the rights of the collective exist in the individual. Any hierarchical ordering of either the notion of collective rights or individual rights will fundamentally violate the culture of Aboriginal Peoples” (Monture-Angus, 1995, p.
184). Therefore, Indigenous feminists, brandishing a unique blend of anticolonial and feminist analytics (e.g., Kuokkanen, 2007; Stewart-Harawira, 2007), reject this false binary and demand that collective struggles around Indigenous land rights and self-determination/sovereignty be redefined as feminist struggles (Sunseri, 2000; Kuokkanen, 2012).
While Indigenous struggles on the ground may stray from this ideal (in part, a colonial legacy), for many Indigenous women/feminists, a departure from liberal values necessarily leads to community-focused political activism. Kathie Irwin (2007) states, “Simply put, the political nature of [Maori women’s] projects is about survival in authentic terms: decolonizing our community and the wider society, so that we can find new futures” (p. 182). Devon Abbot Mihesuah (2003) draws a similar conclusion about Indigenous women’s political activism in the U.S.: for Indigenous women, “female, male, tribal, and racial oppression” are inextricably linked and hence “gender is inexorably tied to their race and tribe” (p. 162). Haunani-Kay Trask (1999) sees Indigenous women’s collective struggle as critical in the face of “neocolonialism and the co-optation of indigenous sociopolitical structures,” which includes “an increasing individualistic identification” amongst Native Hawaiians (p. 108).30 For Bonita Lawrence, despite the risks of promoting essentialized views of themselves as, for example, traditionbound, Indigenous women (and men) cannot afford to define themselves in individualistic terms that would increase threats to community survival (quoted in Thorpe, 2005). What is ultimately at stake for Indigenous political struggles? As one Indigenous woman put it, “this is the only land we can call home.”31 Solidarity relations suffer when hegemonic feminism is unable or refuses to link Indigenous women’s empowerment to that of their communities, i.e., when white women/feminists do not (want to) understand the abiding connection between self, family, community and nation posited by Indigenous (feminist) epistemologies (Anderson, 2000). Winona Stevenson recounts her exasperation with (white) feminists who promote the notion of a common oppression among women: “The colonial oppression experienced by me, my brothers, my uncles, and my grandfather causes us horrendous damage and pain, and in my evaluation, more grief and pain than the oppression I receive as a woman” (Johnson et al., 1993, p. 167). Dian Million (2008) notes that mainstream women’s movements in Canada during feminism’s so-called second wave “were slow to recognize the double indemnity of race and sexual discrimination—much less the necessity for solidarity with sovereignty and self-determination activists” (p. 269).32 Indigenous
women have explicably baulked at needing to explain themselves in whitestream feminist terms:
“‘I am not you’ (read that as ‘I am not White’). This allows that I may only define my existence in a negative way” (Monture-Angus as cited in Turpel, 1993, p. 187). In this light, the rejection of the feminist label or movement by some Indigenous women is unsurprising (St. Denis, 2007).
Lack of an anticolonial theoretical framework and practice
Million, St. Denis and Stevenson all hint at the main problem with whitestream feminist praxis—the omission of colonialism (sometimes along with other axes of oppression such as racism or classism) as an analytical category for conceptualizing women’s oppression (MontureAngus, 1995; Ouellette, 2002). In fact, a principal tenet of Indigenous feminism is the centrality of historic and ongoing colonialism to Indigenous women’s oppression (Green, 2007b, 2007c;
Monture-Angus, 1995; Smith, 2005a). Stevenson recounts her first exposure to mainstream (white) feminists in the 1970s when working to change section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act: “All they saw was an issue of sex discrimination and they flew with it. They didn’t see it as another aspect or manifestation of systemic colonial oppression” (Johnson et. al., 1993, p. 160).
Being blind to colonial oppression is also indicative of a broader tendency to misrecognize or disregard histories of gender relations outside of European-based capitalist patriarchy, which can lead to a misguided analysis of gender relations in Indigenous communities past and present (Emberley, 1993; Gunn Allen, 1986; Johnson et al., 1993; Monture-Angus, 1995; Turpel, 1993).
For example, many Indigenous women (some of whom reclaim feminism and some of whom reject it) tell of more balanced gender relations prior to conquest, contending that Indigenous women enjoyed greater respect, power and influence in their societies than did their European counterparts.33 Noting a reluctance among white feminists to “accept that patriarchy is not universal,” Mary Ellen Turpel (1993) states, “Our communities do not have a history of disentitlement of women from political or productive life... [which is] probably the most important point for feminists to grasp in order to appreciate how State-imposed gender discrimination uniquely affected First Nations women” (p. 180). Importantly, however, some Indigenous women acknowledge that “there is no consensus on whether sexism in Aboriginal communities is an entirely colonial creation or whether it preceded colonialism in some communities,” but that regardless, “sex discrimination is now a reality for many Aboriginal women” (Green, 2007c, p. 145).34 Paula Gunn Allen (1986) sums up the consequences for women’s/feminist solidarity of this mainstream incredulity towards the existence of non-patriarchal societies wherein women were not only empowered, but where “that empowerment [was] the basis of rules and civilization.
The price the feminist community must pay because it is not aware of the recent presence of gynarchical societies on this continent is necessary confusion, division, and much lost time” (as cited in Mankiller et al., 1998, p. 187). As Patricia Monture-Angus (Kanien’kéha) (1995) notes, Indigenous women’s distinctive histories would warrant different end goals for women’s movements: “Involving myself deeply in the women’s movement, including locating my quest for identity there, means being willing to accept less than the position accorded to women of my nation historically” (p. 179). For both Turpel (1993) and Monture-Angus the distinctive history of gender relations of many Indigenous societies explains why for some Indigenous women “equality is not our starting point” as it has been and remains for many middle-class white women (Monture-Angus, 1995, p. 179; see also Razack, 2014). Both critique the mainstream feminist movement for its “well-intentioned paternalism” that assumes a desire on the part of Indigenous women for equality on white (male) terms.
At the same time, Indigenous feminist thought has contributed to a fuller understanding of the “unpleasant synergy” between colonialism, racism and sexism, and the impact on Indigenous communities (Green, 2007c, p. 20). Many Indigenous women describe this impact in terms of gendered colonial disempowerment—the large-scale imposition of patriarchal gender roles and Christian values onto Indigenous communities and the dismantling of more equitable gender relations. Whether or not more equitable gender relations existed in Indigenous communities prior to colonial aggressions, as Rauna Kuokkanen (2012) states, “the internalization of patriarchal colonial structures has resulted in circumstances where women often do not enjoy the same level of rights and protection as men” (p. 233).35 Thus, Indigenous women have framed their political efforts—to amend the Indian Act and to redress violence against Indigenous women—as struggles for sex/gender equality. That said, Indigenous women note the general failure of white feminists to fathom the depth of gendered colonial disempowerment and the specificities of colonial violence, as well as to conceptualize the diverse perspectives, priorities and activist strategies of Indigenous women, particularly as related to the interconnected struggles against violence and for the self-determination of their nations (FIMI, 2006; Green, 2007a; Jaimes Guerrero, 1997; Kuokkanen, 2012; Lawrence, 2003; Maracle, 2006;
Mihesuah, 2003; Million, 2008; Monture-Angus, 1995; Ouellette, 2002; Smith, 2005a; Sunseri, 2000; Trask, 1999).
The bottom line for many Indigenous women seems to be this: lack of an analysis of colonialism serves to occlude how differently positioned settler women have been and are complicit in colonial processes (Monture-Angus, 1995; Anderson, 2000; Moreton-Robinson, 2000; Grande, 2004; Lawrence & Dua, 2005), and to blind whitestream feminists in particular from grasping how colonialism frames Indigenous women’s experiences of—and struggles to redress—the oppression in their lives and of their communities at the hands of the Canadian State. This thesis explores what can happen when (white) settlers lack or do not consistently apply an anticolonial framework in their solidarity encounters with Indigenous women (or men)—the perpetuation of ethnocentric, condescending attitudes and roles, including that of “saviour” or helper.36 Indigenous/non-Indigenous solidarity, alliances and coalitions My study is also situated within an emergent literature in Canada chronicling contemporary alliance-, coalition- and solidarity-building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.37 As Davis (2010b) notes, little has been written on “relationships between Indigenous peoples and social movement organizations such as social justice groups, the women’s movement, environmental organizations, and organized labour” (p. 4). A main theme traversing this scholarship is the need to reconfigure Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in a more equitable manner. Another is that such spaces represent “microcosms of colonial relationships” (Davis & Shpuniarsky, 2010). To date, the edited collection Alliances (Davis, 2010a) appears to be the most comprehensive survey of recent attempts at such alliance building in Canada.