I’ve learned a tremendous amount over the past months from Loretta Saunders, Bella Laboucan-McLean and all the other Indigenous people that we’ve had violently ripped away from us in this last little while. Part of me feels shaky to admit this, because intellectually, and even personally I know or I am suppose to know a lot about gender violence. But there are things I don’t say in public. There are things I think that I am not brave enough to say because the pain of not being heard, of being betrayed or by appearing weak to my Indigenous friends or colleagues is too much to bear. There are places I only go with other Indigenous comrades who I trust intimately.
That ends here.
It ends here for Loretta, Bella and all of the other brilliant minds and fierce hearts we’ve lost. It ends here.
This is my rebellion. This is my outrage. This is the beginning of our radical thinking and action.
In the wake of Loretta’s death my friends on this blog decided to run a series on gender violence to open up the conversation and to help move it along. Emotions were running high and we felt compelled to act. Our first piece was Tara Williamson’s “Don’t Be Tricked.” It was a very brave piece of writing. It was raw, because we were raw. It was angry, because a lot of us were angry. I could personally identify with every word of Tara’s piece, particularly the line “The system and most Canadians don’t give a shit about you, how strong and talented you are, how hard you’ve worked, or where you live. If you are an Indigenous woman, you are a prime target for colonial violence.” This is something I’ve felt my whole life and never articulated.
I’ve never articulated it because I don’t want young Indigenous women and queer youth to know that, I want them to feel hopeful and empowered. I’ve never articulated this because I don’t want white Canadians to automatically blame Indigenous men for gender violence. I know they will because they’ve invested a lot of energy into the stereotype of “Indian men” as unfeeling, uncaring, violent savages. They’ve invested even more energy into pretending that they don’t benefit from colonial gender violence perpetuated by the state, in fact they’ve invested a lot into energy into pretended colonial gender violence perpetuated by the state isn’t even a thing. I also don’t want Indigenous men to tell me I’m wrong or that this issue doesn’t matter, because as much as this is a political issue, this is an intensely painful and personal issue for anyone that has survived gender violence, which if we are honest, is most of us, including Indigenous men. I don’t want to have to seek out allies in white feminists, who don’t really get it. I want Indigenous men to have my back, even when they feel uncomfortable about what I am saying. And you know what, a few of them did, and that was one of the most amazing feelings I have ever had. They emailed support. They checked in. They listened and encouraged. They re-tweeted, posted, wrote and expressed their outrage.
This is co-resistance.
This is community.
White supremacy, rape culture, and the real and symbolic attack on gender, sexual identity and agency are very powerful tools of colonialism, settler colonialism and capitalism, primarily because they work very efficiently to remove Indigenous peoples from our territories and to prevent reclamation of those territories through mobilization. These forces have the intergenerational staying power to destroy generations of families, as they work to prevent us from intimately connecting to each other. They work to prevent mobilization because communities coping with epidemics of gender violence don’t have the physical or emotional capital to organize. They destroy the base of our nations and our political systems because they destroy our relationships to the land and to each other by fostering epidemic levels of anxiety, hopelessness, apathy, distrust and suicide. They work to destroy the fabric of Indigenous nationhoods by attempting to destroy our relationality by making it difficult to from sustainable, strong relationships with each other.
This is why I think it’s in all of our best interests to take on gender violence as a core resurgence project, a core decolonization project, a core of any Indigenous mobilization. And by gender violence I don’t just mean violence against women, I mean all gender violence.
This begins for me by looking at how gender is conceptualized and actualized within Indigenous thought because it is colonialism that has imposed an artificial gender binary in my nation. This imposed colonial gender binary sets out two very clear genders: male and female and it lays out two very clear sets of rigidly defined roles based on colonial conceptions of femininity and masculinity.
This makes no sense from within Anishinaabeg thought, because first off, we’ve always had more than two genders in our nation and we’ve also always practiced a fluidity around gender in general. The rigidity seen in colonial society doesn’t make much sense within an Anishinaabeg reality or the reality of any so called “hunting and gathering society.”
Anishinaabeg women hunted, trapped, fished, held leadership positions and engaged in warfare, as well as engaged in domestic affairs and looked after children and they were encouraged to show a broad range of emotions and to express their gender and sexuality in a way that was true to their own being, as a matter of both principle and survival. Anishinaabeg men hunted, trapped, fished, held leadership position, engaged in warfare and also knew how to cook, sew and look after children. They were encouraged to show a broad range of emotions, express their gender and sexuality in a way that was true to their own being, as a matter of both principle and survival. This is true for other genders as well. The degree to which individuals engaged in each of these activities depended upon their name, their clan, their extended family, their skill and interest and most importantly individual self-determination or agency. Agency was valued, honoured and respected because it produced a diversity of highly self-sufficient individuals, families and communities. This diversity of highly self-sufficient and self-determining people ensured survival and resilience that enabled the community to withstand difficult circumstances.
Strong communities are born out of individuals being their best selves.
Colonialism recognized this and quickly co-opted Indigenous individuals into colonial gender roles in order to replicate the heteropatriarchy of colonial society. This causes the power and agency of all of genders to shrink, and those that are farthest away from colonial ideals suffered and continue to be targets of harsh colonial violence.
People also had agency over their sexual and relationship orientations in Anishinaabeg society and this created diversity outside the heteronormative nuclear family. Anytime your hear or read an anthropologist talk about “polygamy” in Indigenous cultures read this as a red flag, because you need a severe form of patriarchy for that to play out the way the anthropologists imagined and in the absence of that, plural marriage or non-monogamy in Indigenous cultures is something far more complex.
There wasn’t just agency for adults. Children had a lot of agency. When Chaplain came through my territory he was appalled because the women and children were so far outside of the control of the men that he interpreted this as a bewildered, chaotic, societal disaster, he interpreted us as “savage.” I imagine him observing our society and asking from a white European male perspective, how do you exploit women as a commodity in this situation, when they have such agency?
Then I imagine the colonizers asking the next logical question: How do you infuse a society with the heteropatriarchy necessary in order to carry out your capitalist dreams when Indigenous men aren’t actively engaged in upholding a system designed to exploit women? Well, the introduction of gender violence is one answer. Destroying and then reconstructing sexuality and gender identity is another. Residential schools did an excellent job on both accounts.
Because really what the colonizers have always been trying to figure out is “How do you extract natural resources from the land when the people’s whose territory you’re on believe that those plant, animal and mineral’s have both spirit and therefore agency?”
It’s a similar answer: You use gender violence to remove Indigenous peoples and their descendants from the land, you remove agency from the plant and animal worlds and you reposition aki (the land) as “natural resources” for the use and betterment of white people.
This colonial strategy is clearly working. We also have more than 800 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, a mass incarceration of Indigenous men, and we do not even have statistics about violence against Indigenous Two Spirit, LGBTTQQIA and gender non-conforming people. I think it’s not enough to just recognize that violence against women occurs but that it is intrinsically tied to the creation and settlement of Canada. Gender violence is central to our on-going dispossession, occupation and erasure and Indigenous families and communities have always resisted this. We’ve always fought back and organized against this – our grandparents resisted gender violence, our youth are organizing and resisting gender violence because we have no other option.
Feminist scholar Andrea Smith recently wrote a blog post in response to Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising about what should organizing against gender violence look like. Several of her points resonated with me.
Her post first encourages us to acknowledge that the state is the primary perpetrator of gendered violence in our nations and thus the state cannot be the solution to gendered violence. The state is not our ally. White feminism is not our ally, either because discussing violence against women without discussing gender violence within a colonial context has no meaning for me. Gender violence and murdered and missing Indigenous women are a symptom of settler colonialism, white supremacy and genocide. They are symptoms of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from our territories.
Some families of missing and murdered Indigenous women want an inquiry. I respect this because Canada must be forced to be accountable for this crisis. Canada must change. Canadians must change their attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and their relationship to us as nations. I also have very little faith that the federal government has the capacity to undertake an inquiry that will bring about the kind of action and change Indigenous peoples are demanding, and to address the root causes of gender violence. The process in British Columbia has been a disaster, and we simply cannot allow an inquiry to be used by the state to neutralize Indigenous dissent, mobilization and protest. The perpetrators of colonial gender violence cannot be in charge of coming up with a strategy to end it because they are the beneficiaries of it. We therefore need a multi-pronged approach to our organizing. If there is an inquiry we have to organize and mobilize through it.
And while it is important for us to come together to honour and remember our missing sisters and their families, I also feel angry about this situation and how violence, both symbolic and real has impacted my own life. Rather than seeking recognition from Canada for this pain and suffering, I feel compelled to use this anger to build nations and communities where violence within our interpersonal relationships is unimaginable.
Communities where we see environmental destruction and contamination as a form of sexualized violence against our communities because toxic chemicals and environmental destruction compromise the integrity of our territories and our bodies.
Communities where we see dismantling settler colonialism as central to ending gender violence because let’s remember that gender violence is still a primary strategy used against us in our mobilizations and you can find examples at Oka, at Elsipogtog and in the Idle No More Movement.
We cannot create movements, like Idle No More, where women are in leadership positions and where we also have no plan in place to deal with gender violence in an effective manner. Particularly when we know, from four centuries of experience that gender violence will absolutely be part of the colonial response, and that this violence will not necessarily be perpetrated against women in leadership roles, but the against the most vulnerable women – those that are dealing with multiple sites of oppression.
This realization came crashing down to me during Idle No More when I got a phone call from another woman in the movement asking for help because an Anishinaabekwe had been abducted and sexually assaulted in Thunder Bay. The attack was racially motivated and this woman was targeted in direct relationship to the activism around Idle No More.
It became really clear to me really quickly that not only do I personally lack the skills to deal with gender violence but that our community lacks these skills as well. The male leadership in the area was primarily concerned with calling for calm so that the situation didn’t spark more violence.
I felt anger and mobilization was the correct response, but my first concern was with this woman and her family, so I called Jessica Danforth and asked for help. The Native Youth Sexual Health Network came through in practical, powerful, and beautiful ways centering on support for the survivor and action on the part of the wider community. This story is in part included in The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Present and the Idle No More Movement, along with all of the resources Native Youth Sexual Health Network provided us, and we’re also donating the royalties from the book to this organization.
This is why youth are so critical to resurgence, because they are teachers and leaders in their own right and because if we are carrying out resurgence properly, each generation should be getting stronger, more grounded and less influenced by colonialism, and this means people like me can learn from them.
This is why resurgence is about bodies and land.
We must build criticality around gender violence in the architecture of our movements. We need to build communities that are committed to ending gender violence and we need real world skills, strategies and plans in place, right now, to deal with the inevitable increase in gender violence that is going to be the colonial response to direct action and on going activism. We need trained people on the ground at our protests and our on the land reclamation camps. We need our own alternative systems in place to deal with sexual assault at the community level, systems that are based on our traditions and do not involve state police and the state legal system.
Loretta Saunders wanted an end to gender violence and missing and murdered Indigenous women. I am not murdered. I am not missing. And so I am going to honour her, by continuing her work, and fighting for Indigenous nations and a relationship with Canada that is no longer based on violence, heteropatriarchy and silence. I want to help build Indigenous communities where all genders stand up, speaks out and are committed to both believing and supporting survivors of violence and building our own Indigenous transformative systems of accountability.
We simply can no longer rely on or expect the state, the largest perpetrator of gender violence to do this for us.
Loretta Saunders is our tipping point.
Miigwech/Nia:wen/Mahsi Cho to Tara Williamson, Melody McKiver, Jessica Danforth Glen Coulthard & Jarrett Martineau for editing previous drafts of this post.
Read more in our series: #ItEndsHere
Leanne Simpson is a writer and academic of Mississauga Nishnaabeg ancestry. She is the editor of Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence & Protection of Indigenous Nations and This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades (with Kiera Ladner). Leanne is the author of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Arbeiter Ring) and The Gift Is in the Making, a re-telling of traditional stories, forthcoming Spring 2013 (Debwe Series, Highwater Press). Her first collection of short stories, Islands of Decolonial Love was published by Arbeiter Ring in Fall 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @betasamosake