Manataka American Indian Council








(An essay for all women)

By Shannon Thunderbird, Royal House of Niis'gumiik, Coast Tsimshian


"When the white man discovered this country , Natives were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.1



The feminine voice was the powerful backbone of most tribes. It was she who figured prominently in pretty much every Creation story ever told; it was she who organized, planned, coordinated tribal life; it was she who raised and protected the children, elders and ensured that day-to-day life was stable and effective; it was she who sang the songs and created stories so that future generations would know her tribe was there; it was her wise voice that mediated and counseled tribal governments before decisions were made.


"The woman is the foundation on which nations are built. She is the heart of her nation. If that heart is weak, the people are weak. If her heart is strong and her mind is clear, then the nation is strong and knows its purpose."2


Women, through the centuries, have always had the greater stamina, a much needed attribute given that they are the life carriers. Their complex, internal physiology is a metaphor for the powerful infrastructure of tribal societies over which they presided; they were greatly valued and respected. Their intimate knowledge and interaction with all members of the group made them natural leaders, healers and keepers of tribal history. Wherein adult women made decisions as regards their families, it was often the Elder/Clan mothers who decided on behalf of the entire tribe.3



Envision the old tribal matriarchal communities as two concentric circles. Women held the inner circle employing their prodigious attention to detail skills to what needed to be done, who needed to do it and why it had to happen. For example, daily governance issues, child-rearing, food and clothing preparation, planting, herbal medicines, ownership of property and equitable distribution of goods, overriding the decisions made by men if it was in the best interests of the community, power to choose and impeach clan chiefs, acting as mediators and negotiators (a particularly onerous and responsible task in post-European contact times).


Whew, now that was a job description! It must have been revelation to European women when they discovered that Native women held equal rights to men.



Men occupied the outer circle. They protected the camp, by all means necessary and executed the decisions made by women; they determined when an external activity needed to take place and where said activity should occur. In other words, one gender was not superior to the other; responsibility was simply placed where it rested easily, not expecting anyone to undertake an activity for which they were not suited. The early explorers, missionaries and settlers refused to accept the authority of female Indigenous leaders. It was with a great amount of shock that the federally-mandated Indian Agents, for example, discovered that the "head of the family" was most often female. With their rigid patriarchal, European upbringing, they had simply assumed otherwise. Missionaries insisted women's primary role was to serve men as well as the male Christian God. As a result, the egalitarian philosophy that governed tribal societies for thousands of years fractured. Men were forced to assume unfamiliar roles, that is, decision-making, that proved disastrous for many tribes and continues to do so today.



Before: Women's decisions were never questioned; most lineages descended from women; when a women married, the man usually joined the wife's family. After: In a 1906 amendment to the Indian Act, Natives were declared "non-persons', (a person was defined as someone other than a Native). The 1876 Indian Act defined women as Natives through their fathers. A woman ceased to be Native if she married a non-Native man.



The story of Indigenous women is one of oppression, drama, silence, rage, staggering mental, spiritual, emotional and physical anguish. Over time, the displacement of women from their traditional leadership roles left them to question their own value and place in the world, resulting in Indigenous women becoming the most marginalized citizens in Canada. Family violence, substance abuse continues to exceed the national average. Native populations have increased because of the boom in teen pregnancies. It is a continuing struggle to achieve equality within tribal communities, notwithstanding Canada-at-large due to rampant sexism, racism, and reverse racism, as Native people turn against each other.


As a result, the sisterhood remains in turmoil further exacerbating an already tenuous situation. It's a fact, that when the hearts of the women are on the ground, social justice and social change cannot be achieved. "Indian women do not have the same human rights or protection for their rights as other Canadian women. They continue to face discrimination both on- and off-reserve.


While Canadian women have long secured equality in legislation with regards to property, voting and custody, Aboriginal women still lag behind. More significantly, the common law and statutes such as the Indian Act have forced Aboriginal men and women to conform to views of women inconsistent with their own laws and with the prestige historically accorded Aboriginal women in their own communities. This has resulted in a long and troubling history of double discrimination."4



A steady rise in female tribal chiefs5, women's tribal councils, national and provincial associations, vocal individuals and groups are strong indications that the female Native voice in the latter half of the twentieth century to our time today have finally risen up, insisting on equal rights and the right to be heard at the highest levels of Canadian politics. Nevertheless, the road continues to be rocky, but, just as we need clean water, fresh air and healthy food, do we also need the steady, nurturing, powerful, intelligent, graceful female presence. In the words of Cedar Sisters, a song on my Wind Centre CD: "Somewhere in the heart of women, is the soul to save the world. Cedar Sisters around the fire, singing songs to heal the earth." Wilwilaaysk. All my relations.

"It is a privilege to sit at my drums with women from all over the world who crave an opportunity to blend together in the joy of universal sisterhood. The drums take us to the centre of the earth, where we can spread our arms and feel the strength of the four great winds that had their origins there; where our spirits, minds, emotions and bodies become one with that which is greater than us." ~Shannon Thunderbird, Royal House of Niis'gumiik, Coast Tsimshian

1 Cherokee Saying.

2 Solomon, Art, Songs for the People: Teachings of the Natural Way, NC Press Ltd., 1990.

3 Interesting note: If a young man spoke of leaving the tribe for whatever reason, he was given what he needed and sent on his way, it was the young women who were essential to the continuity of the tribal system.

4 Dr. Peggy J. Blair, "Rights of Aboriginal Women On- and Off-Reserve". The Scow Institute, 2005.