Gender, Sovereignty, Rights: Native Women's Activism Against Social Inequality and Violence in Canada


Author's Introduction, Page 259-260:

"Native women's struggles against social inequality and Contemporary violence and for Native sovereignty and self-determination are mired in histories of sexist ideologies and practices. While these struggles and histories did not begin in the nineteenth century (sexism certainly existed before then), they were fortified in powerful ways by the Indian Act of 1868. The act consolidated under Canadian Parliament authority all previous colonial legislation addressing the status and rights of Native people in Canada. In 1876, the act was amended to establish patrilineality as the criterion for determining Indian status, including the rights of Indians to participate in band government, have access to band services and programs, and live on the reserves. The amendment instanced and reified the sexist ideologies and practices of colonialism in which the act emerged and functioned, and it did so specifically by empowering status Indian men with all of the rights, privileges, and entitlements of status in band government and reserve life. Over time, this led status Indian men to an expectation of entitlement in band government and property rights over Indian women, irrespective of their status. The provisions of the Indian Act and its enforcement by Canada only affirmed and perpetuated those expectations.

In 1983 and 1985, several different kinds of Indian women's constituencies (status, nonstatus, reserve, urban, rural) and their allies (including Indian men) secured constitutional and legislative amendments that partially reversed the 1876 criterion. The amendments were not passed easily. Status Indian men who then dominated band governments and organizations protested vehemently against the women and their efforts. They accused the women of being complicit with a long history of colonization and racism that imposed, often violently, non-Indian principles and institutions on Indian peoples. This history was represented for the men by the women's appeals to civil and human rights laws, and more particularly to feminism, to challenge the constitutionality and human rights compliance of the Indian Act, an act the men represented as providing the only real legal protection of Indian rights to sovereignty in Canada. Demonized as the proponents of an ideology of rights based on selfish individualism, and damned for being "women's libbers" out to force Indian peoples into compliance with that ideology, the women and their concerns were dismissed as embodying all things not only non- but anti-Indian. Their agendas for reform were dismissed as not only irrelevant but dangerous to Indian sovereignty. These dismissals perpetuated sexist ideologies and discriminatory and violent practices against Indian women within Indian communities by normalizing the men's discourses regarding the irrelevance of gender as well as the disenfranchisement of women in Indian sovereignty struggles.

The longer work from which this article is drawn examines the 1983 and 1985 amendments and the activism that led to their development and passage as an instance of the co-constitutive relationship of sovereignty and gender. By developing how and which specific discourses of rights were mobilized by various constituencies of Indian men, women, and their allies, the article opens up the conflicts surrounding gender politics and women's rights within Native sovereignty movements. In doing so, it intends to provide a forum for thinking about the kinds of social reformations needed to bring about equity between and for men and women in Indian communities, an essential aspect of any agenda for decolonization and social justice for Native peoples." (259-260).

Publication Information

Barker, Joanne. "Gender, Sovereignty, Rights: Native Women's Activism Against Social Inequality and Violence in Canada." American Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2008): 259-266.

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