Indigenous Women and Law

  • Emily Snyder
    Gender, Power & Representations of Cree Law. University of British Columbia Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Cheryl Suzack
    Indigenous Women's Writing and the Cultural Study of Law. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Margery Fee

Both of these authors use an Indigenous feminist perspective to think about Indigenous law. However, the material and methods they use to illuminate their thinking are somewhat different. Suzack pairs four novels by Indigenous women—Lesley Marmon Silko, Beatrice Mosionier, Louise Erdrich and Winona LaDuke—with four court cases. Although Suzack’s transnational focus puts the spotlight on the ways colonial law has impacted women (and their families), Snyder’s focus is on Cree law, as represented by a range of media including books, videos, online material, computer games, and graphic novels. These books set the stage for future, detailed work on the complex gendering of law, legal decisions, and legal frameworks, both mainstream and Indigenous. Anyone interested in Indigenous issues or in getting an Indigenous perspective on law more generally should read them both.

Snyder’s book is based on a 2014 PhD thesis in Sociology at the University of Alberta and on work done while a post-doctoral fellow in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria, where she co-published with Val Napoleon and John Borrows. Central to Cree law is miyo-wîcêhtowin (good relations), but Snyder’s focus is on how that principle is represented and expanded. She realizes that to conclude, as she does, that most of the materials she studies represent women and girls in limiting ways may lead to the discounting of her views, particularly since she is a settler scholar. Her response is that “all educators need to foster a spirit of critical engagement whether they are Indigenous or not.” She combines Sara Ahmed’s notion of the “feminist killjoy” with Val Napoleon’s Indigenous feminist trickster to argue that Cree law, as much as mainstream law, must be seen as a living resource that is adapted over time to new challenges. For Snyder, to assume a simple male/female binary in allotting societal roles is already to exclude gender non-conformity and to risk imposing compulsory heterosexuality and the burden of reproduction and childrearing on one group of people. Arguments that Indigenous pre-contact societies were free of sexism, said to result from colonialism, may facilitate the imposition of “traditional Indigenous law” as a set of sacred rules imposed by the Creator, to be obeyed without question. This representation of law materials excludes the notion of deliberative law—that is, a vision of law not as a set of rules but as a practice of managing conflict through thoughtful debate and through the fair hearing of multiple viewpoints. Given the ways in which the dominant traditions of law in North America have discriminated against Indigenous people—women and children in particular—it is understandably easy to romanticize pre-contact social formations, including law, but this is a danger we must guard against.

Suzack notes that elucidating particular legal orders is an important task, but this work was not part of her project. Here she shows how Indigenous women writers can render the damage legal cases do to women understandable at an affective, personal, and family level. Although literature has often been regarded as a “frill” from both mainstream and Indigenous perspectives, Suzack demonstrates how literature works as a form of social justice activism. The chapters deal with four major injustices against Indigenous women, consolidated by mainstream legal decisions and sometimes by their own communities: the patriarchal removal of Indian status or tribal membership from Indigenous women who “marry out” with non-status outsiders, an exclusion that includes their children; the treatment of rape and sexual violence; the removal of children from their mothers either through residential schooling or various “scoop-ups” to foster care or adoption; and the alienation of lands that often follows from these other violent acts. What is central to both books is the demonstration that gender is a vital analytic category for understanding the colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples. They both state their own perspectives clearly, but also attend to the opinions of those Indigenous women scholars who see feminist thinking as a form of implicitly colonial, white, middle-class theory. Both make the case that feminist theoretical approaches—including Indigenous feminist ones—are neglected at the peril of complicity with the colonial and heteropatriarchal insistence on essentialism over more fluid identifications and on individualism over community.



This review “Indigenous Women and Law” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

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