Indians, Women, and War

The Indigenous Women and Feminism collection, edited by four women and with sixteen contributions by women both describes and is itself an instance of Indigenous feminist practices. It takes care, however, not to collapse Indigenous women’s struggles into feminism. The obvious bifurcation in the title highlights “the fraught historical relationship between Indigenous women and mainstream feminism.” As Huhndorf and Suzack argue in the introduction, even feminist debates relating to “women of colour and postcolonial feminism” fail to account for the specific ways in which Indigenous women have been disempowered by settler colonialism. The overarching concern of this collection therefore is not how Indigenous women fit into feminism but how feminism can be put to work to ensure the survival of Indigenous women and their communities.

For many of the contributors, the central project of Indigenous feminism is re-establishing Indigenous women as leaders in their communities in the wake of colonial policies that have sought to disempower them. One of the most incisive and provocative essays on the issue of Indigenous women’s roles in their nations comes from Kim Anderson. Anderson makes the excellent point that much of the power ascribed to Indigenous women’s roles as mothers of their nations and keepers of traditional knowledge often forecloses conversations about Indigenous men’s responsibilities and keeps women tied to a notion of a static past. Motherhood in particular is an important issue, especially given the histories of “enforced sterilizations, residential schools and child welfare intervention”; however, as a framework for exploring Indigenous feminism it is entirely too exclusive. Anderson then might agree with fellow contributors Rebecca Tsosie and ann-elise lewallen who locate Indigenous womanhood not in biological notions of sex and gender but in ethical relationships with land and community.

The “Culture” section of the collection is the longest, highlighting how important artistic expression is to Indigenous women and their political struggles. Often unheard or unrecognized by governments, legal systems and political movements, Indigenous women have found creative ways to express their truths through literature, film, theater, and the visual arts. Indeed some of the most damning critiques of settler colonialism and its ensuing patriarchy come from cultural artifacts and these contributor’s engagements with them. Shari Hundorf and Katherine Young Evans in their respective pieces bring to light the subversive politics of Native women’s theater, especially in Spiderwoman Theater, a group born in the 1980’s out of frustrations with the male dominance of the American Indian Movement. A more contemporary theatrical production, Rebecca Belmore’s Vigil, allows Elizabth Kalbfleish to provide the collection’s most prolonged examination of the violence directed at Indigenous women in Vancouver specifically, but also across North America.

Despite the range of pieces from the contributors to this collection, there are several noticeable absences. Queer, trans, and two-spirit histories are completely overlooked and the critique of Western gender roles still embraces the male/female gender binary. While truly a crucial addition to the political and cultural history of Indigenous women, Indigenous Women and Feminism leaves many questions open, specifically when it comes to imagining an Indigenous feminism outside Western, colonial conceptions of gender.

Timonthy Winegard’s For King and Kanata is focused overwhelmingly on Indigenous men’s experiences during World War I, starting with the uncomfortable fact that they were not originally sought for military service because “consolidation of the Canadian settler-state was ongoing, and the potential for armed Indian resistance still existed.” Winegard unfortunately eschews an examination of how that consolidation occurred in order to focus on the transformation of Indigenous men from rebels to national patriots.

While the book excels in its archival research into government policy and military strategy, the motivations and consequences of wartime decisions are under-analyzed perhaps because Winegard does not have a unifying argument. He wants to support First Nations participation in the Canadian army while also criticizing Canada’s colonial project. This leads to certain contradictions. For instance, while the dedication refers to the “shared interests of our national forces,” the conclusion much more combatively states that for Indigenous peoples “the war for cultural, territorial, and socio-economic equality and recognition is still being fought today.”

Indigenous Women and Feminism clarifies that this war continues with particular severity for Native women, while For King and Kanata focuses more on a military history of Indigenous men. The former is required reading for anyone engaged in Critical Indigenous Studies and/or Women’s and Gender Studies while the latter may only appeal to military history buffs.

This review “Indians, Women, and War” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 192-93.

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