Indigenous Feminisms

  • Marie Clements
    Tombs of the Vanishing Indian. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • Valerie J. Korinek (Editor) and Robin Jarvis Brownlie (Editor)
    Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
Reviewed by June Scudeler

While these two very different books engage Indigenous feminisms, Marie Clement’s (Métis) play Tombs of the Vanishing embodies Indigenous-centred ways of being, whereas Finding a Way to the Heart, a tribute to Sylvia Van Kirk and her ground-breaking work on Indigenous women in the fur trade, is somewhat hampered by its focus on history and on liberal feminism.

Finding a Way to the Heart is a collection of essays in tribute to and inspired by Van Kirk’s work. While Van Kirk reclaimed Indigenous women’s voices in the archives, the book mostly erases their voices. Jennifer S. H. Brown, who has done considerable work in fur trade history, believes “too much reliance on the modern theories of outsiders risks silencing, a serious problem seen also by Aboriginal writers.” Authors’ Indigenous affiliations are not included. It is common practice in Indigenous literary studies to foreground Indigenous voices. Elizabeth Jameson equates Van Kirk’s work “as cultural intermediary for U.S. and Canadian historians” with the “inbetweenness” of Aboriginal and First Nations women. However, the contributions by Indigenous authors highlight the necessity of Indigenous peoples in historical studies. Robert Alexander Innes’ (Cree) situating of Cree, Assiniboine, Métis, and Salteaux as kin illustrates that many Plains First Nations peoples saw Métis peoples as relatives, highlighting the importance of culture rather than race. Angela Wanhalla (Ng_i Tahu) documents mixed-race peoples of southern New Zealand who, like the Métis in Canada, were deemed to be white if not living like Maori.

Tombs of the Vanishing Indian, commissioned by the Autry National Center and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles to mark the tenth anniversary of their Native Voices series, is a play that covers a wide swathe of Native American history in the Los Angeles area, particularly of the San Gabrilieno-Tongva Nation and the pervasiveness of Hollywood stereotyping of Native peoples. Three sisters-tough-minded aspiring actress Miranda, street person Janey, and doctor Jessie-were put in foster homes after the murder of their mother by police in 1955, an event which both opens and closes the play. Raised in separate foster care, the sisters are unaware of each other’s existence. Janey inadvertently helps Jessie almost twenty years later, when Janey discovers that her co-doctor boyfriend helped to sterilize Native American women, including Janey, as part of USA’s Family Planning Services and Population Research Act of 1970. Miranda’s sassy talk-back to a white director of cowboy and Indian movies is the most successful: when the director asks her “this a western. What does that mean to you?” Miranda surprises him by replying, “It means Indians die.” Their Mother/Lone Woman, a woman who returned to San Nicolas Island to unsuccessfully save her baby when the Tongva were forcibly relocated to a mission, provides commentary in Tongva to her daughters. While Clements provides information on relocation and the sterilization of Native American women, I was left wondering where the translations of the Tongva came from, as there are no language speakers left.

The most effective part of the play is the monologue that subtly changes to echo each sister. The monologue recounts the story of the sisters and their mother on the bus from Oklahoma to LA as part of the Relocation Act. Their mother recognises the three big rocks as being from home, showing that culture can be recovered and that family ties are strong. The play ends with the three sisters turning into the boulders, overcome by the tears of Indians. But Wounded Knee and the rise of Indigenous rights movements are just starting to re-emerge.

This review “Indigenous Feminisms” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 138-39.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.