What does it mean to be an Indigenous woman?

For the month of January, I am enrolled in a course relating to Indigenous women and legal advocacy. It is an intense course. I am both excited and nervous about the course.

The first week of the course completed last week. I suspected it would be a “journaling” course, where students have to write journals for an assignment. The term “journal” sounds very elementary in a law school context but each course that I have been in that requires journaling has been … well, challenging. You are expected to write a journal according to the assignment (which obviously differs from course to course). I find these journal-assignments always force me to think beyond the surface of the readings. This is what I enjoy about these journal-assignments. But I didn’t really want to talk about the structure/set-up of assignments in this class.

I enrolled in this class because I wanted to be challenged, personally and professionally. And, without a doubt, I am.

The longer I am in law school and the longer I am in post-secondary education, generally, the more I notice that there exists this idea about Indigenous women. I don’t know if I have the correct words to describe my thoughts about the readings I have encountered about Indigenous women.

While I agree that Indigenous women are the core or the center of communities and that Indigenous women (because of colonialism and all of its patriarchy, racism, sexism, etc) are sexualized, I am having troubling with some of the readings that talk about Indigenous women’s roles as “life givers” or “mothers.” I guess my issue with these kinds of portrayal of Indigenous women in these roles is that this is something I don’t want to do… it is not my role. I know that mothering takes place in various contexts and can happen in many ways. I know that someone doesn’t have to give birth to be a mother. But these readings that I have encountered on Indigenous women only talk about sex as something that is used to create family, life or community. I am a bit bothered by this portrayal about sex and Indigenous women because I feel it pigeonholes Indigenous women bodies/sexualities into only a certain type of role.

If by saying that Indigenous women are sexualized, how do we make space to talk about how Indigenous women can be sexual? In particular, how can Indigenous women be sexual in other ways without fear of judgment or shame because they aren’t fulfilling “traditional roles”? I ask these questions because I wonder how the stories of Indigenous women who sell/trade sex fit into the histories of Indigenous peoples. I know that Indigenous peoples used to trade with other Indigenous peoples. I know that Indigenous peoples, including Indigenous women, participated in cash economies. But how do we know that Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women, did not trade sex when other forms of trades (for items/cash) occurred? Sometimes people argue that prostitution is not a “traditional activity” and well, sure. Prostitution is a term coined by the Criminal Code (and um, the white feminists of the time). But does the absence of stories of trading sex necessarily mean that this form of trade did/did not occur?

I know with sharing my stories relating to selling/trading sex that there is a violence attached to these stories–I am ostracized, shamed, silenced…to name a few. I sometimes avoid certain spaces/places (including in ceremonial/traditional spaces/places) because I know that people in those spaces/places will shame me for coming out about my own stories/truths. So, if we don’t make the space to talk about these stories, how can we know what we do not know?

And personally, I question myself: what does it mean to be an Indigenous woman? Specifically, if the roles are defined as “mother” and “life-giver” and sex is only seen in the role as “life-making” or “family-making” or “community-making”, what does it mean to be an Indigenous woman if you show mothering in other ways (not giving birth/life-making) or if you have sex for other reasons (not giving birth/life-making)?

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One thought on “What does it mean to be an Indigenous woman?

  1. People need to talk about Aunties more, and their role. You don’t have to give birth to be an Auntie. It’s an important, necessary role, as vital to the transmission of culture as anything else.

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