Indigenous sovereignty

Indigenous Peoples: Language Revitalization & Gender Identity

At the core of European legal thought is sustaining binaries such as the colonizer v. the colonized, the conqueror v. the conquered, the civilized v. the savage, or the male v. the female. During her lecture on systemic violence at Concordia University, Andrea Smith explains how colonialism legitimized gender violence through the installation of patriarchy, a male system of domination over females (Smith, 2011). Smith (2011) states:

Of course, patriarchy is built on a gender binary system. You can’t have patriarchy unless you have two genders, one that dominates another gender. So consequently, in many Native communities that were not built on a gender binary system, those who did not fit that system were often targeted for destruction as well (at approximately 2:05). 

Patriarchy in Native communities was essential to create a hierarchy “so that colonial domination would seem natural” (Smith, 2011, 2:13). Many North American Indigenous communities were matriarchal, which is in direct opposition to patriarchy and colonialism (Smith, 1999). The ways in which patriarchy furthered the expansion of colonialism occurred through sexual violence, the forced removal of children from their homes to residential schools, and the annihilation of Indigenous languages and cultures (McGeough, 2008). For Indigenous peoples, the loss of language translates to a loss of connection to their culture and other systems of being.

In Medicine Bundle of Contradictions, an essay authored by Lous Esme Cruz (2011), the limitations of the English language are examined in relation to Indigenous identities and gender identities. Cruz (2011) writes, “English is a very limited language that doesn’t give very many options for explaining gender expression and roles” (p. 54). Frantz Fanon (2004) in his work entitled Wretched of the Earth defines colonialism as the “entire conquest of land and people” (p. 14). Indigenous peoples were colonized through the loss of their land and languages and through—the less often talked about—the loss of important gender roles within their culture. Cruz states further, “gender is not a culture, it is a role within culture” (p. 55). Sometimes erased from this discussion of colonialism and loss of culture for Indigenous peoples is the loss of gender roles that exists outside the Western gender binary, male/female. For this paper, I will explore the connection between loss of language and colonialism and how the loss of language impacts gender identities in Indigenous populations. This paper will contribute to the larger discussion of gender identity, how both Western concepts and the English language is restrictive for gender roles and expressions, and the importance of language revitalization for Indigenous peoples.

For Frantz Fanon, the definition of colonialism is rather simple despite its complex nature. As stated earlier, Fanon defines colonialism as the “entire conquest of land and people” (p. 14). An effective way to further the conquest and domination of an entire population group is through violence, and Fanon argues that this violence dehumanizes the colonized (Fanon, 2004). Associated with this dehumanization is Othering and Linda T. Smith calls attention to the role of Othering in Decolonizing Methodologies. Smith (1999) argues that the construction of the Indigenous problem becomes embedded “within the wider discourses of racism, sexism, and other forms of positioning the Other” (p. 90). Othering then permits for the complete dehumanization of Indigenous populations, legitimizes the colonial violence, and the destruction of Indigenous social structures and relations.

Cynthia C. Wesley-Esquimaux (2009) explores the connections between the effects of colonialism and the loss of gender roles for women within Indigenous communities (p. 14). While she focuses solely on roles of Indigenous women (as opposed to men), her paper provides a historical context on “alien social structures and disrupted gender relations” for Indigenous populations (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2009, p. 13). Wesley-Esquimaux (2009) highlights that before contact with colonizers, Indigenous populations ranged from “an estimated 90 million to 112 million” with “15 million to 18 million living in what is now the United States and Canada” (p. 14). Following settler contact in 1492, it was estimated that “90 to 95 percent of the Indigenous population was wiped out by epidemic disease, warfare, and famine, with most people dying within 100 years of contact” (Wesley-Esquimaux, 2009, p. 14). An extreme event such as this is devastating for any population group, and also key to domination, destruction and colonialism. Though not a critique of Wesley-Esquimaux, often missing from this discussion of colonialism and Indigenous peoples is the loss of gender roles outside of gender binary system of male/female.

When settlers first arrived to the Americas, their relations with Indigenous populations were vital to their survival (Mawani, 2001). However, once more settlers began to arrive, the relations with Indigenous populations became more of an inconvenience (Mawani, 2001). By 1867, Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald enacted the Indian Act, 1867 and this act was (and continues to be) a useful tool to police Indigenous populations (Comack, 2012). Brock Pitawanakwat (2009), in his research on Indigenous language revitalization, argues, “Canadian Indian Policy sought to undermine Indigenous independence and eradicate Indigenous languages” (p. 2). The eradication of Indigenous languages is then essential to colonialism since it promotes policy objectives, like those objectives associated with the enactment of the Indian Act. The primary objective behind the Indian Act was “to get rid of the Indian Problem” (Leslie, 1978). To accomplish this goal, colonizers forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes to attend residential schools, where they were forbidden to practice their culture or speak their language (McGeough, 2008). Further, Pitawanakwat (2009) states, “the efforts to spread European languages in the Americas were fuelled by the colonists’ desires for administrative efficiency” (p. 2). While these are historical accounts of undermining Indigenous languages, the loss of language as an effect of colonialism still exists today. For example, within Canada, the loss of Indigenous languages occurs “at an even faster rate than the global average” (Pitawanakwat, 2009, p. 1). It has been shown that the main reason for loss of Indigenous language is European colonization and by 2100, it is predicted that only four of the original sixty Indigenous languages will be retained (Pitawanakwat, 2009, p. 1). For Indigenous peoples, the language is directly connected to their culture and from the perspective of the colonizer, it is a sensible policy and practice to prevent Indigenous peoples from both speaking their language and practicing their culture.

Brock Pitawanakwat’s research into Indigenous language revitalization, specifically Anishnaabemowin, provides a crucial perspective for which to examine how language for Indigenous peoples is connected to loss of gender roles and loss of culture. On the importance of Anishnaabemowin, Pitawanakwat (2009) maintains that Anishnaabemowin “has intrinsic value to Anishnaabeg that is rooted in their history, identity, spirituality and territory” (p. 8). Part of the Anishnaabeg identity and culture includes the agokwa and okitciakwe (McGeough, 2008, p. 78). The agokwa and the okitciakwe are Anishnaabe terms for “the biological male that preformed the gender roles of a woman” and “for a biological woman who performs the gender roles of a man” respectively (McGeough, 2008, p. 78). The agokwa and the okitciakwe also held esteemed roles within Anishnaabeg nations (McGeough, 2008, p. 78). Unfortunately, the agokwa and the okitciakwe were considered to be both immoral and unnatural under the colonial lens (McGeough, 2008). For Indigenous nations, the significance of one person’s role within the culture and community were not wholly dependent on their biological sex. Traditionally, as highlighted by McGeough (2008), the Anishinaabeg nations “have seen gender as being fluid and not fixed or determined by one’s biological sex” (p. 76). Thus, the patriarchal gender binary system was a tool of colonization to undermine Anishnaabeg culture and traditions, like the roles of the agokwa and the okitciakwe. Pitawanakwat also outlines how language and identity are interconnected when he cites the work of Native Studies professor Roger Spielmann. Spielmann, as cited by Pitawanakwat (2009), argues that language and identity “can go a long way in preventing assimilation to another culture and preserving tradition-specific ways of relating to others—be they human or other-than-human persons” (p. 8). An example of other-than-human persons would be the agokwa and the okitciakwe (McGeough, 2008, p. 79). Similar to Andrea Smith’s point on patriarchy, establishing various patriarchal institutions, including the gender binary system, normalized systems of domination, like colonialism and patriarchy.

Though there are many efforts to restore Indigenous languages and culture, this colonial objective, to get rid of the Indian problem, still manifests itself in other ways in a contemporary context. From a legal perspective, within the Canadian court system, the value of Indigenous languages and cultures are diminished. This undermining of Indigenous languages and cultures is illustrated within the lower court decision in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (hereinafter referred to as Delgamuukw) (Borrows, 1999). John Borrows, an Anishnaabeg legal scholar, examines how the value of Indigenous languages and culture were belittled in Delgamuukw. In the case of Delgamuukw, McEachern C.J. diminished the importance of Indigenous languages in Canadian law when he did not accept evidence in the form of song or oral history from the plaintiffs, House of Delgamuukw, as proof of Aboriginal title. Specifically, McEachern C.J. (1991) viewed these songs and oral histories as songs, folklore, or mythology (p. 93). Borrows, however, outlines the importance of language for Aboriginal people’s political, economical, and legal systems. He writes, “Indigenous languages and cultures shaped their legal, economic, and political structures, and the socio-cultural relationships upon which they were built. Many of these narratives were considered private property” (p. 9). Indigenous language has formed the basis for Indigenous law, and in relation to colonialism, the loss of Indigenous language indicates a loss of Indigenous political, legal, social and economical systems. The Supreme Court of Canada also established that McEachern C.J.’s decision discovered, “a trend imbricated in the very bedrock of western European legal thought” (Burrows, 1999, footnote 22, p. 29). As noted earlier, central to European legal thought is sustaining binaries such as the colonizer and the colonized, or more specifically, the male and the female.

Indigenous language is connected to Indigenous culture and Indigenous culture is tied to gender roles and identity. Even though Delgamuukw provided a framework for Aboriginal title, Borrows also stated that it weakens Aboriginal title, and to a larger extent, Indigenous sovereignty (Borrows, 1999). For Cruz (2011), the fight for Indigenous sovereignty includes “liberation from the confines of gender baggage” (p. 53). Language revitalization is essential to Indigenous sovereignty and as maintained by Pitawanakwat, language revitalization is consequential for Indigenous culture and identity, including the diverse gender identities rooted in Indigenous culture. McGeough states, “Contemporary Western society is only beginning to understand what many Aboriginal societies have known since time immemorial” (p. 77). It is time to support language revitalization efforts as a way to advance equality for all gender identities and to ultimately fight against colonialism and the continued diminishing of Indigenous sovereignty.

white, anti-rape movements at odds with Indigenous sovereignty

In her article entitled, Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith critiques white, anti-rape movements from an anti-colonial, Indigenous feminist perspective. Smith (1999) argues that the white-dominated, anti-rape movements “fail to consider how rape also serves as a tool of racism and colonialism” (p. 32). Her critique is based on the premise that the white-dominated, anti-rape movements view rape as “a tool of patriarchal control” (Smith, 1999, p. 32). Patriarchy assumes that only “pure” bodies can be raped and that the “rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty does not count” (Smith, 1999, p. 35). Colonialism and racism, for Smith (1999), assumes that Indigenous bodies are threats to white society, because the aim of colonialism is “not only to defeat Indian people but to eradicate their very identity and humanity” (p. 13). Thus, within a colonial context, the sexual violence that Indigenous women experienced and continue to experience is a direct “attack on Native sovereignty itself” (Smith, 1999, p. 32). Smith calls for both an anti-racist and an anti-colonist response to end violence against women, especially Indigenous women.

Smith presents the problems in mainstream (white) feminism, whose sole focus is to eradicate patriarchy, while simultaneously ignoring the history of colonialism in the United States. Though Smith does not provide a clear definition of colonialism, a definition can be adopted from her argument overall. Colonialism, as stated earlier, can be characterized as the complete erasure of Indigenous bodies and Indigenous identities from society (Smith, 1999). Utilizing Ann Stoler’s definition of racism, Smith (1999) highlights that racism is “a permanent part of the social fabric” (p. 32) and it is a “means of creating ‘biologized’ internal enemies, against whom society must defend itself” (p. 32). For Smith, rape, both as a tool of racism and colonialism, is a means to destroy Indigenous nations and to attack and undermine Indigenous sovereignty. Although the oversight does not undermine her argument, Smith does not clarify what she means by Indigenous sovereignty.

Through reading Smith’s article, one can assume that Indigenous sovereignty is Indigenous peoples’ current occupation of land or access to land. This access to land for Indigenous peoples, however, only includes access to the lands they currently occupy. In contrast, from an Indigenous nation’s perspective, Indigenous sovereignty is derived from prior occupation of traditional lands, which may include surrounding lands outside state-form Reservations. Christina Yui Iwase (2012) writes, “Aboriginal peoples understand Aboriginal rights as stemming from their prior occupation of their traditional lands (i.e. Aboriginal sovereignty)” (p. 99).[1] Yet, the Canadian state does not even acknowledge an Indigenous nation’s prior or current occupation of their traditional lands. With some of Canada’s major resource development projects taking place on Indigenous traditional lands, sometimes these projects trigger long legal disputes (Bennett, 2013). At the heart of these disputes include the Canadian government approving and supporting projects without consulting Indigenous nations who may lose access and control over their lands (Bennett, 2013). This is the complete erasure of Indigenous bodies on Indigenous lands.

Legal scholars also critique how Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights are legally acquired or asserted within a Canadian context. Under Canada’s Constitution, Aboriginal title is derived from Crown sovereignty, and not Indigenous sovereignty, thereby negating Indigenous sovereignty altogether (Iwase, 2012). Rauna Kuokkanen notes the contradictions within Canada’s Indigenous land claims and self-governance systems as well. Kuokkanen (2011) highlights that this system “is premised on the extinguishment of Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal title in exchange for the right rights included in the new settlement or agreement” (p. 287). Both Kuokkanen and Iwase call attention to the problems surrounding how Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal title are asserted or claimed within a Canadian context—arguing that these processes further legitimize the colonial state.

Similarly, Smith’s critique of white, anti-rape movements includes the undermining of Indigenous sovereignty by mainstream feminists. These movements tend to call for increased policing in Indigenous nations. Increased policing might reinforce colonialism, including all of its violence, under the premise that it is necessary for increased protection and safety for Indigenous women. Smith (1999) writes, “relying upon the criminal justice system to end violence against women may strengthen the colonial apparatus in tribal communities that furthers violence while providing nothing more than the illusion of safety to survivors of sexual and domestic violence” (p. 48). To further complicate matters, Indigenous nations, in both the states and Canada, are managed at Federal levels. While the United States’ criminal justice system is managed at a state level, the Canadian criminal justice system is managed at the Federal level. The bifurcation of legislation in the United States creates additional difficulties for white, anti-rape movements in Indigenous nations since tribal nations are controlled by Federal legislation and not state legislation—any adequate criminal justice response is thereby null and void.

For the United States, the drawback of this bifurcated-colonial response is illustrated by the murder rate of Indigenous women on-reserve, which is ten times the national average, and by the fact that over eighty-eight percent of perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women are non-Indigenous men (Chekuru, 2013). Prior to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, Indigenous nations were unable to adequately address this violence committed on-reserve by non-Indigenous men since Indigenous nations did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indigenous men (Indian Law Resource Center, n.d.). Before 2013, non-Indigenous men were literally protected by the Federal state for the violence that they inflicted against Indigenous women, almost a “get out jail free” card. Only time will tell us if there are any benefits with the state providing protection through policy like the VAWA for Indigenous women. Akin to Smith, I question why mainstream feminists ignore state-supported violence when addressing sexual violence in Indigenous communities. Still, I question why Smith did not raise these points as it could have strengthened her argument that an increased policing or colonial-state response to anti-rape movements is at odds with Indigenous sovereignty.

Based on the above, I will assume that Indigenous sovereignty is the Indigenous people’s occupation of traditional lands. From this assumption, following Smith’s argument, rape, as a tool of colonial and racism, is intended to eradicate Indigenous bodies on Indigenous lands, and a tool to attack Indigenous sovereignty. In response to her critique of white, anti-rape movements, Smith (1999) calls for an anti-colonial, anti-racist response to help stop violence against women. It is important to highlight this anti-colonial response to ending violence against women since many feminists ignore the history of colonialism in both the United States and Canada. For instance, in The Politics of Culture, Racism, and Nationalism in Honour Killing, Shahrzad Mojab (2012) argues that honour killings are a form of violence against women and that they should be acknowledged as a Canadian problem. As part of her solution to these honour killings, she calls for state prioritization responses to violence against women (Mojab, 2012). However, by arguing that honour killings, as a form of violence against women, should be acknowledged as a Canadian problem legitimizes the colonial-state and ignores the history of colonialism and all of its violence committed against Indigenous peoples, specifically Indigenous women. Smith (1999) also calls attention to the fact that (sexual) violence was rare in Indigenous communities and that Indigenous nations were largely matrilineal and matrilocal. Mojab’s argument that violence is a reproduction of male rule is a direct subordination of Indigenous systems, which placed Indigenous women at the center. As a result, without an anti-colonial and an anti-racist response to eradicating violence against women, mainstream feminists responses risk threatening Indigenous systems and risk further subjugating Indigenous women. A more appropriate response to eradicating (sexual) violence against Indigenous women would aim to support community-based responses centered on Indigenous women. Anti-rape movements would also seek to understand the history of colonialism and how colonialism still effects Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women, today. In her blog entitled “Transformative Justice Strategies For Addressing Police/Vigilante/Hate/White Supremacist violence,” Smith offers some practical responses to addressing violence. Some of which include focusing on transformative justice as opposed to restorative justice. In Canada, the criminal justice system adopts a restorative justice approach in response to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal offenders. However, I have previously critiqued the restorative justice system for re-victimizing women, especially Indigenous women, who turn to the state for protection.

In a much broader context, Smith’s examination of feminists and feminisms attempts to eradicate violence against women presents the contradictions inherent in supporting state responses, including increased policing. One example of this increased policing includes the pro-arrest policies of the 1980s. The pro-arrest policies, which were heavily advocated for by feminist organizations, were an attempt to address inadequate criminal justice response to domestic violence in Canada (Johnson, 2012). However, the pro-arrest policies produced a negative outcome, including the indirect criminalization of women who experienced domestic violence (Johnson, 2012). For example, due to these pro-arrest policies, I was criminalized after I attempted to defend myself against my abuser, who was a white male. From this criminalization, I was displaced from my housing because I was remanded and the court felt it was safer for me to be in jail. Once a spot became available at the single Indigenous women only shelter, I lived there for approximately three months. Therein lies one major contradiction with utilizing a colonial system in seeking justice. Even if they are victims of abuse, Indigenous women are still treated as offenders. These pro-arrest policies also assumed that violence against women is a private issue and ignored (sexual) violence as a tool of colonialism and a tool of racism.

Sherene Razack (1998) argues that feminism needs to question how their responses are complicit in maintaining systems of domination. One such system of domination includes colonialism. Further, Razack (1998) highlights the problems with focusing on the vulnerability of women instead of the systems of domination that increase this vulnerability. Mainstream (white) feminists often label indigenous women as the most vulnerable and their movements usually call for increased policing. Yet, at the same time, mainstream feminism often ignores how these efforts indirectly criminalize Indigenous women. In the end, one might argue that there is something inherently wrong with our criminal justice system given that there are over 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women and that Indigenous women’s prison populations increased by ninety percent since 2001 (CBCNews, 2012). However, if the aim of colonialism is to conquer Indigenous peoples on Indigenous lands and the criminal justice system is an extension of the colonial state, then the system is designed to do what it was always meant to do— eliminate Indigenous bodies on Indigenous lands.


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Blanchfield, M. (2013, February 13). “Mounties raped, abused B.C. aboriginal girls, rights watchdog alleges in report.” The National Post. Retrieved from

CBCNews. (2012, February 25). “Aboriginal women imprisoned in soaring numbers.” CBCNews Canada. Retrieved from

Chekuru, K. (2013, March 10). “Violence Against Women Act Includes New Protections for Native American Women.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Indian Law Resource Center. n.d. Violence Against Native Women Gaining Global Attention. Retrieved from

Iwase, C. Y. (2012). “Fiduciary Relationship as Contemporary Colonialism.” The Arbutus Review, 3 (2): 98-115.

Johnson, H. (2012). “No-Drop” Policies are Harming Some Women.” Social Sciences Research at University of Ottawa. Retrieved from

Kuokkanen, R. (2011). “From Indigenous Economies to Market-Based Self Governance: A Feminist Political Economy Analysis.”  Canadian Journal of Political Science, 44(2): 275-297.

Mojab, S. (2012). “The Politics of Culture, Racism, and Nationalism in Honour Killings.” Canadian Criminal Law Review, 16(2): 116-134.

Oppal, W. (2012). Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Inquiry. Retrieved from

Razack, S. (1998). “From Pity to Respect: The Ableist Gaze and the Politics of Rescue.”  Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms, 130-156. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, A. (1999). “Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.” Journal of Religion & Abuse, 1(2): 31-52.

[1] The term “Aboriginal” is employed here since it is the term used in the Canadian constitution and in a legal context.