Manitoba History: Review: Christine Miller and Patricia Chuchryk, ed. with Marie Smallface Marule, Brenda Manyfingers, and Cheryl Deering, Women of the First Nations: Power, Wisdom and Strength

by Lorraine Brundige
Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon

Number 34, Autumn 1997

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Miller Christine and Patricia Chuchryk, ed. with Marie Smailface Marule, Brenda Manyfingers, and Cheryl Deering, Women of the First Nations: Power, Wisdom and Strength. The University of Manitoba Press, 1996. 204 pp.

Women of the First Nations: Power, Wisdom and Strength had its inception at the “National Symposium on Aboriginal Women of Canada,” University of Lethbridge, 19 October 1989. It is the culmination of a collaborative work by native and non-native women. Edited by Christine Miller and Patricia Chuchryk with Marie Smallface Marule, Brenda Manyfingers, and Cheryl Deering. “Women of the First Nations” is a significant reminder of how the Aboriginal value of the collective good for the community can transcend Aboriginal culture and play an important role in education for non-Aboriginal. Although no mention is made that Aboriginal societies’ traditional life style of community involvement formed the basis for this book it is implicit in the work itself. There is no one author, rather the book is comprised of a number of articles written by different authors. As in Aboriginal community where the belief in strength stems from collective community involvement so too are the editors committed to the belief that “... in the diversity of women’s voices we can find strength and wisdom.” The result of this philosophy led the editors to select a number of articles presented by women in both written and oral text to speak for Aboriginal women. This endeavour is in marked contrast to the colonialist attitude of writing about Aboriginal women. “Women of the First Nations” is thus a profound collection that challenges the assumption that Aboriginal women “... speak of a single voice, a single identity, a homogeneous history, and a singular cultural experience.”

It was the editors intention that the voices contained within this book be given the opportunity to be heard beyond the confines of a Symposium on Aboriginal Women, where the desire to bring forth the voices of aboriginal and non-aboriginal women, community grassroots activists, Métis women and Native Elders was realized. The goal was to have their collective voices “become tools of empowerment.” The editors are “confident that this collection makes an important and original contribution to the struggle for a distinctive and multi-dimensional Aboriginal woman’s voice”, in spite of the fact that some of these papers are over six years old.

Beginning with an inspirational address by Jeannette Armstrong on the role of Aboriginal women in traditional Aboriginal society, to the conclusion where an analysis of the paradoxical effects of residential school is presented by Jo-Anne Fiske, “Women of the First Nations” continually challenges the “theoretical assumptions of other research that the experiences and roles of women are defined universally.”

Armstrong’s message is about the power and significance Aboriginal women have in being the bearers of life and the ones responsible for nourishing all generations. The introduction holds a splendid synopsis by Miller and Chuchryk on the contents as well as reasons for their inclusion.

Emma LaRocque warns about “The Colonization of a Native Woman Scholar”, and the need for Aboriginal women to pursue academia.

Diane P. Payment utilized the oral histories of Métis women to document the life as it actually occurred for Métis women in her article “La vie in rose”? Métis Women at Batoche, 1870 to 1920.

“Subsistence, Secondary Literature, and Gender Bias: The Saulteaux.” by Laura Peers is the true story behind secondary literature. Peers demonstrates how researchers have put forth works with a decidedly male bias resulting in misinformation of the Saulteaux people. By placing extreme importance on big game hunting while minimizing small game and gathering subsistence researchers have in the past also minimized the significant role of Aboriginal women in the contribution of subsistence thereby reducing their importance in the social structure of Aboriginal society.

“First Nations Women of Prairie Canada in the Early Reserve Years, the 1870s to the 1920s: A Preliminary Inquiry”, by Sarah Carter, provides an reliable picture of Aboriginal women that helps to dissipate the myth of lazy, slovenly women and the Department of Indian Affair’s myth that reserve life benefited these women. Carter also reveals the ability of Aboriginal women to capitalize on acquiring new skills.

“Life in Harmony with Nature:” by Beverly Hungry Wolf gives a passionate plea to mothers to be conscious of the earth Mother. She asks us to end our abuse of nature. One could not but be moved by Hungry Wolf’s passionate plea to heal Mother Earth.

Vicky Paraschak enlightens the reader about the nature and ability of Aboriginal women in sport in her article “An Examination of Sport for Aboriginal Females on the Six Nations Reserve, Ontario, from 1968 to 1980.

Julia Emberley in “Aboriginal Women’s Writing and the Cultural Politics of Representation deals with a “process of unlearning the colonialist assumptions found in feminist theory and methods of interpretation that have been used in examining the cultural productions of Aboriginal people.

Kathy McCloskey, “Art or Craft” talks of the limitations imposed on the expression of Aboriginal art forms. McCloskey does an admirable job illustrating the Western dichotomy of mind/body dualism as analogous to art/craft dualism.

Betty Bastien, “Voices Through Time”, shows how tribal identity has helped Aboriginal people survive countless onslaughts of assimilation and oppression. According to Bastien tribal identity comes from collective experience which is “strengthened and renewed in ceremony, where children are empowered with the knowledge of the sacredness of relationships, which itself comes from the knowledge that tribal people are connected, in a web, to all of creation.” Bastien commands us to “never forget our role as women in teaching our children the context in which to introduce themselves, and to place themselves within the centre of the universe.”

Jennifer Blythe and Peggy Martin speak about “The Changing Employment of Cree Women in Moosonee and Moose Factory”. The objective of their study was to “contribute a baseline profile of the region and to understand how the work of the family roles in Aboriginal women in northern Ontario have been influenced by socio-economic change.” The imposition of a European socio-economic relationship greatly interfered with the “flexible complementarity of gender roles traditionally enjoyed by the Cree families” By focusing on socio-economic change, Blythe and McGuire have indirectly demonstrated the serious ramifications of cultural genocide.

Similarly, Rosemary Brown has demonstrated the changes in women’s “productive and reproductive labour” in her article “The Exploitation of the Oil and Gas Frontier: Its Impact on the Lubicon Lake Cree Women.”

Each of the articles is an ardent reminder of the importance of Aboriginal women speaking out about their culture and concerns. Payment, Peers and Carter put to rest the assumption that European contact somehow instilled in Aboriginal women the skills necessary to cope with their living conditions. Fiske, Brown, Blythe and McGuire clearly demonstrated the “effects of environmental, economic and political pressures on the lives of Aboriginal women.” By moving the focus away from productive and reproductive, McCloskey Paraschak, and Emberley show Aboriginal women to be multi-dimensional rather than unidimensional. Bastien, Hungry Wolf, Armstrong and La Rocque speak vehemently against the myths of “squaws” and “beasts of burden”. They bring to new light the picture of Aboriginal women. “Women of the First Nations” repeatedly demonstrates how distorted and untrue the portrayals of Aboriginal women have been both in past and current literature and how under-represented their value and contributions have been. In areas as diverse as sport, politics, economics and environment, Aboriginal women play a highly significant role in both traditional and contemporary society.

It is obvious from these messages that the voices of Aboriginal women must be heard for a true understanding of Aboriginal culture to exist. The editors were successful in the objective of bringing forth areas of research necessary to counter previous works reflecting “racist, sexist and/or colonialist frameworks. The editors also wanted to communicate the “idea that with oppression also comes strength and wisdom”, in this goal they were highly successful. They were less successful in their desire to provide a distinct voice for Aboriginal women due in part to the large number of articles by non-Aboriginal women. When talking of a distinct voice, caution must be taken with research conducted by non-Aboriginal women. Unintentionally they may pave the way for further misrepresentation. I am referring to the feminist attitude which prevailed dominantly in this book. There is no denying the need for feminist action in the Euro-Canadian culture however, I am not convinced that Euro-Canadian feminism is the answer for Aboriginal women. This concern is also taken up by Julia Emberley, “first is the need to confront racist and colonialist assumptions in the discourse of the human sciences produced by non-Aboriginal feminist theorists, readers, and interpreters of Aboriginal women’s writings.” Aboriginal societies are still to a large extent community based whereas, Euro-Canadian culture is economically based. Non-Aboriginal women will have to transcend their own cultural norms and values in order to fully comprehend the Aboriginal women’s position. For these reasons I would have preferred “Women of the First Nations” to actually be, First Nations voices.

Inuit women at Churchill, 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 26 September 2012