Indigenous women have been left extremely vulnerable through both social and economic factors. The Indian Act of 1876 rendered Indigenous women to a lower class within their community, and removed their status should they chose to marry a non-Indigenous man. Women were in danger of becoming even more dependent on their spouses, and they were frequently unable to return to their home communities for support. Although the act was eventually amended in 1985, so that women who lost their status and their children could regain it, there has been a continuing struggle in Canada to have the voices of Indigenous women carry equal weight as the voices of Indigenous men.
Residential schools eroded the sense of identity between the children who attended and their parents. Children who were brought to these schools were not allowed to speak their languages or practice their customs. They faced inhuman living conditions and suffered all forms of abuse. Children raised with violence are much more inclined to become violent, and since the days of residential schools, three and sometimes four generations of Indigenous children have been raised in an environment of widespread violence and abuse. (pg.49, Aboriginal Domestic Violence in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2005)
Indigenous children are also subject to a culture in which violence has been normalized, through popular entertainment, media and prevailing community attitudes and behaviours. Young Indigenous men are disproportionately incarcerated, and learn to identify with the beliefs and values of prison gangs and criminal network – beliefs they then introduce into their community. (pg.49, Aboriginal Domestic Violence in Canada, The Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2003)
The result has been far too many Indigenous women and girls are placed in harm’s way, denied adequate protection of the law, and marginalized in a way that allows some men to get away with carrying out violent crimes against them.
Violence against Indigenous women often goes unreported and unpunished. It affects Indigenous women from all age groups, religions and socio-economic classes. But there is hope. Today, Indigenous women lead the way making the transition from old roles to new lifestyles. In the words of a Cheyenne proverb, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons.”
There are many Indigenous women today who hold a place of respect in their communities and work to better them. Although colonizers actively attempted to erase the influence and respect Indigenous women traditionally held, they did not entirely succeed. Women’s ability to survive and overcome is a large part of the strength of Indigenous communities. Traditional values and their importance still exist and Indigenous women are still integral to the survival of their communities.
Culture-Based Gender Analysis
(by the late Sandra Kakawaay, Community Wellness Worker, Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Society)
Pre-Contact (What we had)
Strong healthy families; Children, Elders, men and women all had respected roles; Women had a respected role as she was the backbone to the family, community and nation; Spiritual foundation was core to Native beliefs; Women recognized as life givers; Main teachers in preparing youth for future survival of the people.
Family breakdown; Spiritual foundation broken; European values focus on male dominated society through their religion and governments; Legislation and government policies enforced male-determined values and breakdown of Native family structures; Residential schools destroyed traditional structures (spiritual, family structures, survival off the land, etc.)
Post-Contact (Impact of Colonization)
Denied traditional lifestyle; Denied traditional roles (women); Loss of respect for women; Disruption of spiritual foundation; Denied language and culture; Resulting in: Family violence; High suicide rates; Low self esteem; Sexual abuse.
Future (Our Vision)
Strong and healthy families; Children, Elders, men and women, all with respected roles; Balanced roles of men and women; Respected role of woman as life givers, main teachers in preparing our youth for future survival of the people; Elimination of family violence and sexual abuse.