October is Women’s History Month in Canada. As such, we’re celebrating women who have either made changes in the past, are making changes now or are gearing toward a future influencer. This article will focus on the First Nations women in North America beginning with some basic history, then heading into prominent historical features and through to current creators and influencers.
Les premières nations sont en tête du cortège de la marche pour le climat à Montréal (First Nations lead the march for climate in Montreal.) Photo by Pascal Bernardon.
Celebrating Indigenous Women
Creators & Influencers
Author/Editor: Jennifer J. Lacelle
October 1, 2021
It should be noted that the First Nations are distinct in their cultures, beliefs, spirituality and individuality.
In many traditional First Nations cultures (including Métis and Inuit), women and men shared a balanced role of responsibilities. As example, in many tribes, women could decide who would be chief and could also remove him from power. They were also revered for being the ones responsible for delivering life and the upbringing of these children. Women were respected for their mental and spiritual strengths and men were respected for their physical and spiritual strength.
Women also commonly had roles wherein they could implement decisions on resource use and allocation as well as territory.
Some of these include political, religious or spiritual roles within their cultures, and allowing women to expand beyond a typical “gender role” that European cultures brought during colonizing.
Men and women also had their own bodily autonomy and were considered equals, both husband and wife expected to treat the other with kindness, honesty and respect.
Furthermore, many of the oral traditions told down through the generations depict women as figureheads, as example, the earth is woman.
When colonizers arrived and settled on these lands, First Nations societies were forced into radical change, shifting from a matrilineal society to a patriarchal one where women were left with few rights (like the European women).
To make matters worse, the Indian Act (1876) dictated the “rights” of the Indigenous populations (but excluded the Métis and Inuit). This act severely impacted their individuality, traditions, spirituality and identity itself. Due to the act, any Indigenous people who earned a degree from a university would lose their status; and, women who married non-indigenous men would also lose their status.
It wasn’t until an amendment in 1985 — nearly a century later — that women would be able to reclaim their status or not lose it in the first place.
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of the Indian Act, and there is still a great deal of work to complete on behalf of all Indigenous, Métis and Inuit cultures and people.
Reconciliation can only begin when people become unafraid to learn about the history, trauma, languages, cultures and traditions that have long been denied the people of Turtle Island (a name for the North American continent among some First Nations communities).
Leaders of Their Time
Women have powerful voices and these First Nations ladies knew how to use theirs to the benefits of their people. Here are a few of note, but there’s a short top list and a comprehensive list available for your perusal as well.
Catherine Sutton - Nahnebahwequay
- In 1860, she travelled to England to petition Queen Victoria over a land dispute near Owen Sound, Ontario. She ended up being successful and the Queen granted her ownership, though the Canadian government did not honour this decision.
Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture
- She did a lot of firsts for a First Nations woman in colonial Canada. She travelled to the US to study nursing, because she could have lost her status in Canada. She became the first Indigenous woman from Canada to fight in the US Military (First World War). She was also the first Indigenous woman to become a registered nurse in Canada, and the first to vote in a Federal election in Canada.
Mary Two-Axe Earley
- She was a human rights activist and provoked the 1985, Bill C-31 amendment to the Indian Act by fighting for her status as an Indigenous person and winning (1981).
Representation in the media matters! Of the overall population in Canada only 4.9 per cent are Indigenous, while that number may seem small, keep in mind that’s still 1.67 million important people.
The media has spent decades depicting three basic stereotypes for the Indigenous populations in Canada and the United States: Indian Princess, Noble Savage and Native Warrior. These stereotypes are perpetuated while simultaneously under-representing First Nations in general, often replacing First Nations characters with Caucasian actors.
So much history and culture has been systematically lost. This means the accurate representation, with in-depth characters, of Indigenous culture and peoples is even more crucial. Through proper representation in the forms of media people consume, the next generations of North Americans can begin to see things from a different perspectives and understanding.
Without further ado, here are some (of the many) current creators of note:
- She has become a prominent Métis author, of fiction, and is a registered member of the Metis Nation of Ontario. She credits her grandmother, Edna Dusome, as being an inspiration and says many of the stories come from her in a way. Dimaline wonthe Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature and Kirkus Prize for Young People’s Literature on her 2017 book, The Marrow Thieves, which is in the works for a television series. She was also named Emerging Writer of the Year (2014) at the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
- She is a proud Inuk and an independent filmmakerbased in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Her 2016 movie Angry Inuk earned her an award from Hot Docs Festival and imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival (both for Audience Choice Award), and a third award at TIFF for People’s Choice. Her latest project, as a producer, was in 2018 with the film The Grizzlies. Her choice in projects reflect the ancestral values of the Inuit and spark conversation on a global scale. In 2016 she was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross (civilian).
- Of Swampy Cree and based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ballantyne’s work focuses on indigenous women and girls stepping out of the traditional genres portrayed in film genres of horror, superheroes, fantasy and sci-fi. In 2015 she won Gimli Film Festival’s pitch competition and screened her film Crash Site. She has done numerous talks, including TedXand as a panelist at the San Diego Comic Con (2018), and workshops. Furthermore, Ballantyne has also published children’s books. Her overall goal is to change the world and pave the wave for future Indigenous creators, and this storyteller is changing the world one story at a time.
- This accomplished woman is a Mohawk filmmaker, showrunner, director and writer. She believes in discussing the power of diversity and works hard to inspire future generations. She’s more than a filmmaker, and she’s proven that by speaking at multiple events and places, including McGill University, Concordia University, Champlain College, York University, and others. While she’s created, or been a part of, several successful filmsand television shows her most notable is the film Beans. It’s about the Oka Crisis in the 1990s between government officials and the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec that lasted 78-days — a traumatic experience which she endured as a 12-year-old. As of this year (2021), she’s been nominated for best director and best first feature for the film, which she also wrote.
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