Decolonizing the Violence Against Indigenous Women
I have been working in the field of anti-violence since recovering and healing from experiences of violence in my own personal life for the past 20 years. I write this with lessons I have learned in dealing with every type of violence that exists including the most extreme use of violence; that being murder. My family is still recovering from the murder of my cousin Tashina General (who was 21 years old and pregnant), who went missing in January, 2008 and found murdered in April, 2008. The trauma experienced as a result of her murder still resonates in me, in my family and in my community. I write this for Tashina and her mom, who not only lost a daughter but a future grandson, who was already named Tucker.
During my professional life as an entrepreneur, lawyer, consultant and professor, my focus has been on understanding the impacts of trauma and violence upon Indigenous peoples, and specifically Indigenous women. I have made conscious choices about the work I have done but I never believed that after supporting and advocating for families of the missing and murdered, I would have to experience the same loss and trauma. I have used my life experiences to revitalize our teachings that focus on peaceful relations and to continue to advocate for families of the missing and murdered women.
While on my healing path, I began to learn about Haudenosaunee teachings that were cut off from me, from my mother, and from my grandmother – my matrilineal ancestors who were directly impacted from the residential school system. I began to understand our teachings that women are honoured and respected because of their decision-making instincts and their responsibilities in carrying and bringing life into this physical world. I began to understand that our men are Warriors and are responsible to protect women and children and to protect our lands and territories. I began to understand that how colonization had such a detrimental effect upon these roles and responsibilities.
Colonization is violence. Colonization has had an impact on both Indigenous women and men’s roles in all relationships but Indigenous women have taken the brunt of the impacts of colonization. Direct attacks against Indigenous women are attempts to erase them from existence so that there will be no future generations. These are attacks against the future of our Indigenous nations. Indigenous women are now dealing with the high statistics of violence against them and the highest numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, not only in Canada but also globally.
Violence and abuse have occurred in all societies and in all races of peoples, but the violence against Indigenous women comes from colonization; our Indigenous women have become the direct targets of colonial violence. This has saturated into our communities and Indigenous women are now dealing with the violence against them by Indigenous men and by non-Indigenous men. They are no longer safe in their own communities.
I have learned about not being safe in my own home and community. I have learned what an abusive relationship is. In an abusive relationship, the abuser feels the need to have power and control. When an abuser feels that his power and control are taken away, he has to strike out at his most vulnerable victim to regain that power and control. The victim loses her voice and feels that she does not have any control of the situation at the time of the abuse. I remember being silent and knowing that I could not say a word to anyone about the abuse that was happening. I remember that silence well.
When an abusive relationship ends, the victim makes a decision to take her power back. I remember saying that I will no longer be beaten or abused – not mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically or sexually. I remember saying that no one will ever hurt me again. I acknowledged that I will no longer be a victim. I had found my voice and regained respect for myself. As a survivor of violence, I have learned not to blame anyone else but to take responsibility for myself. I can celebrate my life and learn from the lessons that I have learned. The abuser has an opportunity to learn that he does not need to have that kind of power and control but can be an equal and respectful partner. The relationship has to be a partnership.
The abusive relationships that happen to our women are also born out in the larger context of Canada’s colonial relationship to Indigenous peoples. Canada’s colonial government has been an abuser since its existence. First, it violated peace and friendship treaties, which were based on nation-to-nation relationships, by unilaterally establishing its government through legislation in which it had control over Indians and lands reserved for Indians (ie. British North America Act, 1867). This legislation then gave the government authority to establish the most racist piece of legislation called the Indian Act. These unilateral acts were the beginning of the abusive relationship. As a result of generations of abuse and control, Indigenous peoples have become victims in a long-standing abusive relationship and have been silenced through the lack of control over lands and resources, the genocidal policies of the residential school system, and the disrespect and violence against Indigenous women.
The violence against women and the violence occurring against Mother Earth are also directly connected. Haudenosaunee planting ceremonies acknowledge that the women are the seed – the connection between the Creator and Mother Earth. The loss of connection of Indigenous women to their lands and territories means that the lifeblood and carrier of future generations are also cut off. Since the existence of the patriarchal Indian Act, there have been missing Indigenous women who were forcefully displaced from their traditional territories for “marrying out”. This was the beginning of missing Indigenous women. The genocidal policies of the Indian Act also had an impact on Indigenous governance systems where the women’s decision-making qualities were silenced and no longer part of the balance of these systems. And we already know what the residential schools did to our families, including the roles of mothers and fathers and the losses of family bonding, and the loss of the most basic tenets of a relationship: love and emotional well-being.
In order to become survivors of this abusive relationship, all victims, including Indigenous men and women, must take their power back. Many have already. This is what decolonization means at a very practical level – taking our power back. The language and actions about violence against Indigenous women has to shift to actually begin the decolonization process.
What do I mean by shifting our language? It means that we have to stop behaving and to stop talking like a victim. We have to stop blaming the abuser and take responsibility for our own actions. We have to teach our next generations about healthy relationships, healthy sexual relationships and how to treat each other with respect. We need to practice our teachings by making a conscious choice about the decisions that we make today and how each of those decisions have an impact seven generations from now. I know my ancestors did that for me seven generations ago. The decisions include how we teach our sons to respect themselves and to be good men, to honour the women in their lives, to honour their children, to be good fathers and good grandfathers; the decisions to teach our daughters to respect themselves and their bodies, to respect all of the relationships in their lives, to know that they are the life givers and nurturers to the next generations.
Decolonization means bringing the safety back and means living in a society where we feel safe and where we respect each other as people. It means that our men are taking back their rightful responsibilities to be the Warriors of our nations; to protect the women and the children, and the lands they are all connected to, to protect the lands for our future generations. It means that our women are taking back their rightful responsibilities to be respected decision-makers, to carry and nurture life and to bring those future generations into this physical world. It is the responsibility of all generations (mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers) to ensure that we maintain those connections to our lands and territories, with our strong languages and ceremonies intact.
Decolonization means true partnerships, whether those partnerships are with Canada, with our non-Indigenous allies, or between Indigenous men and women. Decolonization means that we celebrate our resiliency in the face of an abusive relationship and choose different relationships that honor ourselves, our communities, our women, and our lands.
Beverley Jacobs is a citizen of the Kanienkehake Nation, Bear Clan of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy from the Six Nations Grand River Territory. She graduated with a law degree at the University of Windsor in 1994 and a master’s degree in law in 2000. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary. She also owns her own law firm, which is situated at Six Nations Grand River Territory and practices part-time while working on her Interdisciplinary Degree focusing on human rights, Indigenous research methodologies, and Aboriginal health.