More than a Poster Campaign: Redefining Colonial Violence
by Sarah Hunt
Nineteen years ago, when I started my undergraduate degree, I was introduced to Indigenous women’s writing for the first time. Until then, the words in my own personal journal were the only reflections of Indigenous women’s lives available to me. Reading the stories of Lee Maracle, Jeanette Armstrong, Beth Brant, Patricia Monture-Angus, and others, I was struck by both the prevalence of violence in their lives and the strength of resistance to this violence. Their stories of resilience sprung off the page, transforming moments of shame and silence into ones of strength and survival. After a family member took her own life, these stories inspired me to focus on issues of violence in our communities, and I’ve taken my direction from this calling ever since.
Over the years, much has changed in how violence against women is talked about. With the emergence of a discourse around ‘the missing women’, gendered violence is being recognized as a widespread reality in our homes, schools, cities and streets. The conviction of a serial killer in Vancouver’s downtown east side solidified the reality that our aunties have been preyed upon for far too long. But in talking with other Indigenous people across Turtle Island, I know the daily reality of interpersonal violence continues despite this increased awareness. After close to 20 years of talking about this issue, what unsettles me the most is the similarity of stories from girls in small towns and large cities, in urban centers and remote villages. Across this land, our daughters continue to be targeted for physical, mental and emotional abuse on a daily basis, by people from both inside and outside our communities. Something needs to change in our strategies to stop this violence.
Colonialism relies on the widespread dehumanization of all Indigenous people – our children, two-spirits, men and women – so colonial violence could be understood to impact all of us at the level of our denied humanity. Yet this dehumanization is felt most acutely in the bodies of Indigenous girls, women, two-spirit and transgender people, as physical and sexual violence against us continues to be accepted as normal.
Our strategies to name gendered violence can themselves become part of the problem, as the language of ‘the missing women’ masks the brutal reality of how they become ‘missing’. Girls and women don’t simply disappear – they are beaten, murdered, kidnapped, violated, and raped. The language of ‘bullying’ in our schools also serves to mask the nature of this violence, which is not simply about online taunts or threats but about targeted assaults. It may be more palatable to use softer language to raise awareness, but, as the girls in our communities can tell us, the realities we’re trying to change are anything but soft. We’re fighting for our lives here, as our aunties and grandmas have been doing since colonialism began.
News stories of girls being killed or kidnapped continue to surface momentarily on the local newspaper and radio, without any follow up or outrage. Our ‘disappearance’ is still easily dismissed as mere blips on the radar of most Canadians. And, as those of us working with families and communities know, many more daily incidents of violence go untold, unheard or unnoticed. Despite the national Stolen Sisters campaign, local marches, vigils and other events to remember girls and women who’ve been killed, our efforts have yet to change the acceptance of daily violence enacted on the bodies of our loved ones.
Many of the strategies to address violence have further strengthened broad systems of colonial power, which are themselves inherently violent. We continue to appeal to the Canadian legal system to address physical violence, calling for more policing or better laws, while knowing this system is set up to oppress, rather than help, us. The same colonial mentality that created the Indian Act to privilege the rights of men over women, and instituted residential schools to break down our family systems, serves as the foundation for the Canadian legal system. Surely we must engage with this powerful system, but appealing to law alone will not stop the violence.
So how do we begin to change norms around gendered violence without reinforcing its roots in colonial power? As we strategize, we must be careful not to reproduce the systems and ideologies that colonialism has introduced. Sexist, racist and homophobic ideas have been internalized at many levels, but colonialism’s stealthy ways make them hard to recognize.
As an example, one consequence of developing broad public awareness about the prevalence of violence against Indigenous women has been the privileging of some women’s voices over others. Moving from Vancouver’s downtown east side to offices in Ottawa and other urban centers across Turtle Island, efforts to name gendered violence have shifted from grassroots discussions to slick poster campaigns. In these moves, certain voices have been left behind, enacting a form of silencing that I believe is in crucial need of reparation. Rather than calling on our sisters in the sex trade to speak for themselves, others are asked to speak on their behalf. We must ask ourselves how colonial values continue to shape whose voices are seen as legitimate, while working to center the voices of the most marginalized women in our communities rather than only those of us with a colonial education.
So colonial violence can be understood as more than just interpersonal abuse – it is inherent in the systems that have shaped how we define ourselves and relate to one another as Indigenous people. It should go without saying that healing from violence requires rebuilding our individual and collective strength rather than reinforcing the power of the state. By centering local Indigenous knowledge in our understandings of leadership, honor, strength and love, we can redefine ‘power’ as well as ‘violence’. This requires relearning our stories and our cultural teaching in order to raise up the girls in our communities and respect them as leaders, mothers, warriors and knowledge keepers.
Transforming our dehumanization must move beyond just poster campaigns and court cases, because their ability to enact change only goes so far. I believe it is only through building stronger relationships with one another, across the generations and across differences in education, ability, sexuality and other social locations, that we can break down the stigma and shame resulting from generations of colonial violence. As we reinstate the roles of women and two-spirit people in systems of Indigenous governance and law, ending gendered violence can be understood as integral to self-determination. In the words of the late Patricia Monture-Angus, “Self-determination is principally, that is first and foremost, about our relationships. Communities cannot be self-governing until members of those communities are well and living in a responsible way. It is difficult for individuals to be self-determining until they are living as part of their community” (Journeying Forward: Dreaming First Nations Independence, 1999, p.8).
Sarah Hunt is of mixed Kwagiulth (Kwakwaka’wakw), Ukrainian and English ancestry, and is a PhD candidate in the department of geography at Simon Fraser University. Her doctoral work is concerned with dynamics of law and violence under colonial relations in BC. Sarah is also a contributor to the recently launched blog The Becoming Collective: a project in transformative relationships.