We Hold Our Hands Up: On Indigenous Women’s Love and Resistance
by Dory Nason
Over the past few months, the world has witnessed the boundless love that Indigenous women have for their families, their lands, their nations, and themselves as Indigenous people. These profound forms of love motivate Indigenous women everywhere to resist and protest, to teach and inspire, and to hold accountable both Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies to their responsibilities to protect the values and traditions that serve as the foundation for the survival of the land and Indigenous peoples. These ways of being also provide a framework that ensures Indigenous women’s relationship to the land and their human right to bodily sovereignty remain intact and free from violation. Specifically, women in the #IdleNoMore movement seek to protect the waters, the environment and the land from the threat of further destruction. Indeed, they seek protection not only for themselves but for those values, practices and traditions that are at the core of Indigenous women’s power and sovereignty — concepts that have been, and remain under attack, and which strike at the core of a settler-colonial misogyny that refuses to acknowledge the ways it targets Indigenous women for destruction.
This point is an important distinction when we discuss what Indigenous women want for themselves and their communities. I would humbly ask all of us to think about what it means for men, on the one hand, to publicly profess an obligation to “protect our women” and, on the other, take leadership positions that uphold patriarchal forms of governance or otherwise ignore the contributions and sovereignty of the women, Indigenous and not. But that is another subject for another time. What I want to focus on is what the women in #IdleNoMore have shown us all—that Indigenous women’s love is powerful. It is a love that can inspire a whole world to sing and dance and be in ceremony for the people. This has always been so.
Yet, I would be mistaken to not address how this love has also made Indigenous women targets. Indeed, popular backlash against women in the #IdleNoMore movement demonstrates how Indigenous women’s love is countered in patriarchal settler colonialist societies–with epidemic levels of violence, sexual assault, imprisonment and cultural and political disempowerment.
Because the colonizer has always known that to counter the power of Indigenous womanhood, you need to make acceptable the practice of hating Indian women.
To normalize this hatred and violence, Indigenous women’s power to love and to inspire is turned into something insidious; their powerful love for who they are and where they come from becomes distorted in mainstream consciousness and those distortions become the narratives and images society pulls from in times like these. When Indigenous women’s love inspires a nation to round-dance, question destructive environmental policy or demand justice for children living in sub-standard conditions, other forces counter with vitriolic hate. It is at this point that we see the power of Indigenous women’s love turn into something ugly in the mainstream media—this love becomes self-serving, opportunistic, and a lie—or as Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Simpson has shown us in her beautiful essay about Chief Spence’s sacrifice, settler colonial misogyny can turn something as sacred as a Native woman’s ceremonial fast for her people into a publicity stunt, a cynical smokescreen, and a Senator’s ugly joke. It is what makes it acceptable to run political cartoons such as this one, mocking her love with an image of death and words that are to put all Native women leaders in their places.
Mobilizing this hate seems alarmingly easy in the popular consciousness. Indigenous women have always known of its presence and the violence it provokes. This kind of violence has a history, one that in 1883 led Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca to write these words:
My people have been so unhappy for a long time they wish now to disincrease, instead of multiply. The mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother’s presence.
Violence against Indigenous women is so normalized in settler society, it even becomes a category of desire in the public consciousness. For that we don’t have to look far. Even in popular so-called homages to our womanhood, violence and sexual degradation saturate the picture.
But, I do not want to dwell on this darkness. Movements like #IdleNoMore are more than a response to oppressive conditions that structure all of our lives. These movements are about the profound love that Indigenous women have for the future stability and health of their families, their land and their nations. And of this love there are countless historical and contemporary examples. I want to close with just a few that are specifically about the love Native women have for one another despite the pervasiveness of settler colonial misogyny and violence.
There is the example of Dakota writer and activist Zitkala-Ša who went to Oklahoma in the 1920’s to investigate the rampant violence against Indigenous women and girls in Indian Territory. To conduct this investigation, Zitkala-Ša spoke with women in these communities, listening to their stories of the ones who had gone missing or turned up murdered, the girl-children whose oil money and headrights made them targets of lawyers, judges and other white men in power. This work underscored the love Zitkala-Ša had for Indian women and for this research; she too became a target. Indeed for naming a prominent judge’s criminal behavior in her final report, she was threatened with imprisonment if she ever stepped foot in Oklahoma again.
In this vein, I think of the many Indigenous women activists, scholars and artists whose love for murdered Mi’kmaq activist Anna Mae Aquash have made sure she is not forgotten in our histories of resistance. There are the Indigenous women writers such as Marie Clements, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, and countless others who never let us forget the power of women’s love. And there are Indigenous women filmmakers such as Alanis Obomsawin, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Christine Welsh, Catherine Martin and Sandy Osawa whose films tell the stories of women warriors in our lifetime.
In recent weeks, we have seen the letter of the Women of Turtle Island in support of Chief Theresa Spence that reminds us all that “as mothers, aunties, sisters, grandmothers, our concern is for the safety and well-being of all peoples.” On February 14th, there will be the Women’s Memorial March committees in Vancouver and other cities that will show love for the murdered and missing across Canada and the world.
Profound love of the kind that moves nations, starts movements, and inspires action does not go away; it deepens and becomes stronger with time. It is of a generous spirit and one that is captured in the words of Nancy Ward, Nan-ye-hi, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee Nation. I close with her words to the US Treaty Commissioners in 1781, words that remind all of us, Indigenous and settlers alike, the true meaning of building a lasting and loving relationship based on kinship and a respect for women’s rights and obligations:
We are your mothers, you are our sons. Our cry is all for peace; let it continue. Let your women’s sons be ours; our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words.
Dory Nason (Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley) is Anishinaabe and an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. She currently holds a joint position with the First Nations Studies Program and the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of research include contemporary Indigenous Feminisms and related Native women’s intellectual history and literature.