A Prairie Homo Companion: First Nations on the Prairies

A Prairie Homo Companion is a regular column that celebrates the Canadian prairies, canola fields and big skies, and the paradoxes of being a fine-ass lady prairie homo.

Header by Rory Midhani

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For the longest time, I’ve wanted to write a Prairie Homo Companion piece only on First Nations (FN), but I’ve been worried. As a non-Indigenous person, I’m obviously not the best choice when it comes to talking about issues related to being FN. But growing up here on the Canadian prairies, I’m surrounded by racism against First Nations people on a fairly regular basis. It can be hard to explain to someone from other parts of the country how rampant and, well, visible racism against Indigenous Canadians is here — as we discussed, racism looks very different in different communities. Here in Western Canada, First Nations people and activism are visible and so is the racism. Wherever I walk in my city, most of the homeless people I see are first and foremost First Nation. I’ve heard derogatory slurs against First Nations in school, on the bus, in the street, at parties, at the grocery store… everywhere. It’s infuriating, but there are lots of (Indigenous!) people fighting back. For today’s installment of Prairie Homo Companion, I’m going to share some of the work by kick-ass female First Nation writers and activists I’ve been reading about to better understand the fucked up racist shit (excuse my language) happening in the Canadian prairies and elsewhere in this country.

[Note: Throughout this piece, I will be using the terms "First Nation," "Aboriginal," and "Native American" according to how each writer/activist/artist describes herself and her community.]

1. The RED Dress Project

There are more than 5000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. As I’ve written before, many of the organizations advocating for these women have been defunded by the Harper government. The RED Dress Project, by Winnipeg-based-artist Jaime Black, is an installation project in which red dresses (each one representing a missing or murdered Aboriginal woman) are displayed in various locations. I remember when the installation came to my university last year. I’d be walking across campus lost in my thoughts about exams and papers, and then I’d suddenly see a red dress hanging outside, blowing in the wind, or draped inside from a ceiling. It was haunting and made me uncomfortable, which I think shows how effective the project is. No one in our country should be comfortable knowing Aboriginal women are the most likely to be murdered or go missing, and there’s not much being done about it.

From the Red Dress Project website:

“My current work: The REDress Project, focuses around the issue of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada. It is an installation art project based on an aesthetic response to this critical national issue. The project seeks to collect 600 red dresses by community donation that will later be installed in public spaces throughout Winnipeg and across Canada as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.”

via http://www.theredressproject.org

via http://www.theredressproject.org

2. apihtawikosisan blog

“âpihtawikosisân is the name the Cree have given to the Métis. It literally means “half-son.” I chose the name to reflect the fact that I am coming from a Métis perspective, and it is not actually my name, legal or otherwise. It sounds like ah-pih-du-wi-GO-si-sahn. In rapid speech it can sound more like ah-pih-duhh-GO-si-sahn which is what most people repeat back to me when asked how to say this word. I’d understand either pronunciation.”
-Chelsea Vowel

apihtawikosisan.com is the blog of Chelsea Vowel, a 35-year-old Metis mother, activist, and writer from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. She currently teaches in Montreal, while writing blog, which is an excellent resource on the contemporary and historical issues, FN people in Canada have faced and continue to face. She also writes about what we can all do to start making things better.

“Politicians won’t be the ones to fix what’s wrong with Canada and its relationship with indigenous peoples. This is a job for regular people, dealing with one another as human beings, and right now indigenous people in this country have not not are not being treated humanely.”
-Chelsea Vowel, in “Canada, it’s Time. We Need to Fix this in Our Generation”

3. Jessica Danforth (also known as Jessica Yee):

Jessica Danforth identifies as a “multiracial Indigenous hip-hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter,” so just from reading that you know how cool she is. She has spent a good chunk of her life fighting for reproductive and Indigenous justice rights in Canada.

I think oftentimes people think in order to be an activist you have to be this protest picket waving person loudmouth, but I learn all the time from people who do something completely different from me. I learn from people who are activists at home. If they’re in their home community where they’re dealing with the most horrendous realities, and living with the effects of colonialism for example, in every sense of the word, their activism is just by surviving. That gives me a lot of fire.
-Jessica Danforth, University of Windsor distinguished visitor in Women’s Studies.

Jessica Danforth is the founder of The Native Youth Sexual Health Network, “an organization by and for Indigenous youth that works across issues of sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice throughout the United States and Canada.” As well, she is the author of Feminism for REAL: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism.

I want to learn about people’s understandings and experiences of feminism in real life and go deeper than the notion that it just exists within the walls of the academy–in big textbooks, universities and colleges, or other fancy institutions. Not because I now hate academia, but because I’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve been asked by others and asked the question myself, what is now the main title of this book, “But what is feminism, for real?
-from Feminism For REAL

Feminism-FOR-REAL

So these are three of the amazing Indigenous female writers, activists, and artists I’ve been reading this week. I may not be the best person to write about Indigenous issues, but I can certainly read what I think are some of the best, educate myself, and encourage you to do the same.

Avatar of Malaika

Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    I love this article! As a caucasian woman from Saskatchewan I am always saddened when I witness discrimination towards FN ppl and I tend to see it everyday! we must stop generalizing whole races! Aboriginals are a strong, resilient people and they deserve our respect just like an other human on the planet!

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    YES.
    Yes yes.
    I’ve been waiting for something like this for a very long time.
    While I do think it would be really, really great for Autostraddle to present a piece written by a First Nation woman (perhaps about feminism in FN communities, which is a huge movement right now due to outrageous and heartbreaking domestic violence and sexual assault statistics), I do think that you handled this pretty well, Malaika. I’ve been following Jessica Danforth religiously, and I love the Red Dress Project. I would also encourage people to read Native Appropriations or follow Adrienne K on Twitter (N8VApprops); she’s young, awesome, and Cherokee, but highlights issues in FN communities throughout North America. Also, Idle No More is an anti-colonialism movement that is making waves.
    I think the contrast between Canadians FNs and US FNs is fascinating…having grown up listening to my grandmother talk about how much hatred she experienced for being Cherokee in the forties and fifties, to know that even in 2013 people are still experiencing that ridiculousness is just heartbreaking. Racism against FNs in the US is not by any means over, though. In fact, now more than ever there is intense government-sanctioned discrimination and racism against FNs. Appropriation of FN culture (or perceived FN culture) is rampant and viewed by society as okay. While you wouldn’t have a sports team’s official name the N word, we still have the Redskins. And the stereotypes…oh my goodness, the stereotypes. FNs experience oppression at every turn, and so few people know about it because a huge number of FNs remain on reservations, unseen and unheard. FNs are not viewed as how they are today; society views them as how they think they were a couple hundred years ago. And now, the Cherokee Freedmen are trying to ruin tribal sovereignty which will make things even worse.
    Feelings.
    Anyway, thanks for this, Malaika. And AS, please please please feature a piece written by a (actual) FN woman. Our voices are important, and so need to be heard.

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    Excellent article, thanks for highlighting these voices!

    I’m disappointed in myself that I only learned about the RED dress project after the installation was taken down at the UAlberta campus last year. I had a few friends ask me if I knew anything about it, but I didn’t, and I couldn’t find much public advertising for it on campus.

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    I love this post!

    I was lucky enough to see Jessica speak at the History/Sex/Activism conference in Vancouver two summers ago. She really shook up the crowd! It was amazing.

    I’m a historian, among other things (also a white queer cis woman in my fourth year of doing community-based research with an Indigenous nation), and find that one of the big issues that is perpetuating racism in Canada is that we don’t actually talk about the history of colonialism.

    For example, my high school was ten minutes away from a reserve and never, not ever, did my teachers invite someone from the reserve to talk about local history/language/art/writing. And then my Socials teacher in grade ten showed The Last of the Mohicans and we didn’t even have a conversation after about how the book was based on a novel written by a white dude, and was NOT actual history. I took all of the liberal artsy classes and wasn’t told/didn’t learn until university that most of BC wasn’t treatied. INSANE.

    So. Yes. More of this, please, Autostraddle, and thanks Malaika! Your discomfort registers with me; I feel like any part I have in processes of decolonization beyond my own person are distinctly related to raising awareness with other settler folk (and NOT trying to “help” Indigenous people, who have been kicking ass and doing it for themselves for centuries). This blog post you wrote is a good contribution to that consciousness-raising project, though, so thank you.

    And I second Sela: AS has great content from lots of POC, which is super important for all of us, but could we have more Indigenous authors featured too please?

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      What do you mean by ‘indigenous’ authors? At what point does an author not qualify as indigenous?

      And who decides when they are not defined so?

      While I support diversity, it would seem that this is choosing which races/ethnicities are of more value than others.

      And that if true, seems extremely problematic.

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        I prefer to use the term First Nation. For me, that means ONLY those who are enrolled in any band, not First Nation based on family legend (I don’t know how many times I’ve heard black and white people claim FN heritage because they have high cheekbones)
        It’s become appropriation.
        It’s not that AS would decide that FN authors are of more value, it’s just that there are NO AS writers of FN heritage that I know of, and absolutely no one is speaking about FN issues.

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          I agree with you about the definition of First Nations (those enrolled) but want to point something out: here in the United States, there are those who are NOT offically (read: government) enrolled but are recognized as being of First Nations decent. For instance, when records kept in a courthouse burned in a fire (along with many other records), several families were denied the ability to enroll in the tribe because they didn’t have the records to prove they belonged. Yet they had been part of the tribe and were recognized as part of the tribe by tribal members. I realize this is not common, but it does occur. There are also tribes who are not recognized by the United States government for various reasons.

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          That gets really sort of touchy, though. I know that in the town I’m living in now, there was this huge group of people who claimed they were lost Cherokee. They got the state to give them land, special privileges, etc, and the Cherokee Nation put up with them. Ten or so years later, they did a DNA study, and it turns out that there wasn’t a drop of Cherokee blood in the whole bunch.
          I’m just particular about my definition because everyone and their mom claims that they have “Indian” blood—usually Cherokee. It annoys the hell out of me. Studies prove that the overwhelming majority of black and white people in the US do NOT have First Nation blood.

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          But I have heard of many FN people also claiming privileges that were not specific to their tribe or band. Regardless of whether privileges are ever OK.

          And no one has yet told me why a individual from a certain tribe should be valued over another, irrespective of land, opinion, feelings, privileges, culture etc.

          No matter what, someone will take advantage, and we have to be better than that.

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          I agree–some people do like to claim First Nations blood when it’s not true. Unfortunately, they mess things up for others who are (demonstrated through mitochondrial DNA analysis)part of a specific First Nations tribe, yet not “officially” recognized (though the tribe recognizes them).

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          I totally agree, Sela! You pretty much cleared up the confusion from above – it could only be a good thing to broaden the scope of AS even more by consistently including content from an Indigenous/First Nations person.

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        Hi Lucy,

        To respond to your first question below my comment, by “Indigenous authors,” I meant people whether First Nations, Metis, Inuit, or non-status, who self-identify as Indigenous/Aboriginal either in those terms, or through band membership, or on their own terms altogether (I think this is a fairly common understanding of the word “Indigenous).

        I want to be very clear that I am not interested AT ALL in judging anyone’s Indigeneity (as you suggest, this would, clearly, be highly problematic). Rather, just as some authors on Autostraddle identify differently (as, just for starters, black, femme, Asian, cis, white, trans, or butch) I feel like it would be cool if there was someone who wrote regularly for the site who identified as Indigenous.

        It’s about ensuring a plurality of perspectives, not privileging one.

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    So glad to get links to these writers! I live in canada prairies and I’ve been hearing the racism, even from my own family… were just so willingly uneducated. I hope the future is full of listeners, with spotlight rightfully on these educators, and an overdue end of the horrifying racism applied to them. :c

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    Thank you, and PLEASE continue in this vein! The concerns of First Nations and other Queer women of colour get short shrift in most Queer publications. Rural and poor Queer women of all ethnicities are often facing challenges which mainstream discourse either ignores or fetishizes. All these groups deserve less condescension and more solidarity.

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    You need a gay First Nations correspondent for Autostraddle? I’m a gay Mohawk lady, pick me, pick me! ;)

    Sadly, I can’t name many First Nations writers who are published, never mind queer ones at that. To want Autostraddle to have one on staff… It would be nice but I do not expect them to be the Human Genome Project of Writers.

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    Thanks Malaika for these websites. I will start following them. When my children were young and in elementary school, there would always be a unit in the Social Studies curriculum on aboriginal culture. I would ask my FN step brother if he wanted to visit the school and talk to the kids. It was always a little surreal. It was the first time these kids actually talked to a FN person. In their minds it was difficult to imagine a FN person as anything beyond a person in the street or a character in a story and their questions reflected this. They asked my brother if he had a horse, if he lived in a tipi, etc. Could he actually have a job and a house? The kids were not malicious — just incredibly ignorant. My own children were frustrated. I remember my daughter angrily telling her classmates that her uncle had a much nicer car than I had…and a cell phone too (this was in the nineties when not everyone had cellphones!) Danny usually finished his presentation/talk with fried bannock sprinkled with sugar. YUM…
    My kids went to school in a rich white suburb in the Canadian prairies. I don’t know if any of the classmates remember the presentations or if, a decade later, their minds are a little more open because of them. I hope so. In any case,it was interesting and scary for me to see the strength of the stereotypes in such young children. I can only imagine what what ideas lived in the brains of the parents.

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