Queering Resurgence: Taking on Heteropatriarchy in Indigenous Nation Building

The statement “we need more Indigenous women involved in nation-building” on the surface, seems like a good thing. Of course we need more women in Indigenous politics….just look at all those men in leadership roles on band councils, territorial organizations and of course the Assembly of First Nations. After all, only about 17 percent of “Aboriginal leaders” are women (meaning 17 percent of Indian Act Chiefs are women) and that’s ridiculously low, even if you compare it to the 25 percent of MPs that are women in the House of Commons in the current Canadian government[1].

And yet, I find myself feeling irritated when I hear or read something of the sort because first and foremost it erases the fact that Indigenous women are already involved in all kinds of nation building - from raising and educating children to the front lines of direct action, to professionals using their credentials to undermine and critique colonialism. Far too often, these contributions go unrecognized, unappreciated and uncelebrated. Women have always been resisting and re-building, and the vast majority of this work has been done and is being done outside of the bounds of the Indian Act and Aboriginal organizations. This unrecognized labour, inspiration and unending contribution forms the backbone of our families and communities, and family and community are the backbone of our political systems.

The problem for me then begins when we restrict our view of Indigenous political systems to the Indian Act. It is glaringly obvious that men are over-represented in Chief and Councils across Canada. But remember that this is a colonial systems that has targeted Indigenous women through blood quantum (double mother rule), sexuality (who you marry defines your identity) and gender (you’re a women so you can’t vote or run in election), so to me, this is hardly surprising. The Indian Act is designed to remove women from leadership roles. Are we going to make a dent in colonialism by replacing male Indian Act Chiefs with female ones or Queer ones? What difference does it make which gender holds up the colonial system?  Don’t we need individuals, communities and nations that are no longer willing to prop up an unjust system that is designed to destroy the fabric of our nations?

The idea that “we just need more women” also makes the assumption that rather than interrogating biopower as logics of colonial power – race, gender and sexuality, all we need to do to combat evil colonial patriarchy is to add more Indigenous women and stir, and poof problem solved. Yet, we have over-whelming evidence that this kind of Indigenization doesn’t work.  We know, or we should know, that we need a new system. As the Winona LaDuke bumper sticker quote says “we don’t want a bigger piece of pie, we want a different pie”.

So what do we need to do to make sure heteropatriarchy is NOT a building block of our resurgence movements or a cornerstone of our Indigenous nation building projects?  It is not enough for us to say “patriarchy was not part of our traditions” because the pervasive and insidious nature of heteropatriarchy means that for hundreds of years Indigenous children have been taught to uphold these systems. Thanks to imperialism and conquest, heteropatriarchy is a world-wide phenomenon.  It is impossible for Indigenous communities to be completely immune from it.

Like scholars Chris Finley and Andrea Smith, write that biopower – race, sexuality and gender must be interrogated as the “key power arenas of the settler state”,  not just to avoid the mistakes of the past but because of the way they disconnect our peoples from the land and from our traditional political systems[2].  I think they are correct, and I think we need to do some collective thinking and analyzing about how the politics of biopower seep into resurgence movements, because without this awareness, we are destined to replicate things we don’t want to replicate.

Discussion around gender are often centred around either violence against women, or gender inequality in the Indian Act – both worthy causes, but they discussion cannot end here.  I see the expression of heteropatriarchy in our communities all the time – with the perpetuation of rigid (colonial) gender roles, pressuring women to wear certain articles of clothing to ceremonies, the exclusion of LGBQ2 individuals from communities and ceremonies, the dominance of male-centred narratives regarding Indigenous experience, the lack of recognition for women and LGBQ2’s voices, experiences, contributions and leadership, and narrow interpretations of tradition used to control the contributions of women in ceremony, politics and leadership, to name just a few.

This simply cannot be a part of our nation-building work.  This is not resurgence.

The interrogation of heteropatriarchy needs to become part of our decolonizing project.  We must decolonize our framing of Indigenous governance and politics so that we can recognize the nation building work of women and the LGQB2 community, in all the forms it takes.  We need to examine how the internalized heteropatriarchy of colonialism serves to disconnect some of our most vital people from the land and our knowledge systems, and we need to continue to vision and build strong Indigenous nations based on a celebration of diversity, a fluidity around gender, individual self-determination and the Indigenous philosophies that allowed our Ancestors to do just that.

[1] Joan Black, “Women Chiefs Focus of Academic Study”, available online at http://www.ammsa.com/node/22319.  There are 76 female MPs in the House of Commons out of 308 seats.

[2] Chris Finely, Decolonizing the “Queer Native Body (and Recovering the Native Bull-Dyke):  Bringing “Sexy Back” and Out of Native Studies’ Closet” in Queer Indigenous Studies:  Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria MorgensenTuscon:  Arizona University Press, 13-43 and Andrea Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies:  The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism”, in Queer Indigenous Studies:  Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria MorgensenTuscon:  Arizona University Press, 43-66.