During the colonization era negative and stereotypical images of Aboriginal women were created by European colonialists, colonial agencies manipulated public perceptions of Aboriginal women to rationalize their subjugation. The negative and stereotypical images of Aboriginal women are still present in Canadian society, this may contribute to the discrimination and racism Aboriginal women experience today. In this blog entry I am going to examine the history of colonization and the effects on Aboriginal women.
Prior to the arrival of the colonizers Aboriginal women were hard-working and strong; Aboriginal women were economically independent and actively involved in the community. Aboriginal women made substantial contributions through small animal hunting, fishing, and gathering, and among some First Nations were full time horticulturalists. When big game hunting failed, women were the sole providers for their families and communities. Furthermore, the economic contributions they made translated into considerable personal autonomy, since women were generally responsible for distributing the products of their labour and were owners of the household (Bourgeault, 1991).
It is important to understand the meaning of colonization and how colonization effected the personal autonomy of Aboriginal women.
Colonization is a process Aboriginal peoples have been resisting since the beginning of the European/Aboriginal relationship. Colonization is a process of conquest whereby one nation establishes a colony on another nation’s territory with the intent of taking power, land, and resources. Europeans colonialism dates from the fifteenth century onwards, and involved the brutal establishment of European sovereignty on stolen non-European territory. Colonialism is not only about material accumulation but requires the production of ideologies that justify the theft and violent practices at its root. (Said, 1979; 1994).
Colonization has greatly effected Aboriginal women, in order for the colonizers to claim Aboriginal land it was important for them to ensure that the Aboriginal women became colonized. As an old Cheyenne proverb goes, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”
The colonizers had a predetermined ideas of appropriate female behaviour and status. The European ideal of womanhood, or the ‘cult of true womanhood’, revolved around female domesticity (Riley, 1963: 219) The Europeans believed that a women’s role was to cater to their fathers, husbands, or nearest male relative, and to support her family.
European ideal of woman was projected on Aboriginal societies where it functioned as “the single most important criterion for contrasting savagism with civility. (Smits, 1982: 298) The colonizers believed how a society treated its woman determined the social evolutionary state of the society.
Victorian morality was the severe standard against which Aboriginal women were judged. They were ultimately found wanting because almost everything about their being – their appearance, their social, economic, political, and spiritual positions, activities, and authority – was a violent affront to the European ideal. Compared to European women, Aboriginal women appeared ‘antithetical to the presumed natural condition of women’ (Weist, 1983: 39)
Missionaries and the colonizers worked hand in hand to colonize the Aboriginal peoples in Canada, missionaries condemned everything about Aboriginal ways of life that challenged or violated ‘civilized’ Christian norms which is everything Aboriginal women represent. More than any other colonial agency, missionaries represented the condition of Aboriginal women in fatalistic and derogatory terms. (Carter, 1984) Vivid descriptions of Aboriginal women as exploited, overworked drudges, abused, misused, dirty, haggard, resigned, and beaten abound in missionary literature (Devens, 1992)
Missionaries directly attacked aspects of Aboriginal women’s lives and characters that exemplified their personal autonomy and independence. More specifically, they assailed the lack of patriarchal family authority in the household, polygamy, the rights of both sexes to divorce, sexual freedom outside marriage, and female ownership of and control over lands, resources, and produce (Anderson, 1992)
Unlike European women, Aboriginal women faced a ‘peculiar kind of sexism… grounded in the pernicious and ever present ideologies of racism’ (Albers, 1983: 15). Also unlike European women, their burden was even more severe – to be ‘good’ they had to defy their own people, exile themselves from them, and transform into the European ideal (Green, 1990:18)
Said, Edward W. 1994. Culture and Imperialism, 1st Vintage Books edn. New York: Vintage Books.
Smits, David D. 1982. ‘The “Squaw Drudge”: A Prime Index of Savagism’, Ethnohistory 29 (4): 281-306.
Riley, Glenda. 1986. Inventing the American Women: A Perspective on Woman’s History. Arlington Heights: Harlan Davidson, Inc.
Bourgeault, Ron. 1991. ‘Race, Class, and Gender: Colonial Domination of Indian Women’, in Ormond McKague, ed., Racism in Canada. Saskatoon. Fifth House Publishers.
Weist, Katherine M. 1983. ‘Beast of Burden and Menial Staves: Nineteenth Century Observations of Northern Plains Indian Women’, in Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine, eds, University Press of America
Carter, Sarah. 1984. ‘The Missionaries’ Indian: The Publication of John McDougall, John Mclean, and Egerton Ryerson Young’, Praire Forum 9 (1): 27-44
Devens, Carol. 1992. Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630-1900. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Anderson, Karen. 1992. ‘Commodity Exchange and Subordination: Montagnais-Naskapi and Huron Women, 1600-1650’, The First Ones: Readings in Indian/Native Studies. Piapot: Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.
Albers, Patricia. 1983. ‘Introduction: New Perspective on Plains Indian Women’, in Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine, eds, The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Lanham: University Press of America.
Green, Rayna. 1990. ‘The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture”, in Ellen Carol Dubois and V.L Ruiz, eds. Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S Women’s History New York Routledge.