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A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood

by Kim Anderson

Women, with few exceptions, once held a great deal of power in aboriginal society. They were in charge of the home, controlled food distribution (at a time when stored food was considered a form of wealth), and, since many aboriginal societies were matrilocal – that is, the husband moved to the wife’s community after marriage – their property rights often exceeded those of men’s. After colonization, however, aboriginal women not only became stereotypes in the dominant society (Indian princess/ drudge squaw), but they lost whatever power they once had. Cree/Métis educator Kim Anderson discusses this shift in power, the internalization of those stereotypes, and the subsequent “negative female identity” that still haunts many aboriginal women today.

Based on Anderson’s graduate thesis for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, A Recognition of Being uses the stories of 40 aboriginal women to trace what Anderson describes as a four-stage journey – resist, reclaim, construct, act – toward positive self-image.

Anderson accompanies the women’s stories with her own well-thought-out commentary, including a backgrounder on identity politics and a section deconstructing the words “tradition” and “culture” (thankfully, the author acknowledges that tradition has to be fluid and adaptive). Unfortunately, most of the other research – an overview of women’s roles in pre-contact society, a discussion of pre-contact ideas on marriage and sexuality, and a brief review of literature about the squaw stereotype – is too short a rehash of material found elsewhere.

Despite Anderson’s focus on the rather homogeneous voices of privileged women involved in urban aboriginal organizations, the questions posed by her subjects – especially Cree/Métis scholar Emma LaRocque and Queen’s University professor Bonita Lawrence – reveal a refreshing resistance to the status quo.