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News

Not Pocahontas, Not a Super-Indian, Not a Drunk and Not a Slut

Metis anthropologist Marlene McKay on forces that marginalize Indigenous women.

By Michael Valpy 2 Jan 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Award-winning journalist Michael Valpy is this year's recipient of the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. He can be reached at michael.valpy@utoronto.ca. Five pieces from Valpy's larger series are being published with permission by The Tyee.

[Editor's note: This is the fourth of five pieces The Tyee is publishing from "Me, You, Us," an investigation by journalist and author Michael Valpy into social cohesion in Canada -- what binds us together, what draws us apart. The five pieces are part of Valpy's 2013 Atkinson Series, recently published in its entirety by the Toronto Star.]

Marlene McKay has spent a long morning in this city's Prairie Ink Restaurant and Bakery talking to me about judgment in Canadian society. It is the topic of her doctoral thesis.

She is a Métis anthropologist from "the end of the road," as she puts it -- from the tiny Cree and Métis community of Cumberland House at the terminus of Saskatchewan's Hwy. 123, the oldest settlement in the province, founded in 1774.

She has spent months interviewing native women in northern Saskatchewan, trying to understand not only why they are marginalized, relegated to powerlessness and insignificance at society's outer edges but also exploring what is likely the greater question: why does their marginalization appear so normal -- to them and to others.

Before beginning her PhD, she spent a decade as a social assistance worker whose clients were broken women from Saskatoon's 20th Street -- prostitutes, alcoholics, drug users, the physically and psychologically abused captives of one of Canada's poorest and most desperate neighbourhoods. All indigenous women.

McKay interrupts her narrative at several points to use the word "pain" -- the pain of the women of 20th Street, the pain in the women she interviews in Northern Saskatchewan, her own pain growing up, the pain she still feels as an adult whenever she realizes how deeply internalized are the forces that undermined her sense of self-worth, beginning in childhood.

And what emerges from the chronicle of her life and her professional and academic observations is that in this province, where a quarter of the population will be Aboriginal within two decades (the 2011 National Household Survey pegged it at 15.6 per cent), and in this country where people of Aboriginal identity will soon number more than two million, no magic wand is going to wave away Canada's Aboriginal wrongs.

Not protests and demonstrations, not royal commissions, parliamentary apologies and truth and reconciliation commissions. There is too much history, too much sociology. The story since European contact is too complicated -- another word, along with pain, that McKay, 43, uses several times in the elegant, crowded café.

What she does offer is a look inside the Aboriginal relationship, especially the relationship of Aboriginal women to mainstream Canadian society.

"I'm trying to capture what women are saying their experiences are. I'm part of that same system."

Colonial stereotypes

If the indigenous woman is not the mythical super-Indian presented through contemporary cultural revitalization or her half-sister, a Disneyfied Pocahontas good sex-servant, she is the drunk, the slut, the mother of several children from different fathers, the welfare recipient, the woman who sleeps in an alley.

"So much of our colonial history was about portraying native women as not as good as white women, just a bunch of prostitutes and promiscuous types," says McKay. "Then there's that dichotomy. You become recognizable when you perform as the Pocahontas, but the other recognizable form is the indigenous women who's on 20th Street because of her own making. "All I ever want to be is regular," McKay says.

She is deeply critical of the churches' impact on indigenous culture, and speaks of Aboriginal peoples being "colonized" by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. (Today the colonization continues by evangelical Protestants.)

McKay, who was raised as a Catholic, says the churches cemented patriarchy into indigenous culture beginning with the Jesuits who accompanied Samuel de Champlain to New France and left writings recording their disapproval of indigenous women's social equality and open sexuality.

"The priests were quite intentional in how they were going to Christianize native people, and patriarchy has seeped through the wall of Aboriginal culture because of Christianity, because of colonialism. We cannot just rid ourselves of our colonial history and claim a pure state."

"What the church teaches," she says, "is profoundly internalized by a lot of people. I thought I'd rejected it, the male dominance, but I hadn't realized the extent to which I'd internalized male dominance [and] the shame, the guilt, the sin, the suffering" taught by the church.

The churches in McKay's community taught that the idealized family of two parents was normal and what deviated from normal was bad. In a community of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and violence, the churches taught that suffering in this world is normal and is to be rewarded by a glorious existence in the afterlife.

Television's fraudulent images

Television is popular in northern Saskatchewan and women spend a lot of time watching it, McKay says. "Television promotes the ideals of a real man in a macho capitalistic society with a full-time job, a good job, with a family where the wife probably doesn't have to work."

It is a fraudulent image, she says, contributing to women's belief in their own failure in not achieving that idealized life for themselves.

"I think about some people from my community who were raised in two-parent families, who followed all the rules, who married and are still in two-parent families, participating in those kinds of idealized family structures. I think about them and how they perform, how they carry themselves with such assurance, with such pride, like they know that they're doing all the right things.

"They have such a sense of legitimacy. And with that they could look down on people who are not able to match their status."

McKay's parents never married. Her siblings had fathers from different relationships. Her father's family ridiculed her illegitimacy and after he left her mother (and the village) they refused to acknowledge her as a relative. The fathers of her siblings acknowledge them, but she gets no acceptance, no recognition from her own father.

"I thought I was doing all the right things, being responsible, going to school, but they were always making fun of me, ridiculing me. I think that's a result of Christianity and the imposition of illegitimacy.

"I think about these women that I interview, the single-parent Aboriginal women of northern Saskatchewan, most of them raised Catholic and Anglican, they're really quite devout Christians, and I think about how much pain they carry, and the rejection that's been going on in their lives."

She posted notices around small communities in northern Saskatchewan asking to interview indigenous women who considered themselves marginalized and rejected and was overwhelmed by the responses.

She described her conversation with one young woman. "Her family disowned her because she left her white husband, who was abusive, who hit her while she was carrying his baby. They wanted her to stay in this abusive marriage, and she became unworthy by her family standards when she left her abusive husband."

'So much pain'

She interviewed one young woman with superb wilderness survival and hunting skills. Her parents had borne only daughters. Her father was a trapper and she picked up her knowledge from him, but he refused to teach her anything more and instead took on one of her male cousins as an apprentice. It hurt her terribly.

She tells the story of sitting on a friend's apartment balcony one summer afternoon and watching an Aboriginal couple walking by on the way to a party. A short time later, the man comes back alone, looking confident and sure of himself.

"Then two minutes later, she comes out and she doesn't have any shoes on, and the pain is all over her. She's calling him, and she runs after him, trying to keep it together, there's so much pain in that."

Feminism, says McKay, is still pretty much an F-word in indigenous culture. "We are just entering that conversation."

She relates a story told to her by one of her professors, who said that when she goes to church, the best-dressed people she sees are black women.

"Then she asks me, 'Do you know who the worst-dressed people are in today's society?' And she says that would be young white males, because it's OK for them to dress like that. They're not being judged. It's an assertion of white, masculine power."  [Tyee]

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