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Erosion of political and economic power

September 22, 2009

I ran across an excellent paper, Dr. Peggy J. Blair’s Rights Of Aboriginal Women On- And Off-Reserve. The bulk of the focus is on Native women’s tenuous legal position in Canada, but the author very concisely presents exactly how women all over British-grabbed North America lost most of their rights and official power.

As Sinclair writes, under English common law, ‘the married woman was one with idiots and children; she was not thought competent to manage the wealth, the land’.1 As a result of women’s legal ‘infirmities’, land could be left by its (male) owners only to their legal heirs, which excluded their daughters.

Managing “the wealth, the land” was kinda what women did in most Native societies. Even now, it’s mostly women who are working the hardest to buy back some of that land in the East, since that’s the only way we’re going to get it back by now.

Things only went downhill from there, legally and socially as some Native men really enjoyed the yummy taste of patriarchy. Enter the wétiko.

Before reading this, I did not realize that Canadian women–of all descriptions–did not have full legal personhood until 1930 (!). And I’d thought still-Anglocentric Virginia was bad enough, in a lot of ways. Blair also describes, at some length, exactly how divorced from reality Canada’s recognition/status laws have been. The US’s history there is not much better, if less overtly sexist in their forced assimilation policies. I have been woefully ignorant of Canadian law, and this was an eye-opener. It’s definitely worth reading all the way through.

Originally, I was just going to do a short post expanding on my Twitter activity today, inspired by something from qikipedia: “Women didn’t get the vote in Andorra until 1970.” The paper mentioned above ties in nicely.

That reminded me of a story I’d run across, nicely demonstrating the attitude that women can be safely ignored in Things Political and Economical, several years ago: Liberals snub First Nations clan mothers and elders (in Canada, incidentally). Talk about a flashback to 1650 or so, pointedly ignoring Clan Mothers.

“To disrespect the Clan Mothers and Elders of our nation is comparative to the equivalency of ignoring the Queen of England if she were addressing you personally.

Cayuga Elder Joyce Sky Stated, “I was saddened by the way these people did not pay attention. I have never seen people that have acted so ignorant in all my time and they demand respect! John Godfrey read his newspaper throughout the whole time except near the end after Chief Morris Shannacappo (Rolling River, MB) yelled at them to listen.”

Hmm, I wonder why the official power of the Clan Mothers has declined so much, even among Nations (such as Haudenosaunee) who have managed to keep more traditional offices going officially.

Unfortunately, the comparison to the Queen is–probably unintentionally–apt, in terms of real political power, these days. Late Cayuga Chief Jake Thomas describes the former duties of Haudenosaunee Clan Mothers here. A lot of the duties, beyond background on the development of the office, can be found on the second page. In contrast, see this description of the office on the Onondaga Nation site. That’s all well and good–I’m very glad they are officially giving credit where it’s due–but where has the actual political power gone? The stated role has gone from including the selection (and impeachment) of male chiefs, to just advising them.

Yes, Rights Of Aboriginal Women On- And Off-Reserve ties in nicely. And we are supposed to see gaining the ability to vote during the 20th century as a great sign of increased status and equality through Progress.

The late Chief Jake Thomas also nicely summed up some philosophical differences which have had a great impact, in an interview:

The European culture’s different. They say man was first, but no, it’s the woman that came first. How would it work if there’s no woman? How’s he going to have family? How’s he going to populate the land? Got to have women first. This is why it refers to the women being here first. Even when the Prophet came, with the Great Law, it was always up to women, the Clan Mothers, to look after the blood line, because we follow the blood line of the women. Whatever clan they belong to, that’s what the family follows. It’s up to the women to elevate their Chief, and if the Chief does anything wrong, the women can depose him. The women have the whole power behind the Confederacy; it’s not the men. When the Europeans came over here they saw our Constitution of the Five Nations, they didn’t like that. They would not let a women be the head of a family. They had to follow the men, the paternal side of the family.

Some other Nations have not managed to keep the same official recognition of the valuable work that Clan Mothers do, and I speak from experience here. Some more assimilated relatives of my own have just assumed that their Clan Mother was a nosy, interfering old biddy, in the best Euro-American model. The social position, sadly, follows the legal position to some extent. Like other women in the West, we increasingly do a lot of work but don’t get any credit because it’s increasingly seen as “not REAL work” or “not work at all, by definition”.

Someone has to do the thankless jobs anyway–and in my case, I found myself lined up to take over my mom’s (now “unofficial”) faithkeeping position because I was the only vaguely suitable candidate in this generation. (And yeah, learning more from other sources is an important part of this responsibility, to me–“You gotta hold onto what you might lose, learn what’s not yet forgotten/’Cause when you know where you’re from, it’s easier to find where you’re going.” as Blackfire put it in “What Do You See”.) Most of the cousins in my generation either don’t even know what the job entails–assuming they know it is an actual job–or consider it a quaint curiosity. They still benefit from having someone working to hold the family together, and a lot of them sure could use some gentle counseling. 😐 Not surprisingly, as ISTR I’ve mentioned before, the prospect of new duties has really helped me wake up to the need to work on my own duyukta.

At any rate, as much power as has been seized, things are looking up a little bit. Women could also be chosen as chiefs–and the best known, “Queen” Cockacoeske* of the Pamunkey, “made it possible for her people to survive”–but that ended under English encroachment. It’s surprisingly hard to find exact dates, but AFAICT the last woman chief in Virginia was chosen in 1705. Almost 300 years later, in 1998, Anne Richardson was elected chief of the Rappahannocks. Then there is Joyce Dugan, of the Eastern Band Cherokee**, elected in 1995. The example of the Canadian Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs idiots aside, Euro-American men can’t just flat-out refuse to deal with Native women anymore.


* Funny how we hear so much about her daddy Opechancanough and uncle Wahunsunacock/Powhatan–not to mention some people’s romanticised image of her cousin who married an Englishman to get out of being held hostage. We have to do some historical digging to learn about “Queen” Cockacoeske. Ah, the stench of patriarchy.

** I was less than surprised to see that in her Wikipedia entry, someone felt compelled to use one of the three sentences allotted to point out the shocking news that “She is half Cherokee and half-white.” Obviously elected chiefs are not exempt from ignorant racist snarking.

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