decolonizing gender and undermining heteronormativity
I’ve been going through a personal exploration of my own gender identity, as I’ve been feeling a disconnect between my gender assigned at birth and what exists (or more accurately what does not exist) inside of myself. I’ve never really felt ‘female’, but I also do not feel ‘male’ either. I learned about being agender recently, and I strongly identify with what I’ve read and the experiences I’ve listened to. I was talking to a client about this at work, and she suggested that perhaps I don’t feel ‘female’ because women in modern society have been stripped of their traditional roles, and we are only given a small box to exist within. While this doesn’t ring true for me, perhaps it is a topic that needs a bit more exploration.
Historically, Indigenous communities functioned through the equality of men and women. Women were regarded for their wisdom and vision, and respected for the ‘gifts’ they bring from the Creator. In fact, in most creation stories, women are central figures.
In Ojibwe and Cree legends, it was a woman who came to earth through a hole in the sky to care for the earth. It was a woman, Nokomis (grandmother), who taught Original Man (Anishinaabe, an Ojibwe word meaning “human being”) about the medicines of the earth and about technology. When a traditional Ojibwe person prays, thanks is given and the pipe is raised in each of the four directions, then to Mother Earth as well as to Grandfather, Mishomis, in the sky. To the Ojibwe, the earth is woman, the Mother of the people, and her hair, the sweetgrass, is braided and used in ceremonies (1).
Indigenous women traditionally had equal access to and control of the land and its resources. Gender roles in traditional communities were seen as a symbiosis, where people worked together to ensure all aspects of their communities were looked after. Indigenous women were seen as the custodians of culture, and through them the language and beliefs of Indigenous communities passed on to the next generation. Many communities were Matriarchal, meaning that wealth, power, and inheritance were all passed down through the mother.
Women were able to hold positions of power and leadership roles. In many instances, despite the Chief being male, he was often chosen by a woman who also had the right to take his role away from him. Women often controlled land claims, and were in charge of the allocation and distribution of resources.
Despite variation between Indigenous communities, common characteristics can be identified among them: gender roles were not hierarchical, they were considered complementary, and in many cases women were able to transcend their roles (2). The importance of women is often reflected in the art and spiritual ceremonies of Indigenous people.
If a person feels as though they do not fit specifically in one role or the other, but rather embody both aspects of these traditional roles, they are considered two-spirit and often given roles to fulfill within the community that serve everyone. They are not seen as either male or female, but rather as their own gender separate from binarism. Two-spirit folks were revered for their ability to transcend traditional roles and often fill the role of healers, shamans, and ceremonial leaders. In many nations, two-spirit people are seen as lucky in love and able to extend their luck to others (3).
That being said, there is still a huge gender binary that exists within Indigenous communities, especially during powwow season. Take for instance the divide between men and women in the various dance categories. While I have seen stories of two-spirit folks dancing in either category, I can’t help but question what happens to those who do not feel like they embody the two-spirit role, or that it does not characterize our gender identity.
As I do not feel like I harness the spirit of male and female alike, I do not identify as two-spirit. However, I’ve had a huge pull to learn how to men’s fancy dance, yet this is something I haven’t pursued because of the gender divide still prevalent in our communities.
Would I be accepted to dance the men’s fancy if I am not a two-spirit individual? Is there a role for agender and gender-nonconforming individuals in Indigenous communities? Will there be the same acceptance for those of us who do not exist within the gender binary but also do not identify as two-spirit?
Gender is a huge topic to tackle and it is hard to cover all of its aspects, but the importance of recognizing its function in our society can not be ignored. Are our views on gender those of our community, or are we internalizing colonial ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman? Do we want to continue the patterns of misogyny practised by settlers, or do we want to break the cycle and begin to decolonize our viewpoints?
I’ve already seen so much work being done to accept two-spirit folks and fight back against the rampant misogyny in settler-colonialism. I think if we want to continue to fight against our oppressors and to decolonize our worldview, our understanding of gender is something that must be challenged as well.
Gender-roles function as instruments of control that serve to uphold the values of those in power in our society. In order to understand them, we have to consider how they function and who they keep in power. Who benefits the most from misogyny, transphobia, racism, and heteronormativity? Who flourishes in a society based off the fear of the ‘other’?
Cisgendered, heterosexual white males.
These are more often than not the people who have roles of authority and power in our current societal structure, and the way to uphold their position is to ensure those who do not fit into these categories are ostracized, demonized, or subjugated. The idea of an ‘other’ is based on normalizing being cisgendered, straight, white, and male.
One of the easiest ways to fight back against these power structures is by dismissing their idea of what is normal, and by embracing the ‘other’. By accepting, understanding, and listening to the voices of those who have been oppressed, we work towards undermining the normativity of those in power. Many of these normalizations arrived with the settlers, so as Indigenous folks working to decolonize, the importance of changing our worldview to include those who have been oppressed alongside us is immeasurable.
The more of us who accept gender-diversity, sexual fluidity, and embrace people of other ethnicities, the better chance we have of restructuring our society. While I disagree that utilizing the existing framework is the way to do so, that is a topic for another article.
In the meantime, we must listen to the voices of the gender-diverse, Black trans folks, people of colour, 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals. The more we uplift each other, share each others stories, listen to each other, and see each interaction as an opportunity for learning, the more we undermine the existing power structures in society and fight against those who have been in control for far too long.
(1) McCarthy, Katherine. (2016) Invisible victims: missing and murdered indigenous women. RJ Parker Publishing, Inc.
(2) Hanson, Erin. Marginalization of aboriginal women. Indigenous Foundations UBC. Retrieved July 31 2019 from https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/marginalization_of_aboriginal_women/
(3) Two-Spirit. Indian Health Service. Retrieved on 31 July 2019 from https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/
originally published on Medium.com, 2019, written by bailey macabre