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  • Gender, Sovereignty, and the Discourse of Rights in Native Women’s Activism
  • Joanne Barker (bio)

In 1876, the Canadian Parliament amended the 1868 Indian Act to establish patrilineality as the criterion for determining Indian status and all commensurate rights of Indian peoples to participate in band government, have access to band services and programs, and live on the reserves. In 1983 and 1985, several different kinds of Indian1 women's constituencies and their allies secured constitutional and legislative amendments that partially reversed the 1876 criterion.2

The amendments were not passed easily. Male-dominated band councils and Indian organizations protested vehemently against the women and their allies. They were accused of being complicit with a long history of colonization and racism that imposed, often violently, non-Indian principles and institutions on Indian peoples. This history was represented as being furthered by the women's appeals to civil and human rights laws, and more particularly to feminism, to challenge the constitutionality and human rights compliance of the Indian Act. Demonizing an ideology of rights based on selfish individualism, and damned for being "women's libbers" out to force Indian peoples into compliance with that ideology (Silman 1987, 178–89),3 the women and their concerns were dismissed as embodying all things not only non- but anti-Indian. Indian women's experiences, perspectives, and political agendas [End Page 127] for legal reform were dismissed as not only irrelevant but dangerous to Indian sovereignty. The dismissals perpetuated sexist ideologies and discriminatory and violent practices against Indian women within Indian communities. In doing so, they normalized and perpetuated an irrelevance of gender and the disenfranchisement of Indian women in Native sovereignty struggles.

Drawing from Native feminist theories and sovereignty studies, this essay examines the 1983 and 1985 amendments and the activism that led to their development and passage as an instance of the coconstitutive relationship of gender and sovereignty.4 By looking at how the discourse of rights was mobilized from very different contexts to very different ends by various constituencies of Indian men, women, and their allies, this essay modestly opens the conflicts surrounding gender politics and women's rights in Native sovereignty movements. I hope to provide a forum for thinking about the kinds of social reformations that are needed to bring about social equity between and for men and women in Indian communities—an equity that is an essential aspect of decolonization and social justice for Native peoples in North America.

Of Rights Contingent

The discourse of rights—international, constitutional, civil, Native—deeply informed the Canadian political landscape in which the 1983 and 1985 amendments were developed and passed.5 Through rights, various kinds of constituencies—immigrant, minority, women, Native—were able to claim an identity, assert its political significance, and articulate agendas for decolonization and social justice. Recognition of a particular identity by Canada and the international community implied the recognition of all associated rights under the law—that is, immigrants to human rights, minorities, and women to constitutional rights, Natives to self-government and territorial integrity. Rights, then, governed the terms of multiple kinds of social relationships among variously situated groups and individuals, implicating such diverse issues as labor, health care, education, jurisdiction, and property.

Indian women mobilized a specific discourse of rights from the intersections of human and civil rights, feminism, and Native sovereignty politics to historicize and define their goals to end gender-based discrimination and violence [End Page 128] within their communities. Rights to equality, made meaningful by the distinctive context of Native/women's histories of oppression, shaped how Indian women articulated their political perspectives and agendas for legal reform and social change. In a rights framework that was simultaneously about being Native and women, Indian women's groups contextualized their experiences of oppression within a particularly Indian history of colonialism and racism encapsulated by the Indian Act, strategically aligned themselves as women with feminists and immigrant and minority women in experiences of state-institutionalized discrimination and community-based violence, and asserted their unique collective rights as Indians in equality with Indian men as a matter of traditional, customary law. Rights, then, functioned for Indian women in defining themselves within multiple historical contexts and...