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  • Complementarity and Cultural Ideals:Women's Roles in Contemporary Canadian Powwows
  • Anna Hoefnagels (bio)

In many First Nations communities across Canada, complementarity between the sexes is recognized as a common philosophical paradigm originating long before contact with non-Natives.1 Complementarity is not to be viewed as equality or "sameness" in terms of roles and responsibilities of Native women and men; rather, it should be viewed as the division of labor and responsibilities so that required tasks and duties are accomplished, with roles filled according to people's abilities and strengths. Cultural teachings that are common to many First Nations communities celebrate the traditional complementarity of men's and women's roles in society in terms of responsibilities, leadership, rituals, and ways of life. As Rosanna Deerchild summarizes:

Aboriginal societies "walked in balance" with the Earth, with the spirit and with one another. Although the woman was seen to be the strength, she was by no means at the top of the hierarchical structure. In fact, there was a natural equality between the sexes. Each had their ceremonies, roles and purpose in the community and within the order of life. Neither one was less or more important than the other.2

Complementarity between the sexes in First Nations cultures is often cited as a traditional paradigm that fostered balanced relations and shared duties that allowed [End Page 1] for the survival of Aboriginal people.3 As Cynthia C. Wesley-Esquimaux writes, unlike societies characterized by male leadership and dominance, Aboriginal societies tended to value Aboriginal women and their contributions:

Traditionally, in many indigenous societies around the world, women, together with men, were the repositories of cultural knowledge, responsible for handing down tribal law and custom. Women were one of the primary forces that made possible the stability and continuity of life. First Nations women traditionally shared with men a common religious heritage based on their relationship with nature. Women and men were linked without discrimination to the same founding ancestors. Social benefits as well as social responsibilities, were, in principle, also the same for both sexes. Those societies, in which the centrality of women to the social well-being of the entire community was never questioned, were also characterized by an equal distribution of goods, with the welfare of children and elders being of paramount importance.4

The ideal of complementarity between the sexes is celebrated in many traditional teachings of First Nations groups throughout Canada, and these teachings inform some peoples' view of relations between men and women. In discussing complementarity, Cree musician and cultural teacher Jimmy Dick explained:

They say the women give birth to a nation. They raise all the kids, and some of them are leaders, some of them are medicine people, and they're the ones that pick the leaders in the communities, and that's a complementary role too. And the men, they provide for their family, and hunt and all that, give their life for his family. Same way, in the way the woman is too, in the way she protects her home, she's the one that runs the home.5

The realization of this ideal, while still embraced by many, has been compromised by the assimilative policies and practices of the European colonizers since at least 1876, when the first Indian Act of Canada was introduced. This act, which dictates the governance, land and resource use, and health and education services for First Nation communities, imposed a system of patriarchy and Western values on reserve communities, undermining traditional ways of life and power relations amongst First Nation peoples. At the start of the twenty-first [End Page 2] century, Canadian Aboriginal women and men continue to negotiate "tradition" and "modernity" and "Indigenous" and "Western" ways of being, and they seek improved living conditions for themselves and their families. Others, particularly Aboriginal women, are agitating for a reclamation of complementarity and balance between the sexes in their daily lives, drawing attention to the patriarchal structures that characterize governance and relations as well as public leadership roles in many First Nations communities. While the negotiation of complementarity and male-dominated power dynamics is often a private or individual matter, an examination of common...


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