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  • "I Am Not a Women's Libber Although Sometimes I Sound Like One"Indigenous Feminism and Politicized Motherhood
  • Sarah A. Nickel (bio)

Indigenous women were essential to the twentieth-century Indigenous political movement in British Columbia, yet their roles have often been marginalized in the scholarship of Indigenous politics and in the public imagination. Existing literature obscures women's political involvement by depoliticizing women's work, focusing on sensational moments of action, or collapsing women's politics within the broader narrative of male-dominated political organizations, rendering women's activities invisible.1 The result is that early twentieth-century women's organizations like the British Columbia Indian Homemakers' Clubs (later the British Columbia Indian Homemakers' Association [BCIHA]) and the British Columbia Native Women's Society (BCNWS), which were heavily involved in community and provincial politics through the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), are regularly viewed as non-political "women's groups." Conversely, 1970s political debates about the patriarchal membership provisions of the Act to Amend and Consolidate the Laws Respecting Indians (Indian Act) appear politically dominant and feminist but are decontextualized and divorced from the work that came before. This polarization of women's activities creates a false dichotomy of invisibility and hypervisibility. In fact, I argue that Indigenous women's politics in British Columbia suffers from "Indian Act myopia," which erases the long and complex history of female activism and undercuts deep understandings of the Indigenous movement. Specifically, it undermines how Indigenous women between the 1950s and 1980s consistently enacted real and important political changes using their unique positions and experiences with colonialism and gender discrimination. This dichotomy also imposes a linear narrative of feminism [End Page 299] that does not accurately reflect the noncontinuous and contextually contingent nature of Indigenous women's practices.2 Here, I address this political shortsightedness through the intersections of gender and politics and evaluate women's activities in their own associations, in male-dominated organizations such as the pan-Indigenous UBCIC, and in other political channels. I foreground Indigenous women's own conceptions of their political identities but also recognize that individuals can sometimes express political ideologies implicitly, and this does not necessarily negate their politics.3

Attending to the ways in which Indigenous women situated and articulated their political identities, I argue that Indigenous women's organizations between the 1950s and 1980s were not only highly political but also explicitly, strategically, and sometimes problematically tied to Indigenous understandings of motherhood and family.4 Members also used Indigenous feminism (as needed) to bolster their political demands, but this was not always explicit or consistent. To make this argument I use Indigenous feminism, oral history interviews, and archival materials to trace BC Indigenous women's politics from the 1950s, when women mobilized their roles as mothers and community caretakers to seek better conditions in their communities, to the more openly feminist debates regarding citizenship and sovereignty in the 1970s, and finally to the Splatsín te Secwépemc child welfare bylaw and Indian Child Caravan in 1980.5 I explore how women's organizations drew on and later co-opted settler state attempts to manage Indigenous motherhood, which allowed women to explicitly politicize mothering to achieve better community conditions. Later, members activated these political tools to redirect the Indigenous political movement by questioning the UBCIC chiefs' decisions and political legitimacy. At times, Indigenous women drew on feminist discourses to confront patriarchy inside and outside of their communities, but they continued to privilege ideals of motherhood and sometimes visibly muted feminist ideals to achieve their goals. Although women's political strategies, alliances, and identities fluctuated across time and space, Indigenous motherhood, which focused on family and community well-being, remained a central yet flexible concept grounding and propelling women's political activities.

Despite a strong body of literature on Indigenous women's politics, we still know very little about how Indigenous women formed their political identities, developed political communities, and strategically [End Page 300] leveraged their disadvantaged gender and racial positions to achieve political change. In recent years, scholars in the United States and Canada have reexamined Indigenous women's activities and discovered the deeply political nature of women's social work, but...


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pp. 299-335
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