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  • "We Now Must Take Action"Indigenous Women, Activism, and the Aftermath of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women
  • Sarah Nickel (bio)

In 1980, Kanien'kehá:ka woman Mary Two-Axe Earley rose to address delegates at the annual meeting of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (nac). Prefacing her comments by confirming that Canada was a great place to live, she nonetheless highlighted the sexism and racism that Indigenous women experienced:

We Indian women stand before you as the least members of your society. You may ask yourself why? First, we are excluded from the protection of the Canadian Bill of Rights or the intercessions of any Human Rights Commission as the Indian Act supersedes the laws governing the majority. Second, we are subject to a law wherein the only equality is the inequality of treatment of both status and non status women. Third, we are subject to the punitive actions of dictatorial chiefs half-crazed with newly acquired powers recently bestowed by a government concerned with their self-determination. Fourth, we are stripped naked of any legal protection and raped by those who would take advantage of the inequities afforded by the Indian Act.1

Continuing, Two-Axe Earley explained that section 12(1)(b) of the Indian Act prevented First Nations women from being buried beside their mothers and fathers on-reserve if they had married outside of their communities. These women were also subject to eviction and expulsion from tribal roles, forfeited inheritances and property, and were divested from the right to vote in band elections. Chiefs "steeped in chauvinistic patriarchy" ruled them, she argued, and these women were unable to pass their "indianness and Indian culture by mother to her children."2 Two-Axe Earley made clear that the sexism codified in the Indian Act and internalized in Indigenous community leadership needed to be eliminated.

This presentation to the nac was not her first. Two-Axe Earley had been involved in this volunteer organization since its inception – in 1972, in the aftermath of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (rcsw), to coordinate member groups in the bid for women's quality.3 And earlier, in 1968, [End Page 156] she gave a similar address to the rcsw with the support of a delegation of 30 Kanien'kehá:ka women from both sides of the Canada-US border, when she was just beginning Equal Rights for Equal Women – the Indigenous women's organization that would become synonymous with the status issue (and a precursor to Indian Rights for Indian Women).4 Along with Two-Axe Earley, Indigenous women across Canada were taking up the opportunity to advocate for their rights in new feminist forums, and they would not back down.

Exploring Indigenous women's activism through organizational records and reports from Indigenous women's organizations, the rcsw, and the nac provides critical insight not only into how Indigenous women understood their own marginalization in terms of race, gender, and class but also into how others around them, including allies in the mainstream women's movement, supported them and helped advocate for change. Drawing from these sources, I demonstrate how participation in and outcomes of Indigenous women's activism in other feminist circles could be uneven, such as when the rcsw failed to explicitly address colonialism as a key factor in Indigenous women's experiences and did not account for Indigenous women's existing political work in their own organizations. The nac, too, could flatten Indigenous women's broader political concerns into the singular issue of status under the Indian Act, which undermined the depth and breadth of women's struggles. But women also learned from one another and worked within the channels available to them as best they could. Indigenous women were vocal about what they needed, and non-Indigenous women listened and used their networks to amplify Indigenous women's voices. In some cases, non-Indigenous women were dedicated allies who could bear the brunt of advocacy work, allowing Indigenous women to direct their efforts elsewhere and to continue to grow their independent political movement. The complexity of women's interactions, relationships, and political mobilizations is critical...