In 2004, Amnesty International released a disturbing report detailing the state of missing Aboriginal women in Canada. The expose', aptly entitled, Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada, reveals the dark realities plaguing this marginalized demographic, while providing individual case studies of these forgotten women.
The epidemic of domestic violence has been prevalent in Aboriginal communities, both in Canada and the United States. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, First Nations’ people describe these disturbing occurrences as “[the] consequence to colonization, forced assimilation, and cultural genocide…and behavioural patterns practised by one or more people that weaken or destroy the harmony and well-being of an Aboriginal….”
Equally distressing, “Aboriginal Women: An Issues Backgrounder” reported that twenty-five percent of First Nations women had suffered abuse at the hands of a partner or spouse in 1999. Michelle M. Mann, a consultant on Aboriginal affairs and human rights, revealed how Aboriginal women were three times more likely to experience abuse than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. According to Mann, “Aboriginal women's vulnerability to violence and sexual assault within their communities is fuelled by social and economic marginalization and a history of colonialist government policies…which have disrupted relations between Aboriginal men and women and eroded cultural identity.”
If these statistics are grim, the findings are equally dire south of the border. Like their Canadian sisters, Native American women are also three times more likely to be victims of abuse than any other female demographic in the United States. In addition, “Native American Women and Violence” reports that America’s Aboriginal women experience the highest instances of physical and sexual abuse in the country. According to Lisa Bhungalia, “The problem of violence against Native American women is exacerbated by federal apathy in law enforcement and the courts, and minimal funding for shelters, counseling, and education in Native American communities.”
But despite these grim realities, Aboriginal women have continued to use their own agency in order to ensure that their voices are indeed, heard.
In Judy Rebick’s Ten Thousand Roses, “Indian Rights for Indian Women: Changing the Indian Act” by Caroline Ennis and Gail Stacey-Moore expresses the uprising of First Nations’ women who protested the violation of their Aboriginal rights under Canada’s Indian Act. Prior to the Act’s amendment in 1985, Aboriginal women could arbitrarily lose their Indian status as well as the status of their children by marrying a non-Aboriginal man, by voting in government elections, and by enrolling in post secondary institutions.
As a result, Mary Two-Axe Early founded the Indian Rights for Indian Women group in 1971 in order to challenge the discrimination within the Indian Act. After receiving a phone call from Two-Axe Early, Moore learned that her own Indian status would be revoked since she had a married a White man. Despite being ostracized by her community because of her biracial marriage, Moore became inspired to engage in her own activism in order to end the injustices imposed onto First Nations’ women. After years of educating herself on Canadian law and politics, Moore became an aggressive lobbyist for the rights of Aboriginal women.
Meanwhile, the fire was beginning to ignite Caroline Ennis’ activism. After her best friend, Glenna, was kicked-out of her own house by her husband, she was awarded a measly $1-a-year by New Brunswick’s provincial courts.
This infuriated Ennis to the point of rebellion.
Since the band’s chief had refused to challenge the court’s ruling, Ennis, along with several other women occupied the band office in protest of the dismal housing rights of First Nations’ women . Despite the many threats on their lives, the women continued their occupation in order to gain the leverage they needed to take their activism to the next level. With their reservation facing an imminent implosion, Ennis choreographed the Native Women’s Walk to Ottawa which would successfully illustrate the solidarity of Aboriginal women in championing their basic human rights.
The bottom line is that Aboriginal women worldwide share a dark collective herstory.
However, they continue to use their strength in activism in order to bring attention to their experiences of violence and structural discrimination within their communities.
And as Toni Morrison has said, this will always be a work in progress: "Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another."