The Role of Indigenous Women

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles about the conclusions of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) inquiry. You can read the first one here, the second here and the third here.)


To show how Canada—and we in it—perpetrate genocide against Indigenous women and girls, the MMIWG inquiry takes readers back to the beginning, when:

…there was nothing but water, nothing but a wide, wide sea. The only people in the world were the animals that lived in and on water.

Then down from the sky world a woman fell, a divine person. Two loons flying over the water happened to look up and see her falling. Quickly they placed themselves beneath her and joined their bodies to make a cushion for her to rest upon. Thus they saved her from drowning.

While they held her, they cried with a loud voice to the other animals, asking their help. Now the cry of the loon can be heard at a great distance over the water and so the other creatures gathered quickly.

As soon as Great Turtle learned the reason for the call, he stepped forth from the council.

“Give her to me,” he said to the loons. “Put her on my back. My back is broad.”

Pre-colonial culture is both evidence of the violence perpetrated by settlers and a resource for renewal.
From first contact, European explorers and then settlers tried to eliminate Indigenous nurture and worship. They redefined Indigenous gender roles to push women out of powerful roles.

Beaded booties created by Irene Richard to the MMIWG inquiry Gallery of Artistic Expression (

Beaded booties created by Irene Richard to the MMIWG inquiry Gallery of Artistic Expression.

Traditionally, Indigenous women’s life-giving powers were divinely-given, proper to them as women, and crucial to the community. Women were teachers, healers, leaders, providers and protectors (especially of the water and land, and of reciprocity between the earth and people).

As we see in the story of the divine woman’s arrival, Indigenous women were spiritual mediators, communicating between living and dead, sky and water, humans and divine nature. The divine woman who fell from the sky world created new relationships and renewed old ones: the loons cried out, all the creatures gathered, and Great Turtle welcomed her. Indigenous women made possible new beginnings: they gave life biologically and in midwifing, and they gave thanks to the animals who offered themselves up for food and clothing.

The MMIWG inquiry shows that the Canadian government targeted women’s roles in hopes of eradicating distinctively Indigenous ways of life. This attack on women’s power to create and renew relationships is the root of the interpersonal violence that has taken so many lives.


At the same time, the national inquiry lumps all “settler culture” together and de-historicizes it, despite the fact that at first contact, in the 1500s, European people were just becoming what we now call “modern.” Notions of universal rights, liberal law, contracts and personal property as we now understand them had not yet emerged in Europe. The first Europeans to come to “Turtle Island” were in many ways closer to Medieval Europeans than they are to us.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, influential ideologies held that for anyone to mature in a moral, economic and political sense, they needed freedom from tradition and superstition. According to this way of thinking, stripping Indigenous culture out of individuals brought enlightenment and liberation. This liberalizing antipathy to traditional cultures was intensified by racist presuppositions: even freed of their culture, Indigenous people were thought to be capable only of simple manual tasks.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, colonialism became increasingly bureaucratic. Under the Indian Act women could be re-classified out of official Indigenous identity: they lost their Indian “status” if they married a non-Indigenous man. To finally strip the “Indian” out of the child, bureaucrats knew that traditional relationships needed to be shattered.

Canada’s agents took Indigenous children away. They targeted the most intimate points of cultural transmission: motherhood and mother tongue. The point was to remove each child from their mother’s and father’s care; to put them into an environment where the kinds of relationships that made up Indigenous communities were impossible. Children were beaten, assaulted, starved and humiliated. Estranged from families, mother tongue and culture, many returned to Indigenous communities deeply traumatized.


The national inquiry identifies four ways that this colonial violence lives on in Canadian culture. Today’s acts of disrespect, exclusion and privation trigger the entire violent history even in seemingly unimportant encounters. Each time an Indigenous girl is greeted with disrespect the entire history of this colonizing violence wakes in her, deepening any violence she has herself suffered directly. At the personal level, just as at the national level, demeaning first encounters grow into violent relationships.

Drawing/Painting by Erika Richard. MMIWG inquiry Gallery of Artistic Expression

“Disconnect.” Drawing/painting by Erika Richard. MMIWG inquiry Gallery of Artistic Expression.

The national inquiry explains:

We often use the word “encounter” to describe these moments in order to signal their
importance as a pivotal or distinct moment, which family members or survivors have detailed as the precise conversation, meeting, or event that took place at the beginning of a relationship and that went on to shape that relationship in ways that hold significant consequences for how violence continues within their own or their loved ones’ lives.

Daily racism triggers intergenerational trauma. This is how ordinary disrespect repeats and reinforces colonial violence. Women are struck particularly hard. Ongoing colonial violence works through four mutually reinforcing cultural practices:

Historical, multigenerational, and intergenerational trauma: The historical violence of various forms was systematized in the Indian Act, residential schools, Sixties Scoop, and ongoing adopting of children out of Indigenous communities. All the various forms of emotional and psychological injury add up to a collective trauma that continues across generations. Many survivors of the residential schools carried their mass trauma into their relations with their spouses and children.

Social and economic marginalization: Historical and ongoing policy approaches keep Indigenous communities isolated and impoverished, and they keep the growing numbers of Indigenous people who live in cities cut out of jobs, services, housing, programs and education. Think of the oft-quoted and scandalous fact that 1-in-3 Cape Breton children lives in poverty. Now think of the fact, quoted in the MMIWG report, that over 75% or 3-in-4 Eskasoni children live in poverty.

Lack of will to change (institutional and cultural): As we say, “we all know” that Indigenous communities are in crisis, especially youth; there have been studies upon studies, and yet the situation seems only to get worse. The MMIWG inquiry quote witnesses to show that failure to implement recommendations from other studies shows a “lack of real concern,” and “this lack of concern blocks the formation of positive relationships and limits the process for transforming harmful encounters into positive ones.” So, though “we all know” about Indigenous child poverty and violence against women, “we don’t care” … at least not enough to do anything about it.

Ignoring the agency and expertise of Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people:  A central teaching of the national inquiry is that suffering brings a kind of “expertise” about what can be done to achieve positive change, and that this special knowledge is excluded by dominant decision-making practices. This call to recognize the “expertise” of Indigenous women and girls is closely related to calls for self-determination that include the need to heal communities.


As Marilyn W., a First Nations woman who shared her story about losing her sister to violence, observed:

Each and every one of us as individual people, every morning we wake up, we have a choice that we could bring light into this world or we can feed that – that darkness that we have to live with every day. And I’m trying, and it’s real hard not to sit here and be angry. It’s really hard not to have hate in my heart because my culture is about equality and love. This is about the genocide of our people. This just isn’t about Indigenous women. This is a spiritual battle.

In Cape Breton, need for new beginnings may be especially evident in Eskasoni. Between 1942-1949 the government uprooted Indigenous communities, burned people’s houses, and drove families into relatively isolated communities with woefully inadequate housing and little infrastructure in Shubenacadie and Eskasoni.

The long-term outcome is the radical demoralization especially of youth that we see in overdoses, suicides and social fragmentation. As Elizabeth Marshall put it:

“I’m not shocked [by a 2016 report that found the poverty rate for Eskasoni children to be as high as 75.6%.]. I see the unemployment here, I see the poverty, I see the people coming to ask for help. I don’t like to talk about these things because it’s painful to see people suffering.” She added that many people in Eskasoni, including herself, were surviving on welfare – a reflection on the poor planning behind centralization that took people from more secure circumstances, in many cases.

Said Marshall:

You see the malnutrition. You see children in poor health. For my culture, where we always had an overabundance of food and where we share an abundance of food, it’s very strange that we have to be so poor.

The MMIWG report shows how the systemic violence that developed over 500 years causes today’s direct acts of personal violence.

Indigenous people suffer combined forms of dehumanization, racist policing, criminalization and socio-economic exclusions.

The most radical attack has been in socializing Indigenous people into violence by destroying the passing of loving and respectful ways from mothers to children, severing youth from the wisdom of older generations, cutting people off from their native tongue and leaving them bereft of the language of their parents, under-schooled in the language of the colonizers, and, in the residential schools and bad foster homes, beating and humiliating children into experiencing human contact in and as violence. At the root of the Canadian genocide, then, is a colonizing denigration of Indigenous women’s powers and roles.

Like the divine woman who fell from the sky, it was the traditional role of Indigenous women to encounter others in an affirming way. Such open first encounters create new relationships and bring health into old and destructive ones.

down from the sky world a woman fell, a divine person

The national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has written a report of immense hope: Out of the injury and multigenerational trauma, we can build respect and reciprocity but only if we come together and listen to Indigenous women and girls.

Canadians are offered a new beginning… But will we accept?

Featured image: Motherly Love, drawing/painting by Dee-Jay Monika Rumbolt. MMIWG Gallery of Artistic Expressions.


Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, 2018) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, 2017. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”