Indigenous Histories Through A Gendered Lens

by waaseyaa'sin christine sy

I just came across some ideas about Indigenous history in my reading today. It prompted much reflection and I thought writing about it as an Anishinaabe academic would be relevant to my blog. Ironically, I started “Anishinaabeweziwin” in 2012 as a way to overcome anxiety in writing and increase confidence in public writing as an academic however I rarely write about my actual academic experiences or learning. Let this be the first entry (or one of the first entries I’ve made–there have been so many entries which remain unorganized, I can’t quite recall if I’ve written in this vein before).

From “Introduction: Searching for Cornfields–and Sugar Groves” in Native Women’s History in Eastern North America before 1900: A Guide to Research and Writing, eds. Rebecca Kugel and Lucy Eldersveld Murphy (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), the editors write:

“Applying the methodology of [Indigenous] women’s history requires us to do several things. First, we must assume that what women did was important, a task made possible when we move away from the old emphasis on wars and leaders to issues of society and economy, and to new ways of looking at such old topics as military and political history. We then shift our gaze from violence, speeches, and gallantry, for example, to beliefs, production, mediation, and family, among other topics. Evident here is the importance of social history, with its emphasis on the thoughts and deeds of ordinary people, and its array of methodologies for reconstructing their experiences.” (xxvi)


I was struck by this quote as it pinpoints some of the patterns I see in Indigenous histories. In my own case, I found myself researching Indigenous women’s history as a matter of trying to understand the dynamic and variable economic conditions Indigenous womyn live in and negotiate today, seeing these conditions as mostly hostile to Indigenous womyn’s sovereignty, authority, and ability to provide well for ourselves, our families, and our communities. I’m grateful for historians who do Anishinaabe women’s research. Some of these scholars are Anishinaabe and they include Brenda J. Childs, Chantal Norrgard, Wendy Makoons Genuisz, and Helen Agger. As well, the published life histories provided by two-spirited people like Maanii Chacaby (Ojibway-Cree) and of course the many Anishinaabe women who were married to Anishinaabe or settler men help illuminate our lives. Their life stories not only ensure womyn are made present in our histories but they also provide an archive from which to draw upon in the production of Anishinaabe knowledges for the present and future. Amidst these emerging histories, we need to learn more about womyn who remained uncoupled or moved in multiple intimate relationships, widowed womyn, womyn who did not have children on purpose or for other reasons, and gender queer Anishinaabe is all their nuances.

I’m grateful to be doing what I do because Indigenous histories often reflect and reproduce androcentric heterosexist worlds. If we continually centre and recall only men’s versions of history or look only at men in history, we generate limited and distorted narratives lacking in nuance and multiple realities. Anishinaabe history is not — cannot be — only ever about what men say, said, do or did. While I find such histories interesting and of course, revealing of particular strands of interpretative truth, I find it hard to take any history serious that does not include gender, a discussion of gender’s importance in the history being told, or an explanation why gender is not being considered. If Indigenous histories are going to be produced in androcentric ways, then there needs to be some discussion about this approach and the limitations — if not harm — this approach is mired in. Weights and balances — an ethics — in erasing, excluding, relegating to limited ‘relational roles to men’, or marginalizing Indigenous womyn, gender queer, and two-spirited peoples in knowledge production must be seriously discussed whether we are trained historians in the academy, lay-people doing it in/for populist ways or however we situate ourselves and our agendas in conducting historical research and its dissemination. That is to say, if historians or those who do history are going to erase, exclude, or marginalize womyn, gender queer, and two-spirited people then this decision needs to be owned and legitimated. Such an ethical approach in producing Indigenous histories is a logical step given the erasures, exclusions, and marginalizations that persist today. I sense that one way to intellectually combat this problem in the present and into the future is to ensure it’s correction in history.

It’s so important to ensure the Indigenous histories we are recalling and interpreting are unmoored from androcentricity. It is so important that we strive to reflect womyn, gender queer, and two-spirited peoples lives, relations, realities, and interpretations. When these portrayals include womyn, it is important to do so in ways that challenge dominant ways of seeing womyn, for example, as only relatives to men or as helpers in man-centric worlds.


All history is interpretation generated through specific lenses and interests of the historian/storyteller/researcher. All history is disseminated through specific pathways of power or, if these pathways are limited, it is simply not disseminated. All history is taken up in myriad ways according to the needs, agendas, or biases of readers. These principles are just some of the things I’m learning as makwa-ikawe researching Anishinaabe history through a gendered lens. The gendered lens I work through centers womyn but does not erase or overlook the gendered worlds we live(d) in or the relations we negotiate(d) with every cycle of giizis, tibi giizis, and the seasons.


Nov. 13 Note: Correction to the title of the text referenced was made. Also, I indicated what kind of histories we need more of and elaborated on my meaning of ‘an ethics of erasure, exclusion, marginalization’. In the latter case, I wanted to make clear that I do not actually mean that such a thing is ethical. Or, if it is, I want to know how the writer thinks it is.