Jule Lenzen | May 11, 2018
Indigenous feminism, an area of feminism that has received little attention within Indigenous communities and worldwide, can give fascinating new ideas on how to approach feminism.
One of the reasons why we can learn a lot from Indigenous feminists is ‘feminist objectivity’. According to Kim TallBear, this means that coming from a marginalised culture can often lead to more insights on power relations and ways of seeing the world, since in a marginalised position, one has to engage with one’s own viewpoint as well as that of the oppressor. (“Indigenous Feminisms Power Panel” 25:54) This is of course true for women all over the world, but Indigenous women have historically been doubly marginalised: through colonialism and through patriarchy. Indigenous feminisms’ concern with the implications of colonialism moreover opens the eyes to the ever-present hegemony of Western knowledge.
Kim Anderson states that western feminism is about rights rather than responsibilities, whereas Indigenous feminists are much more concerned with their responsibilities within their communities. (Anderson 88) What can we learn from this collectivist approach?
The first area I feel western feminists can learn a lot from is Indigenous feminists’ concern with land and nature. Historically, Indigenous cultures were a lot closer to nature than western cultures have been in centuries. This is not to say that Indigenous cultures should be or can be limited to their connection with nature and land. But it cannot be denied that these cultures have traditionally a lot more knowledge of the ways of the land. And it should not be denied either that colonialism, ultimately, has been complicit in the problems the world is facing today, in leading to globalization and by nearly extinguishing other cultures that lived in harmony with the planet.
Kim TallBear terms this relationship with the land as being in good relation with humans and non-humans alike (“Indigenous Feminisms Power Panel” 12:19). In a globalized world, where plastic and air pollution threaten to destroy the world as we know it and where yearly 0.1 % of species become extinct as a result of human intervention, more connection with the land and more consideration of the environment are desirable and important.
So, why should there be such rigid separations between groups like environmentalists and feminists? Why not make it part of the feminist agenda? The Indigenous viewpoint makes us question our western ways of knowing or categorizing and it is exciting to see the world from such a perspective: “Privileging Indigenous perspectives involves understanding that being Indigenous and being woman are derived from the relationships established with place, spiritual beings, humans, and the environment.” (Kermoal and Altamirano-Jiménez 9)
The second area of Indigenous feminism that we can learn from, in my opinion, is what Kim Anderson as well as Kim TallBear highlight as ‘life-affirming principles’. This key factor of Indigenous feminism refers to the celebration of life and of women’s roles as mothers. Kim Anderson points out that in traditional, precolonial Indigenous communities, women’s role as mothers elevated their status in society and gave them more rights. (Anderson 83f)
The western world and western feminism have moved away from this view in that they do not limit women to their roles as mothers, which is good. But as a result, this changed attitude then also looks down on women (or men, for that matter) who decide to look after their children instead of working a full time job. Anderson summarises this well in saying: “I wondered how we could possibly hope for a better future without due attention to the ways upcoming generations are living out their early years.” (Anderson 83) Women and men who look after their children and care for them should be supported a lot more in society.
Indigenous feminism is a fascinating field, and these are just a few of the areas that western feminists can learn from. Engaging with Indigenous feminism leads us to question the way we see the world. In any case, it is clear that a transcultural engagement with different areas of feminism can lead to new insights and ways of achieving gender equality, as such an engagement challenges the societal valuation of traditionally feminine or masculine tasks.
Jule Lenzen is currently studying the MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a B.A. from the University of Bonn in English and Celtic Studies. Her research interests are postcolonial and feminist studies, and she wrote her Bachelor thesis on women’s writing in Uganda.
Article edited by Dhanya Baird and Patricia Ng.
Anderson, Kim. Affirmations of an Indigenous Feminist. Indigenous women and feminism: Politics, Activisim, Culture, edited by Cheryl Suzack et al., UBC Press, 2010, 81-91.
Kermoal, Nathalie, and Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez, editors. Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understanding of Place. AU Press, 2016, doi:10.15215/aupress/9781771990417.01.