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(Carmen Moore and Callum Keith Rennie in
the 2006 Feature Film Unnatural & Accidental)
by Starleigh Grass
Aboriginal women are in a unique position when it comes to heterosexual love and relationships. When dating within their own people Eurocentric colonial norms, such as the idea that a man is a provider who makes more money than the woman, are challenged by demographics which show that Aboriginal women likely are better educated and make more money than their male counterparts. If a woman marries within her own people chances are she can expect to carry the weight of household finances.
In a Eurocentric relationship this may be seen as emasculating, however, in many traditional societies there was a balance between male and female contributions to the family’s well being so the emasculating impact of females out earning men is tempered to some degree. This balance between male and female contributions, in my opinion, also reduced the expectation of women to be docile and subservient.
In Iskewewak Kah’ki ya ni wahkomakanak: Neither Indian princess nor easy squaws, Janice Acoose highlights the traditional role of women by quoting Marlyn Kane who says Indigenous women were “keepers of culture, values, and beliefs. But more than keepers of culture, we also exercised political autonomy over our bodies, relations with others, and in the social, political, economic, and spiritual realms.”
The relationship between Mooch and June in Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes is an example of the material relations between the genders in Aboriginal communities. June provides for the family’s material well-being and provides emotional and spiritual stability to the lives of Mooch and Floyd. June is hardly docile or subservient. Whether this is due to cultural expectations regarding the behavior of women in her community or the economic relations between her and Mooch is debatable.
In Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women Aunt Shadie encompasses this role when she is a trapper, providing materially for her family:
I used to be a real good trapper when I was young. You wouldn’t believe it now that I’m such a city girl, but before when my legs and body were young and muscular, I could go forever. Walking those traplines with snowshoes. The sun coming down sprinkling everything with crystals, some floating down, and dusting that white comforter with magic. I would walk that trapline like a map, knowing every turn, every tree, every curve the land uses to confuse. I felt like I was part of the magic, that wasn’t confused. The crystals sticking to the cold, and the cold sticking to my black hair, my eyebrows, my clothes, my breath. A trap set. An animal caught. Red. If it squirmed, I would take my rifle and shoot it as fast as I could. Poor thing. I hate to see an animal suffer. Meetwetch, and thank you.
Aunt Shadie’s provision for the material well being of the family is not a hardship, but rather something empowering which connects her to the magic of the land and to herself.
However, if an Aboriginal woman marries outside of her own people she faces the possibility that societal norms regarding the marginalization of Aboriginal identity will infiltrate the most intimate areas of her psyche through the person that she loves. This could take the form of the expectation that the man will out-earn the woman and as material conditions shift so do gender power relations. This could also occur as a result of the expectation that the woman will take on a more docile role expected in the Eurocentric patriarchal male/female relationship.
By developing an intimate relationship with a non-Aboriginal man, an Indigenous woman takes on the ability to see things through his eyes, and the images of Indigenous femininity that she sees may not be congruent with her own worldview. Acoose, summarizing Fanon, explains that the colonizer violently suppresses the Indigenous person’s self-image and replaces it with a derogatory self-image which justifies and maintains ongoing colonial violence.
I propose that in intimate relationships between Indigenous women and non-Indigenous men, Indigenous women inevitably fall prey to and/or confront this colonially imposed self-image of what it means to be an Indigenous women. Through intimate relationships the colonizer’s definition of Indigenous femininity is imposed upon them. In this way, falling in love with a non-Indigenous person becomes dangerous to her well being because she risks her self-image.
The non-Indigenous man, however, does not have to see things through her eyes and thus does not in the same way become disturbed by incongruities between his self-image and his partner’s perception of him because the power relations allow him to ignore the existence of the other’s perception. As Aunt Shadie says, “White is a blindness, it has nothing to do with the colour of your skin,”. Blindness leads to confusion and the perception that the woman owns the dysfunction rather than the reality that dysfunction is shared by both partners in the relationship within the context of a power imbalance between the non-Indigenous male and Indigenous female. We can see this in the way that Rebecca describes her father’s reaction to her mother’s estrangement from her Indigenous female self:
…because something is wrong, so wrong, and nobody will speak. Not your dad – the Character- who spoke and made his bird-killing silence… and finally she lifts her head… finally she lifts her head, but something is gone. Something sits dead in her eyes, and rests itself on the tone of her voice, when my dad – the Character – asks, irritated, “Jesus, Rita. What’s wrong now?”.
Even in the event that a non-Indigenous man loves an Indigenous woman, their intimacy is limited by the blindness that is whiteness, reducing his ability to understand and care for her, as described by Rebecca’s father’s reaction to Aunt Shadie (Rita) leaving, “She left us. I didn’t know anything was wrong,”.
According to Acoose, the impact of the stereotypical misrepresentations of Indigenous women can be challenged by critically deconstructing and decolonizing them. In The Unnatural and Accidental Women this occurs in a non-Indigenous man/Indigenous woman relationship when Rebecca challenges Ron when he says “It’s just that you don’t seem Indian,” and Ron is open to dialogue about the issue.
However, if a non-Indigenous man does not critically examine his own perception of Indigenous women he may lapse into seeing her through a colonizer gaze despite his initial love for her. Aunt Shadie describes this process:
I didn’t want her to see me the way he began to look at me. It wasn’t that he said anything cruel, but men can be cruel with the twist of their face. I could feel myself disappearing, becoming invisible in his eyes; and when I looked in the mirror, what I held good like a stone deep inside was gone. I could no longer see myself. In life, you see yourself how the people you love see you, and I began to hate myself through his eyes. I began to hate my reflection. The stone, though… loved his strong arms and body, loved the way his body tanned to meet mine in the summer times, loved the way he used to love me. I thought my silence complemented his voice, though my redness, my stone, gave him weight.
The process of the imposition of the colonizer image upon an Indigenous woman is intensified through reproduction with a non-Indigenous man because the child may identify as non-Indigenous and adopt the colonizer’s view of their mother. Aunt Shadie demonstrates this risk when she says:
I have this child- light and dark, old and new. I place my stone in her and I leave. I was afraid she would begin to see me the way he saw me, the way white people look up and down without seeing you-like you are not worthy of seeing. Extinct, like a ghost… being invisible can kill you.
The repeated metaphor of the deer that is taken in by a family and then abandoned in a strange place for its own good implies that even when a non-Indigenous man and his family take in an Indigenous woman, she will never truly belong to that family and cannot rely on them for material well being or physical safety let alone long term acceptance. In some ways the metaphor of the deer resembles Aunt Shadie’s experience. Trapping as she describes it is not an activity of the cultures Indigenous to the Vancouver area, so she has become displaced from her original surroundings and is now in a foreign and somewhat hostile place.
According to Acoose, the misrepresentation of Indigenous women can lead to violence against Indigenous women. Acoose states that racialized and sexualized violence is intended to destroy women centered Indigenous society and replace it with Eurocentric Canadian patriarchy. When the woman is not docile and subservient in her relationship with a non-Indigenous man, thus challenging Eurocentric Canadian patriarchy, she may experience verbal abuse and physical violence as he attempts to maintain Eurocentric Canadian patriarchy. For example, Valarie’s relationship with the dresser, begins with banter characteristic of a woman who is asserting her autonomy, however, things quickly spiral out of control and end with derogatory sexual and racial put downs along with violence.
The non-Indigenous man cannot be trusted with the safety of non-Indigenous women even when he perceives his actions as helpful. When Gilbert says that he is trying to help women it makes explicit power relations between non-Aboriginal men and Aboriginal women. He is in a position to help, therefore he is more powerful. The power imbalance combined with the colonizer stereotypes about Indigenous women leads to his feeling of entitlement over the bodies of Indigenous women and ultimately their lives.
In this context, The Unnatural and Accidental Women may be taken as a cautionary tale for Indigenous women about maintaining their Indigenous femininity in intimate inter-racial relationships and perhaps even a statement on the limitations of such intimacy.
Acoose, J. (1995). Iskewewak Kah’ki ya ni wahkomakanak: Neither Indian princess nor easy squaws. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Scholars’ Press and Women’s Press.
Clements, M. (2006). The Unnatural and Accidental Women. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks.
Loring, K. (2009). Where the Blood Mixes. Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks.