Close Readings: Anishinaabe-kwe and/or Indigenous feminist?
by Wanda Nanibush
I am a woman of my people
I am an image and word warrior
I am Anishinaabe
I am a worker
I am my language
I am a daughter, aunt, sister
I am water
I am land
I speak/act against violence against women, water, children, land
I speak/act with the ancestors and knowledge keepers
I remember when I decided to add kwe to Anishinaabe a few years ago and how much of a struggle it was at first. This struggle marks out some of the pathways I have found to and from western feminisms and something we could call Indigenous feminisms. Sharing this journey opens up a space for thinking about the contradictions that structure my relationship to the word and the analysis called feminism and to the identity called feminist.
Kwe means woman in my language and placing it attached to my identity as an Anishinaabe meant making it essential to my understanding of my culture, as an entry point to myself. For some people, this is easy: they are comfortable having the world divided up between men and women, and thinking of women as essential in their capacity to bear children. I was always keenly aware of the oppressions that could be contained in defining women by their wombs. This analysis came from watching many women in the many foster homes where I grew up in chained to kitchens, kids and caretaking. I saw men sit at tables eat quickly and leave before the “mother” ever sat down. I saw girls and mothers cleaning houses on a regular basis while boys were exempt. It seemed to be a very thankless life. I saw menopause hit women with a desire for their own passions, life goals and leisure. I swore as a young girl that I wouldn’t enter a kitchen because it took up so much time and I wanted to read, write, dance and change the world.
I was in care with my brothers and nephews and nieces and eventually just one brother. I lived in homes with a lot of boys. I always say I was raised by my brothers. I was always more comfortable around boys and men. Some of that is my natural rejection of most femininity as a child and some of it comes from hearing how men speak about women. Respect as a woman seemed really hard to come by. I thought to myself, if I can’t have their respect as a woman then I could get it by being more like a man – by being smarter, stronger and needless.
I remember a group of girls in my elementary school berating me for being too physical, too strong. I decided I would hang with the boys then. Boys always told you the truth and were quick to get over things. There is also a cultural element to this because I felt like the manipulation and passive aggressive behaviour young white girls enact was learned from their mothers and I knew it was a white thing. It had to do with the limited powers women had to exert in their lives. Passive aggression in some ways is suppressed desire for freedom. When I moved back to the reservation when I was 12, I realized my way of being a strong woman was acceptable and cultivated there. I no longer felt like a boyish girl because all the girls seemed this way, partly because femininity does not define womanhood or girlhood on the rez. I took something from the white world to the rez, though, and that was a critical look at the way girls and women define themselves based on male desire for them. They will beat you up for a man. There was no way I cared enough to do that. That seemed different. I’m still not married so I might have gone too far down that road. Just joking. I have had a very critical attitude towards western marriage because of its ties to the state and capitalism.
I had a baby when I was 20, on purpose, in order for my child’s spirit to speak to my mother’s spirit who had just died. When my mother died, I understood myself as a woman in a new way. I saw my own oppressions and labour as a woman joining hers and my sister’s. I had to think about what kind of mother I wanted to be. Western thought taught me to challenge mother as my primary identity and Anishinaabe thought taught me to place children at the centre of our communities and worlds. I did both, raising my son to see me as a woman with desires and aspirations but also mothering him as the centre of the future of our people. I thought a lot about how he would be as a man.
When I added kwe to my identity, I began to see the diversity of constructions of women and started to seek alternatives within my own culture to western feminism. I have always been influenced by two westerners: Judith Butler and Emma Goldman. Butler because she challenges heterosexuality and understands how we perform and become women. Goldman because she had a keen sense of herself as a revolutionary individual and how to practice an anti-authoritarian ethic. As “Nish,” we raise our kids in anti-authoritarian ways and this is one connection to kwe. We let their spirits develop freely and without violence. Of course feminism becomes important when we think about the current state of violence against women and children in our communities today. As an analysis that understands patriarchy, it is important because colonialism enforced patriarchy in our communities where women had previously enjoyed equality or had more power than men.
In 2012, I decided to look at the work of Rebecca Belmore, who I felt could help me think through the meaning of kwe from outside of where I had been learning it, which was in the teachings of elders. I knew that my responsibility was to protect the earth, the water and the children. I understood that ways of being as a mother could be learned from our first mother, the earth. I was beginning to understand the type of power women have because they bear children and how that did not have to be a limit to our freedom. But these teachings, coupled with queer theory and the activism I embedded in my everyday life, weren’t great bedmates.
Belmore’s solo exhibition was called KWE and examined the complicated and fertile relationship between Indigenous women, art and feminism. KWE asked, what does the cultural specificity of Anishinaabe add to or change when we consider the meanings of being and becoming a woman for an artist who does not do ceremony? Belmore’s artistic practice has always engaged the question of what it is to be an Anishinaabe-kwe artist here and now. The very real aspects of patriarchy and its embeddedness in both Indigenous and Canadian communities through colonialism, especially in terms of the violence against women, is the subject of much of Belmore’s work. As an Anishinaabe-kwe artist, she engages on multiple levels with her cultures, practices and stories on the role of women while keeping Indigenous self-determination central.
Belmore’s insightful and aesthetically beautiful critiques play with the patriarchal present, underscoring the need for an understanding of colonialism within feminisms today.
As a curator, I kept the meaning of KWE unspoken and let the work speak for itself. The underlying analysis of power in society whereby Indigenous women fall to the bottom of any measures of health, wealth or protection is why many people see Belmore’s work as feminist. Her body and her sister’s body were present in almost every work. The presence of an Indigenous woman’s body pushes through stories of victimhood to resilience and strength, it pushes through the overwhelming denigration of stereotypes, and it pushes through its absence in reform and revolution narratives. Women’s work. As a child I hated that, but as a curator I understand it as fundamental to the meaning of kwe, and that the problem isn’t how much we do but its value and place in society. Anishinaabe culture allowed me to consider possibilities as yet unthought in the west and unpracticed in our societies today: more genders than two; accounting for and valuing women’s needs and labour based on their differences; the idea that a man can live as a woman; the idea that it doesn’t matter who you sleep with but what responsibilities you take up; the idea that women can have power without becoming violent, aggressive, adversarial or colonial; the idea that differences mean an expansion of society and special powers in the individual; and that the spirit of the individual should never be crushed. I don’t call myself a feminist (identity statement) because Indigenous people have spent generations being named by others and I want control over my own naming, but I also think of Indigenous women as the earliest feminists and I value the analysis of western feminisms. Adding kwe to my identity captures all of these paths for me and, since I am comfortable with contradictions, it is unfinished in terms of where it will take me next.