Originally published in Shameless Magazine as The Colonization of Gender, Niin-Giin-Wiin, Sex issue 30, Fall 2015: https://shamelessmag.com/issue/fall-2015
Niin-Giin-Wiin ~ The Colonization Of Gender ~ by Nathan Adler
Many historical texts that I’ve read were written by Europeans who came into contact with diverging gender practices of the Anishinaabek. These narratives are suspect as authoritative texts, coloured as they are by cultural assumptions, though I can’t help think that they contain clues. If there are oral stories that contain teachings about traditional Anishinaabe gender roles, I’m not sure which ones are the best to point to as examples, so instead I will talk about the stories that are in my own family.
When I think of old-school, hard-core traditional Anishinaabe ways of life—before Residential School, and before on-going colonialism—I think of my great-great-grandmother Mary Skinoway [nee Waketes?], who has always been held up as an example.
Mary—carried a medicine bundle and practiced medicine. She was a drum-keeper after her husband passed away, and took up the care of his ceremonial hand-drum. My aunt told me Mary was a Medicine Man, not a Medicine Woman, because women weren’t allowed to practice medicine (though I am not sure if this attitude was traditional/or the result of colonialism). She was a woman who practiced medicine, which somehow made her a Medicine Man. When she passed away, her medicine bundle was placed in a tree, a form of burial.
Ideas of gender have changed and evolved over the years—as has Anishinaabe culture—but because of colonization it is hard to distinguish what is “traditional,” or “pre-“ or “un-“ colonized when it comes to concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality—and which are European ones. I’m not even sure if “sex, gender, and sexuality” are the proper terms as a framework for a discussion of Anishinaabek philosophy. It might be more important to focus on the spiritual, fertile/infertile, or economic and occupational factors as they relate to gender roles.
Mary knew how to hunt and fish and trap, and she taught my grandmother Marion how to spear fish. My grandmother told me, every time she missed, Mary would whack her upside the head with a paddle, and that she “learned real quick!”
My grandmother also told me Mary didn’t like to bring her along when she went hunting, because Marion made too much noise, and sounded like “an elephant tramping through the bush.”
My mom has chosen not to attend certain ceremonies because of the dress code for women—long skirts—when she prefers to wear pants—and this isn’t a gender issue, so much as it is one of comfort, and preference. I’ve been to a few ceremonies as well, and I don’t remember being asked to wear anything in particular. I think propriety, or respect, or tradition, can actually be counter-productive if it bars people from participating, or pushes people away—and these ideas may not even be historically “traditional”—they could be colonial traditions that have been adopted.
I know this is a rather mundane example of colonialism and gender expression, but many pre-colonial concepts of gender have been over-shadowed by generations of residential school, creating a break in the transmission of knowledge, and a loss of language and culture. It’s interesting to consider that in Anishinaabemoowin, gender is animate/inanimate rather than male/female, and there is also a lack of he/she gender pronouns—giin/niin/wiin is used instead. Religion with its shame-based sexuality, patriarchal societal values and the devaluation of women—all these things have contributed to an erosion of traditional understandings of gender—although there is a growing movement to reclaim various traditional gender identities which differ from nation to nation, and community to community—and where the tradition has been misplaced, Niizh Mnidoowag, Two Spirit, has become adopted as a larger umbrella category for Indigenous people that don’t fit/or conform to Western Anthropological definitions of themselves like ‘berdache’ or the Gay/Bi/Trans labels which don’t always fit any better either.
Mary Skinoway used to visit my grandmother Marion at St Joseph’s Residential School in Thunder Bay, and she wore pants like a man and smoked a pipe like a man, and they would say, “Your grandfather is here to visit you.”
These are the stories I have of my great-great grandmother. She certainly doesn’t seem to fit into a traditional European concept of a female gender role.
The way the story goes, Mary’s husband Bonner had drowned in a river, while saving his wife from drowning, and he ended up drowning himself. Maybe Mary was so stricken by loss, she felt compelled to take his place? This is probably only a romantic literary fallacy, but certainly it may have compelled her to take up some of the roles, responsibilities and occupations, that her husband had once maintained.
I don’t know entirely what pre-colonization concepts of Anishinaabek gender were like, but I’m quite certain they were, and still are, different from European concepts of gender, and sex, and sexuality.