First I want to offer my thanks to our hosts here at Six Nations, Rick and all the organizers for all their hospitality and hard work. I also want to thank the Bears Inn for giving me the poet’s room, and a quiet space to write this morning as I reflected on my research and contribution to this roundtable.
I grew up in Nebraska. My father is Ojibway from the Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. My mother was Mexican born into a hardworking migrant farm working family. I say these things, because my upbringing and social context would have never placed me in the path of Johnson’s writing, but of course, that is what universities are for.
Reading Johnson for the first time as a young student, I remember a feeling of excitement at the boldness of her stories. I just loved the closing lines from “As It was at the Beginning”:
They account it for by the fact that I am a Redskin.
They seem to have forgotten I am a woman.
Those lines, melodramatic as they were, made me laugh out loud at their absurdity and at the same time say, hell yes. My interest in Johnson from then on has been a story in my journey to chart Indigenous feminist foundations, and for this project, I wanted to share some of the ways I think about her as an activist artist and an important voice in Indigenous women’s intellectual and feminist history.
For the poster I wanted to highlight the serious side of her critiques, the ways her writing protested the injustice of colonialism, the violence of settler notions of relationships and family, and more importantly the legitimacy of Indigenous institutions of law and kinship.
For this I turn to Johnson’s 1893 short story, “A Red Girl’s Reasoning,” and place it alongside the legal decision that sought to overturn decades long acceptance by Canadian courts of Indigenous law, rites and ceremony. For this legal history, one can turn to Sylvia Van Kirk’s Many Tender Ties, Constance Backhouse’s Petticoats and Prejudice or a number of other feminist legal scholar or historians. Indigenous legal scholars today cite the 1867 Connolly v. Woolrich decision as an important moment in Canadian legal history when English common law had to accommodate the existence and validity of other legal traditions. Thus this case was an important example of legal pluralism, that had it been maintained, might have resulted in a very different relationship between Canada and First Nations.
The Connolly case turned on the recognition of customary law in Cree communities and whether or not Indigenous marriage rites were binding in the eyes of settler law. Fast forward to 1886, Jones v Fraser, and you have a very different Canadian attitude than in 1867. Legal scholars Jay Nelson, Van Kirk and others point out, the Metis conflict, an influx of marriageable white women, and a changing attitude towards just what to do with Indigenous peoples’ continuing insistence on sovereignty would set the stage for the Court’s decision to declare custom of the country marriages between Native and Non-Native persons invalid. Cross’s comments which would also invalidate Indigenous marriage rites within Indigenous societies invalid where made in obiter, it moved the legal community towards disavowing the so called barbaric practices of Indigenous customary law and rites (Nelson, 48). This dismissal of Indigenous law as good law in the common law court system is a story that also left Indigenous women, and their descendants, out in the cold in a decidedly patriarchal settler society.
Turning to ARGR, most scholars recognize Johnson’s story as a criticism of state intervention in Indigenous women’s lives through regulation of marriage. Indeed, Sylvia Van Kirk argues the story is “a passionate defense of the sanctity of Aboriginal marriage rites” and thus, my contribution up until this point seems like nothing new. However, I want to simply point out, that beyond critique, it is also a story that suggests Indigenous law or legal traditions hold the possibility for reconnecting our communities, rebuilding more just forms of family and for undoing the damage of heteropatriarchal norms that have taken over our societies. What Johnson v Fraser undid in the common court system did not destroy an older form of law. From an Indigenous feminist perspective, this story gestures to Indigenous law as more generous, more loving and moral. In today’s current context of what reconciliation means, or resurgence can mean, this story is an important and incisive one and one that reminds us of who was at the center of both the violence of colonialism and its resistance.
At the same time, it also demonstrates what a turn to thinking of marriage as only legitimate in the eyes of the settler state or church can engender. In the story when the heroine rejects her husband’s disdain and rebuke of Indigenous marriage ceremonies and rites, he violently grabs her arm, a moment that until then would have seemed unfathomable in a story that otherwise portrays him as loving, not bigoted, and gentle. This scene underscores what is at stake when one allows a colonial notion of love and marriage to remain entrenched—it leads to gendered violence.
This theme and many others from Johnson’s work are picked up by Indigenous women writers, feminists and activists in contemporary art, literature and film. My final text box on this poster has a picture of the short film by Elle Máijá Tailfeathers titled “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” and a short poem by Rosanna Deerchild. Deerchild comments that while folks like Duncan Campbell Scott were “killing us in words … Pauline was keeping us alive”.
And with that I’ll end. Thank you
– Dory Nason, PhD
Nelson, Jay. “A Strange Revolution in the Manners of the Country’: Aboriginal-Settler Intermarriage in Nineteenth-Century British Columbia.” Regulating Lives: Historical Essays on the State, Society, the Individual, and the Law. Eds. Chunn, Dorothy E., John McLaren, and Robert J. Menzies.Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002. Print. Law and Society Series.