Gender Justice & Indigenous Self-Governance

In a talk based on her book manuscript, Rauna Kuokkanen, associate professor at the Centre for Indigenous Studies, speaks about incorporating principles of Indigenous gender justice into self-governance.


“Why is it so difficult to write and speak as an Indigenous woman explicitly from an Indigenous woman’s experience about the proto-political issues of self-determination, Indigenous legal orders, and law, self-government or Aboriginal rights?” – Val Napolean

Kuokkanen began her talk at the University of Alberta last week with the above quote. She explained that her most recent book manuscript Restructuring Relations: Indigenous Self-Determination & Governance (tentative title), is an attempt to answer Val Napolean’s question. Kuokkanen is interested in why the political views, concerns and contributions of Indigenous women continue to be ignored.

Gender Discrimination & Colonialism

“Gender discrimination has been a central means through which the colonization of Indigenous communities has taken place” says Kuokkanen.

Creating patriarchal relationships within Indigenous communities was a colonial tactic used to introduce hierarchy into non-hierarchical societies. Kuokkanen explains that if gender justice is not incorporated into the concept of self-determination, Indigenous institutions will simply replicate colonial systems.

Decolonization & Gender Justice: Opposing forces?

Unfortunately, decolonization and gender justice are often framed as distinct projects in opposition with one another. The separation is caused by different ideas about the role of cultural tradition in decolonization. Some believe that decolonization is best achieved by revitalizing cultural traditions that have been suppressed. Others feel that prioritizing culture puts Indigenous women at a disadvantage, potentially reinstating traditions that may be oppressive.

In navigating the different strategies for decolonization, Indigenous women are given dual political roles: They must defend their culture against the colonial state while questioning static notions of tradition within their communities. Instead of prioritizing either culture or gender, Kuokkanen suggests a critical approach, one that closely examines traditions with an eye for gender justice, but that doesn’t reject all traditional ways of life.

Transforming Indigenous Governance

Not only is it necessary to change oppressive aspects of culture traditions, it’s also important to incorporate gender justice into all Indigenous institutions. If colonialism restructured gender relations to gain control over Indigenous nations, then gender justice is essential for reviving and maintaining Indigenous governance and sovereignty.

One example of how gender justice can transform Indigenous politics is in the protection of Indigenous children. The welfare of children is directly related to the safety of women: If mothers are not safe, their children will not be safe either. Children are the centre of Indigenous communities and all decisions are made by considering the wellbeing of future generations. Incorporating gender justice into Indigenous self-determination protects Indigenous children and, therefore, an Indigenous future.

Yet, Kuokkanen points out that the language for speaking about Indigenous sovereignty is separate and distinct from the language we use to discuss gender violence. And as long as these discourses don’t come together, self-determination won’t be achievable.

Put simply: “There’s no Indigenous self-determination without Indigenous gender justice.”