Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration

Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration

Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson, Editors

Reviewed by Jean-Paul Restoule


Masculinity is not an easy concept to define, never mind Indigenous masculinities, and in Indigenous Men and Masculinities, co-editors Robert Innes and Kim Anderson don’t really attempt to define it. In the closing chapter, Anderson and Innes report on findings from a national research study with Indigenous men in focus groups that argues that the concept itself is not Indigenous and assumes a certain starting point or trajectory antithetical to Indigenous tribal goals. While Innes and Anderson are not forthcoming with a definition of Indigenous masculinity, they nevertheless make some general suggestions about positive changes for improvement. And this leads to the two messages I take away from this book: that concepts of masculinity have contributed to colonialism and that Indigenous men must take up the responsibility to chart and navigate a new course that challenges limited views of Indigenous masculinity.

Colonialism has disrupted the traditional roles and responsibilities of Indigenous men in their families and communities, an obstruction that has shifted values, traditions, and conceptions of gender in Indigenous lives globally. The legacy of colonialism, experienced and enacted through residential schooling, prisons, sport, and media, persists today in shocking statistics provided in the opening chapter: Indigenous males are subject to higher rates of violence, murder, and incarceration than any other group in Canada, including Indigenous women. While many years and decades passed for rightful attention to be paid to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, a campaign that activists, artists, demonstrations, and some media have fought for, the related story of men remains in darkness. Like the workings of colonialism, it functions best out of sight and invisible, in the shadows and unquestioned.

The essays in this collection seek to illuminate the workings of colonialism on masculine identities, particularly Indigenous masculinities, and how they have altered not only how Indigenous men conceive of gender identities and roles, but also the ways in which Indigenous families, communities, and nations (dys)function as a result. By imposing binary notions of gender and according greater worth to masculine roles, men assumed a more powerful place vis-à-vis women under colonialism, a process that disrupted gender parity and equality. By marginalizing and making strange the roles of third (or multiple) gendered individuals, colonial constructions of gender norms were imposed upon Indigenous peoples and colonization was made more complete. Hypermasculine and “savage” roles such as the warrior and urban gangster have dominated public consciousness about what it means to be male and Indigenous to the extent that these images have even been internalized by young Indigenous men.

Several of the contributors to Indigenous Men and Masculinities discuss the ways non-Indigenous (whitestream) society has constructed a sense of young Aboriginal men as fearsome, delinquent, and criminal, but it is disturbing how many of our youth have assumed such stereotypes to be true and adopted them without realizing that alternatives exist in the realm of masculine Indigenous identity. And it is here that another theme emerges from this volume: that the responsibility to decolonize and shape a positive view and reality of masculinity lies with Indigenous men. We are in control of our destiny. Even as colonization has created much of this mess and disruption, it is up to us to challenge such limited identities and images and put something positive in their place. This power of the individual to challenge expectations is told here by Phillip Borell in the story of Maori athlete James Tamou, who caused national controversy by choosing to leave New Zealand to play rugby -- as though the Maori are somehow part of the New Zealand identity (Chapter 9). As tribal self-determining peoples, there is no allegiance or requirement to identify with the colonizer state.

Another notion of responsibility applies to relationships with family, community, and Creation. One’s manhood is determined or assessed by an ability to provide and protect relations with one’s partner, children, parents, and siblings, and also to protect one’s land, neighbours, extended families, and other beings. While these responsibilities might be culturally specific and vary depending on where and when one is raised -- and some contributions to this volume are very much rooted in particular locales and times -- what does seem to provide uniform consistency across all Indigenous communities discussed here is the imposition of white patriarchal heteronormative notions of masculinity on Indigenous communities globally through colonization.

Indigenous Men and Masculinities is necessary reading for anyone doing work on Indigenous masculinities. It will be a touchstone in this area for some time. The essays extend to diverse locations geographically: chapters ruminate on what Hawaiian, Maori, and Haudenosaunee maleness is about. The contributors also embody multiple social identities, from two-spirit to urban street and gang-involved to fatherly perspectives. What I like about the text, too, is that it opens up discussion rather than closes it down. It is not intended to be the final word on masculinities but a fertile starting point for debate. It’s a great companion to Sam McKegney’s Masculindians (University of Manitoba Press, 2014), which is the best-known recent work on the topic in Canada. It is also fitting that this book is co-edited by Kim Anderson, whose books on Indigenous feminine identities -- A Recognition Of Being (Toronto: Sumach Press, 2000), Strong Women Stories (Toronto: Sumach Press, 2003, with Bonita Lawrence), and Life Stages and Native Women (University of Manitoba Press, 2011) -- are hallmarks in the field of Indigenous feminisms and female identity formation. This volume provides a lovely complement to Anderson’s earlier work. Understanding how we come to know about gender through Indigenous lenses and experiences is an important lesson both in self-awareness and in the workings of colonialism. We can learn a great deal about the workings of gender and the intersections with colonialism from the examples assembled by Innes and Anderson, and  Indigenous Men and Masculinities will extend conversations thoughtfully about Indigenous manhood in the twenty-first century.

Indigenous Men and Masculinities: Legacies, Identities, Regeneration
Robert Alexander Innes and Kim Anderson, editors
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015. 304 pp. $27.95 paper

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017