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Review

Indigenous Women and Work: From Labor to Activism

By Carol Williams, editor

November 25, 2015

Review By Loraine Littlefield

Indigenous Women and Work, edited by Carol Williams, consists of seventeen essays that examine the history of indigenous women and wage labour in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The object of these essays is to stimulate a transnational conversation about the experiences of women under similar British-capitalist policies and ideology. Written by both indigenous and non-indigenous scholars, the essays describe women’s participation in a huge range of industries from the beginning of the nineteenth to the late twentieth century.

The preface written by Marlene Brant Castellano, Mohawk scholar, sets the tone of the collection by noting how the inclusion of indigenous ways of knowing offers a fresh historical perspective on indigenous women’s lives. This is followed by an introduction by Williams on the importance of looking outside of the settler narrative to discover indigenous women’s labour history. For those who follow the theoretical threads of feminist theory, the first essay by Joan Sangster gives an excellent overall summary and, importantly, points out the benefits as well as the disadvantages of the transnational approach.

Only one essay in this selection deals specifically with British Columbia history. Inspired by a 1940s photograph of Shíshálh (Sechelt) women holding hand-logging tools, Susan Roy and Ruth Taylor, in “`We Were Real Skookum Women:’ The Shíshálh Economy and the Logging Industry on the Pacific Northwest Coast,” write about the “unexpected” history of women in this industry. For many decades this industry was important for the Sechelt and, as part of the family venture, women helped men transport logs to the booming grounds. This role is not well documented, if at all, in any of the forestry history written in British Columbia. The authors blame a gender bias that essentially minimized women’s contribution in this industry, emphasizing instead what were considered appropriate feminized occupations such as basket weaving and other related crafts. “We Were Real Skookum Women,” however, speaks to the indigenous viewpoint of women who acknowledge their important contribution to their family’s hand-logging production.

Two other essays in this collection offer close connections with British Columbia history and First Nation women’s experiences in its early economy. Shelly Farrell Racette in “Nimble Fingers and Strong Backs: First Nations and Metis Women in Fur Trade and Rural Economies,” examines the changing role for women in Saskatchewan and Labrador from domestic partners in the fur trade to contract rural labourers: one that shifts women’s employment into the twentieth century. While Chris Friday in “From ‘Superabundance’ to Dependency: Women Agriculturalists and the Negotiation of Colonialism and Capitalism for Reservation-era Lummi,” examines women’s loss of control over the Lummi potato production (just south of Point Roberts), first to men and then to the end of agricultural dominance in the wider economy. Both articles speak to the changing demand of labour and the detrimental effects this change brought to women’s lives, as it did in this province.

All the essays are well written and researched. I particularly liked Lynette Russell’s, “Procuring Passage: Southern Australian Aboriginal Women and the Early Maritime Industry of Sealing,” which I found very instructive to compare with our own sealing and whale industry on the west coast. Occurring in southern Australia at a much earlier time, and when women’s traditional roles were significantly different than on the Northwest Coast, it led to a surprising degree of independence and autonomy for Aboriginal women. Also of interest was Cathleen D. Cahill’s, “An Indian Teacher among Indians”: Native Women as Federal Employees,” which looks at the hiring policy of the Office of Indian Affairs in the Unites States of indigenous women for positions in education and administration at the turn of the century. Women successfully sought these positions and were supported by their communities in these roles. No such early hiring policy seems to have occurred in Canada, which leads one to wonder why, especially in light of other matching policies followed by Department of Indian Affairs.

This transnational approach has promise and Williams must be commended for this collection. I hope that these essays will inspire further research into more “unexpected” histories of women still to be discovered here in British Columbia, and I predict that collaboration with First Nations women and their communities will ensure it.

Indigenous Women and Work: From Labor to Activism
Carol Williams, editor
University of Illinois Press, 2012. 320 pp. $30.00 paper