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Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival

by Kim Anderson and Bonita Lawrence, eds.

Strong Women Stories picks up where Kim Anderson’s last book left off. In A Recognition of Being, the Cree/Metis social- and health-policy analyst detailed the ways in which native women have been stereotyped and stripped of power, and the steps such women could take to reclaim a positive self-image. In that book, Anderson spoke with Bonita Lawrence, now a Mi’Kmaq professor of women’s studies and native studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who asked if blind obedience to tradition prevented native women from achieving equality in their own communities.

Strong Women Stories enlarges that critical perspective, presenting stories of female self-determination and showing how that self-determination (or lack of it) affects aboriginal communities. Anderson and Lawrence have collaborated on this book as editors, and they also contribute their own chapters.

The book is a mix of memoir, reportage, and personal and academic essays. Like every anthology, the quality is mixed in terms of both writing style and ability to convey meaningful insight. One of the best essays is by Laura Schwager, who details her struggle to claim her Mohawk ancestry despite opposition from her native relatives (it was her white relatives who supported and assisted her efforts). Schwager is the only real poetic writer here; most of the the other successful essays are more academic in their presentation.

Sylvia Maracle, the executive director of the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, writes an important essay on women and leadership that unmasks the neo-colonial nature of native organizations and on-reserve government. Lawrence’s essay asks how native women in a contemporary context can make the transition into menopause and elder status now that women have lost female rites of passage as a result of colonialism.

The weaker essays lack enough factual details to set the context, and some authors don’t give enough evidence to back up their assertions or explain how they came to their conclusions. And the editors should have defined insider terminology and translated native-language terms. Several essays, for example, mention Bill C-31, which allowed disenfranchised aboriginals to regain federal Indian status – but none of the essays actually explain this to readers.

A Recognition of Being was one of the first books to question the ridiculous notions that have come to be known as “tradition” in contemporary native communities. Now that the debate has been started, and the more detailed questions in Strong Women Stories added, the coming days could be the first wave of aboriginal feminism. In that sense, Strong Women Stories is an important addition to a burgeoning canon.