A discussion at the 2016 Women in the World Summit
Much of what we’ve been writing and thinking about these past few weeks has depended on this concept of “historical consciousness,” an understanding of the temporality of historical experience, such as how the past, present, and future are connected. When we interviewed AGO curator Wanda Nanibush a few weeks ago, I asked her about the role historical consciousness plays in indigenous art, whether it was something she thought a lot about, or something that she imagined the artists she curates engage with in their work. We were trying to gather opinions on this idea of indigenous historical consciousness, and whether or not its something more inherent to performativity of lived experiences. Wanda surprised me with her answer; she stated very clearly that she does not believe there is such a thing as historical consciousness, but just… consciousness.
Her statement stuck me with, and has been informing my interactions with new ideas and information. From April 6-8, the 7th Annual Women in the World Summit took place in New York City. On the second day of this summit, there was a panel discussion called “Canada’s Shame: The Murdered and Missing,” which featured Melina Laboucan-Massimo (Sister of Murdered or Missing Indigenous Woman and Indigenous Activist) Lori Shenher, (Author, Speaker and Former Detective, Vancouver Police), Michele Pineault (Mother of Murdered or Missing Indigenous Woman) and Hon. Carolyn Bennett, MD (Canadian Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs). The panel was facilitated by John Hockenberry, and featured personal, historical, cultural, feminist, and legislative discussion about the history of racism, colonization and sexism that pushed indigenous people to the margins of society, contributing to the epidemic of missing and murdered women and children.
In thinking about the role this panel has in the larger setting, we can open up conversations about global feminism and indigeneity and the role of consciousness, historical or otherwise. We should first consider what this summit is, and what it does. Some of the other featured panels and discussions that took place over these few days included the following: Meryl Streep, Former First Lady Laura Bush, Barbara Pierce Bush, First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Diane von Furstenberg, University of Cambridge Professor Mary Beard OBE, and actor, writer, producer Mindy Kaling, among many others.
Some of my first questions were: What are the benefits of gathering some of the world’s most influential and powerful women, and what type of conversations are taking place? What is the purpose of having these conversations? Who is facilitating these conversations, and what details are they honing in on? But also: Is this representative of a “global feminism”? What does this have to do with feminism? What is this summit actually accomplishing? One of the only pieces from this summit that I’ve seen in pop-culture is popular Actress/Writer Mindy Kaling speaking to the ways in which she is forced to be apologetic for her assertiveness in her industry. How do the other conversations that took place at this gathering compare or reflect this sentiment?
If you watch the video above, there are a lot of great things being said throughout the panel. In terms of projecting voices and giving a platform to those marginalized in most conversations, this summit feels important. But there is also a particular tone that appears early on in this panel. Moderator John Hockenberry approaches the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women with superficial grasp of the subject matter. In one sense, this is an effective method; giving the panel and any viewer a common base level understanding of the history of colonialism and its connection to the contemporary crisis of injustice is important. On the other, this approach minimizes the depths this conversation can reach and limits the affects it could otherwise have. If the big take away from this panel is that indigenous women in Canada are suffering at the hands of the legal and political systems, have we really progressed the same conversations that have been taking place for the past 30+ years?
In considering the larger context of this panel, as it exists within a global conference, and with the title “Canada’s Shame,” are the parameters within which this conversation is taking place dictating the affects it can have? Is this only a “shame,” or is it more than that? While Hon. Carolyn Bennet is able to bring forth the history of colonialism near the end of the panel, the systemic roots that perpetuate this crisis are avoided. This also geographically restricts the conversation. Hockenberry frames the conversation as a strictly Canadian problem, something separate and different from America, something that, to him, has clear answers and clear blame. He asks questions with obvious answers, addressing these women with an incredulous tone. How helpful is it to have the conversation framed in this way? What is this panel adding to consciousness?
To do what this panel did not, let’s begin by highlighting the fact that indigenous women have voices, incredibly strong voices and, in fact, have been projecting ideas about being indigenous and female for quite some time. Looking at written texts alone, we can see a history of anthologies and articles by indigenous women discussing the intersections of politics, activism, culture, feminism, colonialism, history, and lived experience.
More recently, the anthology, Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism and Culture ed. by Cheryl Suzack, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman was published in 2010. It is part of a larger series of work that aims to collect and publish mass amounts of work establishing new understandings of Indigenous women’s perspectives and experiences. Then there are Kate Shanley’s monumental essays, “Thoughts on Indian Feminism” (1984) and “Meeting Grounds or ‘Frontiers’?” (1996) And Shanley, who brazenly calls herself a feminist in the essay, argues that many Native women misunderstand feminism and, therefore, do not want to be associated with a white woman’s movement. Then she bravely asks: Does being a feminist make her less Indian? Ideas about indigenous feminisms have a long history, and it seems odd to me that at a global summit about women and feminism, there is the avoidance of this history.
Continuing, Beatrice Medicine’s “Warrior Women” (1983) is an “in-the-trenches” type of work that marks Medicine’s academic exploration of the roles of Native women in the 1960s. By 1974 Medicine was instructing a class on Native women. “Who is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism” (1984) by Paula Gunn Allen has a bit of a romanticized thesis, but an important one nonetheless, where she posits that Native peoples are traditionally feminist and now is the time to reclaim that belief, as it was part of the decolonizing effort. Allen was also one of the first Native women to publicly discuss violence in Native communities. In 1985, she published an essay, “Violence and the American Indian Woman,” which appeared in a short-lived publication. In this paper, she discusses racism and the “dynamics of Indian hating.” She connects this dynamic with self-hate and media images and launches into a discussion of violence against Native women.
So, after having read these papers to catch a glimpse at the conversations that have already taken place, I am left with even more questions about the panel that took place at the beginning of April 2016. For one, if there is such a large and longstanding tradition of indigenous women meditating on this topic, why is it that a panel like the one above is projected into a global conversation about indigenous women without acknowledging this tradition? If discussions about violence have been taking place in and outside of the classroom by indigenous women since 1974, why are we approaching the topic of MMIW with such hesitancy and unknowingness? Why does it still feel like the conversation has yet to make any progress?
Back to this idea of consciousness, and bringing the past with us when we think about the present and future; how is it so easy for important dialogues that have already taken place to slip through the cracks of our collective memories? Our historical amnesia in this case is detrimental not only to the projection of global women’s rights, but to attempts to end the perpetuation of colonialism and violence against indigenous women. It is not enough to merely broach the topic; in discussions about MMIW and indigenous sovereignty, the past not only needs to be considered, the conversations need to be guided in a way that actively acknowledges its importance.