Terese Mailhot

Being a Good Feminist Is Being a Good Indian

When I was a little girl it wasn’t unusual to be on my mother’s lap while she spoke to women at the shelter she worked at, or facilitated healing circles, or held a ceremony for women who were victims of sexual violence. I remember their stories, their cries, and their hopes for the future. My mother never explicitly stated what she was doing was being a good feminist, rather, she said it was being a “good Indian.” Feminism is a perplexing term for me since it was first used, in an exclusive way, for white women. I was able to interview two protectors of the earth, renowned authors, and, in my mind, women who represented the values a feminist or “good Indian” would have: Lee Maracle and Linda Hogan.

Maracle has already taught me so much about Indigenous feminism as an aunt and author. In her book ‘I am Woman,’ she writes:

“I want to look across the table in my own kitchen and see, in the brown eyes of the man who shares my life, the beauty of my own reflection. More. I want to look across my kitchen table at the women of color who share my life and see the genius of their minds, uncluttered by white opinion. I want to sit with my grown daughters and experience the wonderment of our mutual affection. I want us to set the standard for judging our brilliance, our beauty and our passions.”

It is in this passage where I find the essence of all her teachings. She has spent endless nights across the table from me, with her daughters, my mother, and sisters, to talk about womanhood, victimization, and survival. On so many of those nights the tears turned to laughter, a trait so many Native women carry: the ability to laugh through pain. She has fostered strength in me by continually opening discussions on what society would have us feel shame for: our strengths, identity, and pain. In this passage I believe I find what it truly means to be an Indigenous feminist.

In my interview with Maracle, it became apparent that the current state of Indigenous feminism involves being a protector of the earth. The earth is bound to Indigenous people, and we have an obligation to take care of it.

“Take only what you need,” she said. “Purchase second hand clothing, only one of everything, not two frying pans, not two frying pan flippers, and recycle like your life depends on it. Pray for the water. I purchase carbon offset points, and this is a way to plant trees in those areas that have been stripped, restoring balance, and increasing oxygen levels. Create no garbage. Live in small spaces and grow food. Take inventory. I have seven tops, seven bottoms, one sweater, one jacket, one raincoat, and one winter coat. You get the picture. Take what you need. Recycle and take constant inventory. Give away what you have not used in the past year.”

While Hogan had the similar opinions concerning the need to be good to the earth, she wanted to discuss what the word feminist meant to her. “The term feminist is not one we would have used,” she said. “We already had women ambassadors, clan mothers, women who selected men to care for aspects of our lives and then the women advised those men. The western mode of thought that has overtaken indigenous ways of being has created the loss of memory. No longer are we remembered as the strong women we have always been, even though women outnumber men in positions of leadership and many are now tribal chiefs. We are working on cultural conservation, land and food sovereignty, and in the office of the US President. We hold to the notion that we are our own nations, able to negotiate with the governments, and work toward social and environmental justice. Even so, the present violence toward women, the treatment of them, even financially living off women has come from the Euro-American ways. And too often now our lives are held in disregard, disrespect, and some of us live in hopeless dismay. At Pine Ridge, no women’s shelter exists and this is probably true in numerous other locations. Too often, also, offenses are not reported for fear of further violence and injury of our children. But then, in other locations, the importance of girls and women are still held in very high esteem. The men watch over them carefully and with respect. Looking at our silent histories, consider that we are incredible athletes, brilliant indigenous thinkers, talented dancers and artists, upholders of justice, the attentive planters and growers who work on food sovereignty and Native seed ways. We are peacekeepers. We feed the people with more than food. We teach the young. We don’t need a term to tell us that we are important. We just need to take back our memory and our traditional ways of understanding our powerful place in our cultures and nations.”

These women, my mentors, continually change spaces for women by advocating for our rights and land. I believe by sharing their words, wisdom, and practical advice, readers will be able to carry discourse across their kitchen tables and find themselves being better to the earth. Both women are busy. Hogan is finishing a novel and recently won the PEN 2015 Henry David Thoreau Prize, and Maracle’s book of poetry ‘Talking to the Diaspora’ was recently released.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Carve Magazine, and Burrow Press Review. She’s an MFA student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and an SWAIA Discovery Fellow.

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Being a Good Feminist Is Being a Good Indian

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