During my telephone conversation with Louise Bernice Halfe in February 2011, the Cree poet explained to me her focus on the voices of women in the collection Blue Marrow (1998):
“[F]rankly I wasn’t going to give men the satisfaction of appearing with a larger voice in my print, and part of the reason for that is they have a large voice already in a public forum. They take over our sweat lodges as if they are sole proprietors of spirituality, and there’s a lot of chauvinism around that. Women, again, get pushed out of the picture.”
Halfe’s remarks reminded me of the powerful dialogue between Kim Anderson and Bonita Lawrence that concludes Anderson’s A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood (Second Story Press, 2000), which I then mentioned to prompt Halfe to reflect further on the consequences of such “chauvinism.” I said, “Mi’kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence has discussed in her work the way that spirituality in a lot of Indigenous communities has been claimed as a male right, so things like menstrual taboos around the sweat lodge have been used, not to empower women, but to exclude them.” I then asked, “Do you see this at play?” to which Halfe replied:
“Oh, absolutely. But the exclusion is also valid. And it’s not just because of the menstrual cycles themselves. It’s because the older men realize the incredible power we possess as women during that period of our lives. And it’s not only a spiritual prowess, because we’re really creative during that time, we’re really fierce.”
The full edited transcription of this conversation can be found in Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood, which was just released by the University of Manitoba Press in February. I’m extremely excited about this publication, and I’m humbled by the wisdom shared by Halfe and by the other artists, activists, academics, and elders whose voices are found within the book’s pages.
A friend of mine was diving into the collection this past week, and she emailed me about the exchange above. She was moved by Halfe’s words but anxious about my off-the-cuff references to A Recognition of Being. “I don’t think that’s what Bonita Lawrence said,” she told me. So I checked. Prompted by Anderson during their dialogue to think about menstrual taboos, Lawrence did indeed consider the potential dangers of compulsory exclusion, especially in relation to women in crisis who might be in need of “some healing” and perhaps ought not be “denied access to the circle around the fire” (269); however, Lawrence crafted her illustrative response in the form of a question and took care to focus upon the specific context of “a Native woman’s shelter for abused women” (269) rather than making any broad generalizations about exclusion in “Indigenous communities.” With characteristic insight and precision, Lawrence also reflected on the causes of pressure to “discipline” women’s behaviors, arguing that, “in anti-colonial movements, women are… suited to represent the nation because we have been the mothers and the caretakers of the culture. The easiest way on a superficial level to feel like a people is to control the women” (270). Thus, Lawrence examined not the extension of male authority over spirituality, but rather the factors that have led to the misapplication of specific cultural teachings related to gender, such that exclusion might stand in for a sense of honouring. Nowhere did Lawrence describe spirituality as being “claimed as a male right,” and she certainly didn’t describe such acts of claiming as a reality “in a lot of Indigenous communities.” In fact, she was very clear about the urban context about which she was speaking, as well as the personal experiences that had led her to perceive “menstrual taboos as they are practiced” in some urban settings as potentially “unsafe” (266).
My misrepresentation of Lawrence’s arguments during my conversation with Louise Halfe is therefore an example of poor scholarship. I should have retraced my steps, checked my sources, and ensured the accuracy of the information I was referencing prior to committing the conversation to print in Masculindians. But it’s more than that. Both Halfe’s comments and those of Lawrence demonstrate how complex cultural teachings around gender can be misapplied or mispracticed in contexts conditioned by settler colonialism. My own obfuscation of the depth of Lawrence’s argument and my unwitting erasure of the highly specific considerations that undergirded her comments thereby engendered a risk of replicating the very restrictions on understanding that each author critiques. By replacing Lawrence’s sophisticated commentary with the simplistic assertion that “spirituality… has been claimed as a male right,” I implied that Lawrence’s critique was of individual Indigenous men rather than of the way that “Western notions” had begun to “creep” into the application of some cultural practices in specific contexts (264). And it must be noted that the majority of Lawrence’s considerable body of scholarly work—including the path-breaking studies “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood (University of British Columbia Press, 2004) and Fractured Homeland: Federal Recognition and Algonquin Identity in Ontario (University of British Columbia Press, 2013)—focuses on questions of Indian status, urbanity, and federally-unrecognized communities and pointedly not the relationship between gender and tradition.
I am writing this blog to publicly retract the erroneous statement from Masculindians referenced above, to acknowledge my mistake, and to apologize to Bonita Lawrence as well as to readers of the collection. The passage above has been corrected in the e-book edition and will be changed in future editions of the print version of Masculindians. Professor Lawrence has been a mentor to me, without whose influence I would not be doing the work I am doing today. Her guidance while I was a graduate student at Queen’s University remains something for which I am forever grateful, and her work continues to be a source of inspiration and a model of ethical critical engagement. When I was conducting my doctoral research on residential school survival narratives, I recall Professor Lawrence insisting that I keep at the forefront of my mind the fact that the issues being dealt with in the literature I was studying were neither abstract nor theoretical but rather inform the terrain of daily existence for many Indigenous people. I feel as though my error in referencing Lawrence’s work bespeaks a lapse in my attentiveness to this principle, and this blog is intended to reaffirm my sense of vigilance and to thank Professor Lawrence belatedly for that lesson.
(in the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Peoples)
Sam McKegney is a settler scholar of Indigenous literatures. He grew up in Anishinaabe territory on the Saugeen Peninsula along the shores of Lake Huron and currently resides with his partner and their two daughters in traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples where he is an Associate Professor and Graduate Chair in the English Department at Queen’s University. He has published a collection of interviews entitled Masculindians: Conversations about Indigenous Manhood, a monograph entitled Magic Weapons: Aboriginal Writers Remaking Community after Residential School, and articles on such topics as environmental kinship, masculinity theory, prison writing, Indigenous governance, and Canadian hockey mythologies. View books by Sam McKegney.