Fay Blaney on gender identity and Indigenous cultures at the Vancouver Public Library

The essay that follows is adapted from remarks delivered at Vancouver Public Library on January 10, 2019 by Indigenous feminist and activist Fay Blaney, who addressed the theme of Gender Identity Ideology and Women’s Rights. Transcripts of the other talks can be found here.

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Good evening. My auntie says that we absolutely must welcome you into our homelands, our Coast Salish territory. My great grandmother is from across the water, and my great-great grandmother on my auntie’s side of the family is from Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, and then I think three greats from Sto:lo Nation, and my grandmother is from Sechelt. Before we were confined to reserves, there was a lot of interaction amongst the Coast Salish nations, and so after we’ve been confined to reserves we’re much more inclined to marry in, marry our relatives or what have you, but my ancestry does extend into this territory. My great-great grandmother was Cecilia Jim, who lived and was born on the Seymour River.

I wanted to say a couple of things about the topic that we’re talking about. I’m a member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, and we’ve been around since 1995, and it was around that time that this issue was becoming a really big one. There was a woman who said that she was now “pangender” on our NAC executive. I was elected to the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and I was thinking that, you know, I have been discriminated against and I don’t want to be guilty of discriminating against someone else, and [the group] looked to me for leadership.

But at that time, there were at least half a dozen Indigenous lesbians (my auntie is one of them) who were members of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, and spoke to me in great depth about the importance of protecting women-only spaces. So that’s the position that AWAN has taken, and we’ve really taken it on the chin as have many of the women’s groups that we work with, but we feel very passionately about the importance of consciousness raising work. I mean, that’s how we function in the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network. We have drop-ins, and teas, and discussions, and we talk about things, and that’s how we get our work done.

I grew up — and my auntie too — on our homelands in Bute Inlet, which is across from Campbell River. I grew up on the land, I grew up speaking my language until I went to residential school. I think I learned English when I was about seven. I know my culture very well. I know our stories, I know my language, and my auntie still is teaching me some things. My grandmother taught her things.

I taught Women’s Studies at Langara College and at UBC, and I found it really sad that a lot of native students coming into my classroom were coming to me to teach them about our history, our culture, and our traditions. As the general public now knows, there’s been wide-scale genocidal practices that have been perpetrated on Indigenous peoples. So, we’ve lost an awful lot, but we’re not gone. We’re not disappearing any time soon.

I say that as a preface to the point I want to make. I notice that the scholars in the country that are professed experts on First Nations issues are people that used to come into my classroom — people that did not grow up on the land as I have, as my auntie has, and a few of us have, who were still growing up in our culture and our traditions. But there are our own people coming into academic arenas and talking about Indigenous nations having five genders. That is absolute B.S.

I wrote an article on Joseph Boyden. In the article, I said, you know, we’re all in an uproar about this white person that wants to be identified as an Indigenous person. Why is it such a long stretch for us to [compare this to] men that come into our communities and want to be identified as women? And Chelsea Vowel condemned me from here to Timbuktu for saying that, calling me “transphobic.”

I’ve been involved in the Women’s Memorial March forever, and there are white women on that committee that are barring me from ever publicly speaking at that Valentine’s Day march. We’ve been talking about the ironies of all these things, and one of the ironies in this situation is the fact that we, in such large numbers, as Indigenous women, are the ones that are being murdered, the ones that are going missing, the ones that are being dismissed, and yet the white women on that committee say that I can’t speak because I used “hate speech.”

Getting back to the point of Indigenous academics who learned about Indigenous culture, coming back and being self-professed experts on Indigenous issues — they’re the ones that are saying that there are five genders. They’re saying that this is the situation across all cultures in North America, and I just really have a big issue [with that]. I’m totally offended with someone saying that they’re an expert on all Indigenous cultures. That’s a part of the “pan-Indianism” that we’re fighting now, with the pipeline thing — Horgan is saying we’re having this emerging clan system, and we say B.S. to that: they’ve always had their clan system.

Our cultures are diverse. I can’t speak for the Cree, or the Mohawks, or the Ojibwe. We can’t speak for all those people. We can’t say we understand their culture and their traditions and their practices. So why is Chelsea Vowel the expert on all Indigenous cultures?

What I want to say about this particular issue is that we were very accepting in our communities. If Ted wanted to dress as a woman and if Ted wanted Jack to be her husband, we didn’t condemn them. We knew that Ted wanted to dress like a woman, but we never said that Ted was a woman. The construction of gendered categories, like [saying] we had five… I’m sorry, we did not. We had two. There were some people who wanted to dress as men and some that wanted to dress as women and we never discriminated against them — they were accepted. They were members of the community — they were different, and we were fine with that. But we didn’t get Ted forcing himself into women’s circles, you know… He was invited. You never force yourself anywhere in Indigenous society.

I spoke with some elders of the Anishinaabe Nation because this is such a hot topic, and there’s so much vitriol and violence associated with it. So, I went to an elder and I asked her, because in their community they are accepting — they are practicing our tradition, they are accepting of having men who want to be women into their communities. So I said, “What about places like transition houses, where women aren’t comfortable with men being present?” And I have to tell you, when I worked in the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center, there were women that were very uncomfortable in the shelters. One of the elders from my homeland got beaten up by a trans, and there were other horror stories like that that happened for them. This elder said to me that they are very accepting as per their culture and their tradition, but if there was, for example, a woman coming out of prison and she didn’t feel comfortable in a halfway house with a trans there, they would speak to the trans. And they would make sure that this woman’s wishes were respected. They honour — in our ways we honour life-givers. These women are honoured for who they are and the wishes they have to be safe.

I just wanted to say some of those things about Indigenous society, because I saw a sign out there that was so ridiculous. It said that “to erase trans is to erase Indigenous society.” And I’m here to say we’re not getting erased and we’re going to be here for a hell of a long time.

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