Oral history documents Indian women’s struggle

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September 11, 2013

Disinherited Generations:
Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants
By Nellie Carlson & Kathleen Steinhauer
As told to Linda Goyette
Published by the University of Alberta Press
174 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

In her foreword, activist Maria Campbell calls this a “small and modest” book about “kitchen work” – revolutionary work by women that, in the end, always gets finished.

Through the recollections of two of the leaders of the Indian Rights for Indian Women movement, this book recounts the quarter-century struggle to regain treaty rights for First Nations women who “married out”— that is, married non-status First Nations or non-aboriginal men, thereby losing status as treaty Indians for themselves and their children.

Nellie Carlson and Kathleen Steinhauer grew up as friends in the prairies, both Cree women eligible for rights under Treaty Six. Signed in 1876 by their ancestors and representatives of the Crown, Treaty Six promised one square mile of land for each family of five in a permanent reserve, hunting and fishing rights, education benefits, health benefits and annual treaty payments. Beginning in 1951, only band members registered under the Indian Act had the legal right to live on-reserve, share in band resources, own or inherit property, vote for band council and chief and be buried on the reserve.

Under Section 12(1)(b), any First Nations woman who married a non-status Indian, a Metis man or a non-aboriginal man would lose her Indian status regardless of her ancestry. This often forced exile from a home community for First Nations women. Nellie Carlson lost her treaty rights when this section came into effect because her husband, Elmer Carlson, was Metis.

Kathleen Steinhauer lost her treaty rights when she married Gilbert Anderson, whose band had lost treaty rights under yet another provision of the Indian Act. When Anderson asked Steinhauer whether she was willing to give up her treaty rights to marry him, she replied: “Never mind. I’ll get them back.” Eventually, she did— and so did some 170,000 others who had lost their rights under Section 12(1)(b).

The struggle of these women to reclaim their rights for themselves and their children, and the network of First Nations women who worked with them in the Indian Rights for Indian Women movement, took decades and met with resistance not only from the government, but from some First Nations men, who referred to them as “squaw libbers,” and even from some women who had married status Indians, thereby retaining their rights, or, in some cases, gaining rights they were not previously entitled to.
Telling the story also took a long time. The conversations of the women with journalist Linda Goyette, then an Alberta resident, began in the fall of 2000 and ended in the summer of 2011. Nellie Carlson was 85 years old by the time the book was completed, and Kathleen Steinhauer was 80 when she died in 2012, shortly before its publication.

This is not an easy book to read for many reasons. Documented history is not as much fun as, say, historical fiction. Furthermore, it can be painful to focus on injustice, even when justice triumphs in the end. In addition, the repetitive nature of spoken history can be tedious as the subjects return to the same event or story again and again. But uncovering hidden history —and isn’t women’s history always hidden? — can also be like unearthing buried treasure. This book is a gem.

Joy Fisher graduated from the UVic writing program in June 2013.

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