Complementarity and Cultural Ideals: Women's Roles in Contemporary Canadian Powwows

By Hoefnagels, Anna | Women & Music, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Complementarity and Cultural Ideals: Women's Roles in Contemporary Canadian Powwows


Hoefnagels, Anna, Women & Music


In many First Nations communities across Canada, complementarity between the sexes is recognized as a common philosophical paradigm originating long before contact with non-Natives. (1) Complementarity is not to be viewed as equality or "sameness" in terms of roles and responsibilities of Native women and men; rather, it should be viewed as the division of labor and responsibilities so that required tasks and duties are accomplished, with roles filled according to people's abilities and strengths. Cultural teachings that are common to many First Nations communities celebrate the traditional complementarity of men's and women's roles in society in terms of responsibilities, leadership, rituals, and ways of life. As Rosanna Deerchild summarizes:

   Aboriginal societies "walked in balance" with the Earth, with the
   spirit and with one another. Although the woman was seen to be the
   strength, she was by no means at the top of the hierarchical
   structure. In fact, there was a natural equality between the sexes.
   Each had their ceremonies, roles and purpose in the community and
   within the order of life. Neither one was less or more important
   than the other. (2)

Complementarity between the sexes in First Nations cultures is often cited as a traditional paradigm that fostered balanced relations and shared duties that allowed for the survival of Aboriginal people. (3) As Cynthia C. Wesley-Esquimaux writes, unlike societies characterized by male leadership and dominance, Aboriginal societies tended to value Aboriginal women and their contributions:

   Traditionally, in many indigenous societies around the world,
   women, together with men, were the repositories of cultural
   knowledge, responsible for handing down tribal law and custom.
   Women were one of the primary forces that made possible the
   stability and continuity of life. First Nations women traditionally
   shared with men a common religious heritage based on their
   relationship with nature. Women and men were linked without
   discrimination to the same founding ancestors. Social benefits as
   well as social responsibilities, were, in principle, also the same
   for both sexes. Those societies, in which the centrality of women
   to the social well-being of the entire community was never
   questioned, were also characterized by an equal distribution of
   goods, with the welfare of children and elders being of paramount
   importance. (4)

The ideal of complementarity between the sexes is celebrated in many traditional teachings of First Nations groups throughout Canada, and these teachings inform some peoples' view of relations between men and women. in discussing complementarity, Cree musician and cultural teacher Jimmy Dick explained:

   They say the women give birth to a nation. They raise all the kids,
   and some of them are leaders, some of them are medicine people, and
   they're the ones that pick the leaders in the communities, and
   that's a complementary role too. And the men, they provide for
   their family, and hunt and all that, give their life for his
   family. Same way, in the way the woman is too, in the way she
   protects her home, she's the one that runs the home. (5)

The realization of this ideal, while still embraced by many, has been compromised by the assimilative policies and practices of the European colonizers since at least 1876, when the first Indian Act of Canada was introduced. This act, which dictates the governance, land and resource use, and health and education services for First Nation communities, imposed a system of patriarchy and Western values on reserve communities, undermining traditional ways of life and power relations amongst First Nation peoples. At the start of the twenty-first century, Canadian Aboriginal women and men continue to negotiate "tradition" and "modernity" and "Indigenous" and "Western" ways of being, and they seek improved living conditions for themselves and their families. …

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