Book Review: The Strength of Women

Indigenous women survive, flourish, work for needed change
February 1, 2012

The Strength of Women: Âhkamêyimowak, Priscilla Settee, Coteau Books, Regina, 2011.

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“There is a force among women which I call Âhkamêyimowak, or persistence, that provides the strength for women to carry on in the face of extreme adversity. Âhkamêyimowak is a Cree word and embodies the strength that drives women to survive, flourish and work for change within their communities.

With these introductory words, Cree educator and activist Priscilla Settee encapsulates the main theme and message of her informative and inspiring new book. She works in the Native Studies Department at the University of Saskatchewan. Holding a PhD and a Masters degree in Education, she has been a leader in developing global solidarity with and among Aboriginal communities around the world. In Saskatchewan, the South Pacific, at the United Nations, and elsewhere, Settee’s research and presentations have been recognized as trailblazing.

The Strength of Women gives voice to 15 indigenous women who “work in their communities to build social support networks, maintain safe homes, build social welfare agencies, keep culture intact, develop effective schools, and keep our languages alive. Women preserve the social, cultural, and natural foundations of their communities. We struggle both to retain traditions and challenge undemocratic practices... We have been on the frontlines when the world’s wealthiest transnational corporations carve up our lands and pillage them with free trade and multinational investment agreements, licensed by undemocratic bodies like the World Trade Organization and their financial partners. We have protested when our communities are clear-cut by forestry company giants.”

The personal, specific stories in this slim volume are told in the women’s own voices, with minimal editing, which makes them very powerful. These are tales of endurance, bravery, and success in the face of normalized violence. They are inspiring stories for anyone who wants to believe that a better world is possible.

The contributors to the book are a varied lot: women whom Settee has “worked, played, and cried with.” They include Freda Ahenakew, one of the most distinguished Aboriginal scholars in Canada; activist Judy Da Silva from Grassy Narrows First Nation; rappers Eckwoll and Zondra Roy; and Cree elders Bernice Sayese, Vickie Wilson, and Sally MacKenzie.

Just a glance at the table of contents is an education in itself. The chapters of the book -- Beginnings, Work, Art, Spirit and Community -- each contain excerpts from longer interviews and an occasional excerpt from Settee’s presentations. The interview subtitles, read together, summarize the essential message of the chapters: “It was to me like we had lost our childhood; I don’t blame my parents for the hardships; Tourist of the white people’s culture; I was running, running, running the whole time."

In the chapters the interviews seem to flow together, so one reads the separate stories in Beginnings and experiences the systemically sad and often horrific experiences of Aboriginal childhoods in colonized Canada: the impacts of residential schools and the resultant violence, the endemic poverty and racism in which all of these women grew up.

In Work, the same women who described their childhoods talk about how their individual working experiences shaped their lives, and how their actions shape their workplaces. Some of the women – who in the last chapter were abused children - have become teachers and healers; some are renowned linguists and researchers; others work with media, others (like Vickie Wilson) travel and organize. As contributor Eekwoll says, they work at social change to “get it done like the dishes.”

In Art, we see what contributor Alene Steyne describes as: “In the native world, art has been a force representing the constancy and timelessness of Aboriginal values and beauty, as well as a force for social change and community enhancement.” We hear the struggles and quiet triumphs of quilters, a birch bark biter, a musician, a videographer, and a music manager.

In Spirit, the same women tell of the power of laughter, of ceremony and story-telling; about the healing power of activism and the need for self-care. The Community chapter pulls it all together .

This is a book about the importance of relationship, not only with human to human, but with the air, the water, the land, the animals, and the plants. As Judy Da Silva says, “To tie into the environmental wars we are currently facing, we need to understand that it is all connected: residential school, sexual abuse, physical abuse, incarceration (youth and adults), courts, jails, probation, fines, Anishinaabe women disappearing, pollution on our lands – in the air, the water, in our bodies. It is all connected.”

Settee says in the Introduction: “As indigenous people struggle with the shackles of colonialism, it is important to draw on the strength of ancient values, wisdom and knowledge to create strong and vibrant communities. We ask you to share with us in that collective process.”

This inspiring book provides a great deal of guidance for doing just that.

(Joan Kuyek is a community organizer, author, and activist educator. Her latest book is “Community Organizing: A Holistic Approach”.)