A Braided Silken Cord

Aboriginal women & women of colour working together
By Sanhita Brahmacharie and Sharron Proulx

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Sanhita As a young South Asian woman growing up on the prairies in the 1970s, I knew of only two categories in matters of race: "them" and "us." "They" were what my parents called Canadians—tall, rangy white Christians of indeterminate cultural heritage who actually belonged in this cold country.

The rest of "us" were shooed into the category of "visible minority." We were small isolated groups of black, brown and yellow folk careful not to be seen together too often lest we present ourselves as targets. We were marked by our difference. We looked different, smelled different, thought different. Our dreamy-eyed parents huddled over steaming cups of tea on winter nights talking longingly of different, far-off places and visits back home.

It was not until I was much older that I realized that First Nations people had no place in either of my definitions—that, in fact, aboriginal peoples were as invisible to me as I was, in all my "visible minority" glory, to white Canadian culture.

My first encounter with Canadian stereotypes of First Nations people occurred in early February 1976 in the booming oil town of Grande Prairie, Alberta. I was six years old and in Grade One—newly immigrated, non-English speaking and conspicuously brown-skinned.

My class was engaged in one of those manic Valentine's-Day-inspired art projects which involved weaving brightly coloured strips of construction paper through a heart-shape. A classmate, who had been told that was "Indian," shook her platinum pig-tailed head at my weaving ineptitude. She proclaimed to my puzzled and only partially comprehending ears that she thought that all Indians knew how to weave baskets, track animals and build teepees.

Over the years, the information I have received about First Nations people has increased in quantity rather than quality. I have been fed the usual dichotomy of aboriginal people as reprehensible drunken, lazy, ungrateful no-gooders on one hand and as quaint feather- and bead-bedecked repositories of natural spiritual knowledge on the other.

I have remained resistant to both images. However, I have still internalized the implicit messages behind these stereotypes. I have inadvertently seen First Nations people as not relevant to my everyday city-girl life. I have experienced aboriginal people as a void. I have absorbed the message that what happens to First Nations people is not my concern, not relevant to my urban existence.

As I have begun my political work at the side of First Nations women, I have been struck not so much by my misinformation as by my total lack of information. For me, the task has been to educate myself about First Nations people and issues. I have learned that these are not "their" issues, but also mine.

As a woman of colour who speaks out against racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, I have come to the conclusion that the issues of First Nations women are inextricably bound to my own; that the same eyes that diagnose my difference as a malignant tumour to be excised from the white Canadian psyche have attempted to destroy aboriginal women, children and men for five hundred years.

Sharron I'm white-skinned and blue-eyed, red-nosed with the kind of shining silver hair that grows only on the young. I'm not a "white" in the same sense as whites and I'm not a woman of colour. Who I am is an aboriginal woman from mohawk, huron, ojibwa, algonquin, french and irish ancestry. I'm a member of the metis nation of alberta, which in itself is a winter's worth of tea and yacking.

I speak only for myself and from my experiences and knowledge. I speak for no other aboriginal women. I think I understand what joanne arnott means when she says women of colour are our "natural allies" as far as racism goes, there's some level where our experiences of racism are identical and I think that's on impact. Impact. No air. No breath. Shame. Shame on you, shame. Whatever's being felt at that moment of impact can't be measured. Yet if impact can't be measured, can velocity? Like when a shotgun shell goes in one side and comes on out the other?

I've been facilitating anti-racism and aboriginal sensitivity workshops for about ten years and if I could say anti-racism work has gaps, it's because the gaps are full of indians. what I mean by that is overall, no one is discriminated against in this country as much and with as much wit and passion as aboriginal peoples.

this country is built on racism, if it's important to point out the samenesses of the experiences of racism among aboriginal women and women of colour, it's important to point to some differences, immigrants learn to hate aboriginal peoples right away, if not at home, then in the history books, the art, novels, movies, esl classes, tv, newspapers, ads, comics, video games, and so on. immigrants learn not to question the politics of this "first world" country where the benevolents are giving a break.

the way I see it. aboriginal peoples didn't come to this land of opportunity to better ourselves, to escape war or poverty, disease or corruption, can't come to someplace you already are. generally, overall, so on and so forth, our peoples don't aspire to become famous in that special (fe)male western european moneymakers-at-any-cost way, while generally, overall, most other peoples, new and old immigrants, do.

truth is, this country thrives on capitalism, and generally, capitalists don't look back except to find a role model who made more money and if they look forward, it's to where they're going to vacation in the winter.

when I was a kid, I got teased and beaten and raped for being indian. my mom flatly denied it. fin. she got beaten and raped for that but they were wrong, she was french. pure french. most of the time I feel that denial my mother passed on to me in my place of shame, my place of shame is in my body in my spirit.

as an adult living in the city, I've never been thought of as an aboriginal person by a non-aboriginal person who doesn't know me. not by a cop or a cowboy in a store on a bus when I'm looking for a place to rent when I'm just standing around on the street. I don't have to deal with police brutality or ending up in jail for being alive and well and indian and walking around somewhere in calgary or anywhere in this country.

Sanhita & Sharron Working together, side by side, united. We are not the same and our issues are not the same. However, we are sisters in our understanding of this feeling—this sense of shamefulness for being ourselves. We have an implicit understanding of racism and the impact it has on our lives, and we have a profound understanding of the power of our voices when we're able to go beyond the oppressors' logic. Our power is created when we are able to meet as equals and hear each other's stories, unfiltered by the shade of either "official" histories or popular stereotypes.

Sanhita I am proud of the strong work that First Nations women and women of colour are doing together. Truth is, we need each other. From my perspective, anti-oppression work is like a braided silken cord. Anti-racism work which does not address the issues of First Nations people is no different than anti-sexism work which refuses to acknowledge issues of class, sexual orientation and race.

Working with First Nations women, for me, is a matter of integrity. As a woman of colour I cannot, in good conscience, perpetuate the same oppression upon Aboriginal women as is inflicted on me. If we're asking white Canadians not to use their privilege to oppress people of colour, people of colour cannot be part of a structure that oppresses Aboriginal people.

Sharron last week greg young-ing was in calgary to launch a powerful first book, the random flow of blood and flowers, after the reading when a bunch of us aboriginal and folks of colour and one white woman are piling into cars, a voice splits the air with hate, danger pulls me out from inside the car. that voice's upper body is pounding on the window of a car, that voice's lower parts are slipping grabbing for some gravel on the road, that voice's face is twisted hate, that voice's fist punches punches flashes brass, stop police stop police get out of the fucking car.

it's then I notice all of us are there, all of us aboriginal and folks of colour and one white woman are there when that terrorized woman of colour steps out and onto the ice. our presence shifts her fear to outrage and she/we question question challenge challenge, that voice's power chokes on its own hate.

that's where I'd like to see us be: a force to be reckoned with, a force which cannot be ignored like crickets in the night, we, aboriginal folks and folks of colour and one white woman are not "the minorities." we are the majorities, so when we aboriginal folks carry out our duty to protect mother earth from slaughter, when we push for settlement of centuries-old land claims, when we demand our rightto self-determination, join us. join us as our sisters and allies, join us as our brothers, our children's children's children need us to do these things for them, let's write together, let's speak together, let's eat together, to heal.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Sanhita Brahmacharie
Sanhita Brahmacharie is a South Asian lesbian office worker, cultural worker and unrepentant caffeine addict. She was born in Calcutta and currently lives in Calgary.
Sharron Proulx
Sharron Proulx-Turner is a two-spirit, a writer, an instructor at Old Sun College (Siksika nation), an activist and a lover of chinooks.
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