Q and A with the experts: The role of Indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge

Waterloo historian and anthropologist explains how the importance of women in the community is inextricably tied to the land

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated globally on August 9th. It marks the date of the inaugural session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. In keeping with this year’s theme, University of Waterloo historian and anthropologist Talena Atfield , answers questions about the roles of Indigenous women in preserving and transmitting traditional knowledges. Professor Atfield is a member of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation of the Six Nations of the Grand River.

How do Indigenous women engage in the transmission of cultural knowledges?

I can speak to the transmission of knowledges from my experience as a learner of Hodinohso:ni histories and culture. For Hodinohso:ni peoples, the importance of women in the community is inextricably tied to the land. This relationship began in our creation story with sky woman, who plays an integral role in shaping Turtle Island. Furthermore, the clan system, which is enshrined in our Great Law, defines Hodinohso:ni kinship as being organized through the women’s line - meaning descent flows from our mothers. The Great Law also defines clan mothers’ roles, as an inherited position of responsibility. Some of the most important aspects of the role of clan mothers is to protect children, ensure community decisions consider the coming generations, and advocate for, and protect the land. All people have importance in the community, and there are many ways in which different knowledges are transmitted.

Some of the ways in which Indigenous women transmit important cultural teachings is through artistic practice. In decorating rims of pots, in the creative manipulation of wefts in basket weaving, in beadwork, quillwork, and tufting designs, in painted images, as well as through various teaching methods. Hodinohso:ni black ash baskets, for example, can be regarded as mnemonic devices that carry important cultural stories and teachings. Different weft shapes such as shell weave, faces or popcorn weave, and thistle weave can prompt teachings about the importance of shells such as wampum, the importance of acting in the interests of the generations to come, and the important teachings of plants like the thistle plant, for example. In its youth it rough and prickly, but it becomes soft and gentle as it ages. The weaves of some baskets can also prompt teachings of the creation story and our place in the world through the sky dome motif.

What barriers do Indigenous women face in the transmission of traditional knowledge?

Early and ongoing governmental legislation imposed detrimental barriers to the health and success of Indigenous women, which have impacted Indigenous women’s abilities to fulfill important roles in transmitting teachings to subsequent generations. The Indian Act (1876) dictated that any Indigenous woman who moved off-reserve or married a non-Indigenous or non-status Indigenous person would be removed from her community band registry and would be forced to leave her community. This marked the beginning of the MMIWG2S epidemic. Further legislation in the Indian act, including Bill C-31, which did not fully address the gender discrimination against Indigenous women, and Bill C-3, which continues to impose blood quantum rules on Indigenous women and their descendants, perpetuates the alienation of Indigenous women from the support systems of their natal communities. Legislative efforts to terminate Hodinohso:ni sovereignty through the imposition of band council structure has been argued by Theresa McCarthy (2016) to represent a direct attack on women’s leadership roles and contributions, given the matrilineal, clan-based system of the Hodinohso:ni Nation. The imposition of a colonial governance system over the Hodinohso:ni traditional governance system erases and ignores the important roles Hodinohso:ni women hold in maintaining balance and equity in Hodinohso:ni communities and further diminishes the roles women carry in transmitting important cultural knowledges. Lastly, Residential schooling further removed Indigenous children from their language and cultural responsibilities and values, creating more barriers to the transmission of community knowledges for coming generations. The multi-pronged approach to Indigenous erasure in what is now Canada specifically targeted Indigenous women as carriers and transmitters of their cultures to future generations.

How can people support Indigenous women’s initiatives?

Organizations such as the Indigenous Arts Collective of Canada are engaging in artistic reclamation and regeneration efforts by providing training for Indigenous women through events such as the Indigenous Women’s Art conference. The reclamation of artistic practices is an important tool for community, family, and individual healing. These practices connect us to previous generations through practice-specific knowledge such as where and when to harvest materials, the physical movements of creation, and the stories that accompany creating activities. Furthermore, new generations learn storytelling through their artistic practice and, in turn, learn how to read the art of previous generations. 

Indigenous Arts Collective of Canad a is an Indigenous-led organization that supports and promotes Indigenous women in the arts. There are many ways to support artists through this organization, including purchasing directly from artists through the auction, as well as options to donate and participate in activities for Indigenous women and their families.


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