Sexual Health and Marriage Inequality among Indigenous Communities Under the Indian Act – Annotated Bibliography

by Anna Dahlgren

Written in 2021 for the University of Ottawa course HIS 4135 – The Indian Act, for Prof. Daniel Rück, edited by Daniel Rück and Sam Yee

The Indian Act has had a significant impact on the expression of sexuality and matrimony within Indigenous communities due to historically assimilative policies that aimed to regulate the sexual practices and marriage between Indigenous people and settler society. The purpose of this annotated bibliography is to explain how the Indian Act attempted to force Indigenous people to adhere to a hetero-patriarchal social hierarchy and how sexual repression and abuse, incited by other policies implemented under the Indian Act, continues to oppress Indigenous communities. The main goal of this annotated bibliography is not to examine the immediate causes of gender stratification under the 1876 Indian Act, but to demonstrate the inadvertent and collateral damages caused by assimilative policies. When studying how the Indian Act affected the sexual and marital practices of Indigenous communities, it is important to first understand the importance of sexual culture, access to sexual health services, and gender stratification within Indigenous communities. Sexual culture is best described as a group’s established norms and practices surrounding sexual exploration and identity. Though sexual culture varied community to community, settler histories often described a homogeneous Indigenous sexual culture. This generalization gets in the way of addressing the ongoing sexual health and gender inequality crises plaguing Indigenous communities because it does not acknowledge the variations in sexual culture between groups. These generalizations bleed into the lack of access to community-based sexual health services.

The Indian Act is directly responsible for the social and technological limitations of medical and sexual health services available to Indigenous communities, specifically in their ability to address the spiritual and cultural needs of Indigenous groups regarding sexual health and discussions about sexuality. As the Reeves, Macdonald, and Hackett articles discuss, the Indian Act is responsible for creating opportunities for sexual and emotional abuse within Indigenous communities, as well as perpetuating inequality between Indigenous and settler youth in regards to access to modern sexual health services and counselling. The third theme in the following articles is gender stratification within Indigenous communities and academic representation regarding marriage and sexual health research. Authors listed below, such as James and Maclellan, examine how enforcing a hetero-patriarchal social hierarchy on all Indigenous communities under the Indian Act, regardless of their traditional social orders, continues an assimilative prerogative. Sexual culture, access to sexual health services, and gender stratification are all areas of Indigenous cultures that have been affected by the Indian Act and forced enfranchisement through bio-politics.

The titles included in this annotated bibliography have been compiled in order to demonstrate the pervasiveness of trauma that the Indian Act causes in Indigenous sexual cultures, community access to sexual health services, and gender stratification. Additionally, it also demonstrates the importance of recognizing path dependency and the importance of relationships in Indigenous research and academia. Path dependency is a methodological approach that helps readers understand how all current and future decisions are influenced by previous decisions or actions made in our past. For example, the crisis of gender inequality in Indigenous communities has has its roots in the 1876 Indian Act as many women and children were denied status due to their sexual and marital relations with white settlers. Despite amendments made to promote equal access to Indian status, families affected by previous status annulments cannot claim their status due to previous policy decisions. Path dependency is important for understanding how previous policies implemented under the Indian Act, such as the right to status after marriage, residential schooling, and medical care infrastructure, continue to cause sexual health crises and gender stratification. The following articles, books, and resources reflecting sexual health and marriage inequality deal with how previous policies implemented under the Indian Act continue to foment mistrust between healthcare professionals and Indigenous communities, as well as economic and social gender inequality. The goal of this annotated bibliography is to expose readers to a wide variety of issues regarding sexuality, sex, and marriage, in order to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexual regulations and barriers afflicting Indigenous communities, even after years of amendments to the Indian Act.

Annotated Bibliography

Barker, Joanne. “Gender, Sovereignty, Rights: Native Women’s Activism against Social Inequality and Violence in Canada”. American Quarterly, 60, no. 2, 2008, pp. 259-266.

Joanne Barker’s article offers an analysis of Indigenous relationships between status men and women since the implementation of the Indian Act. Her article aims to examine the degree of political and social privilege status men experience compared to Indigenous women. Barker acknowledges that the Canadian government has made amendments to the Indian Act to rectify the gender stratification between status men and women, specifically that Indian women may now keep their status if they choose to marry a non status man. However, Barker argues that the implementation of the Indian Act itself greatly exacerbated social tensions between men and women, devalued women’s work, and as a result of gender stratification, Indigenous women faced more violence, poverty, and illness than Indigenous men. Barker’s methodology is based on a feminist realist approach towards understanding the significance of the Indian Act in the context of contemporary trends of violence in Indigenous communities. It is a significant piece for this annotated bibliography because it examines one of the most fundamental complications of the Indian Act – gender stratification. Barker’s article provides context for how the Indian Act caused, or significantly exacerbated, gender stratification in Indigenous communities during the 20th century.

Cannon, Martin. “The Regulation of First Nations Sexuality.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1998, pp. 1-18.

In this article, Cannon examines the nature of gender and sexuality in Indigenous communities prior to European oppression, and analyzes racialized sexism in the Indian Act. He discusses how the Indian Act relied on institutionalized racism and sexism in order to transform, or completely eradicate, traditional Indigenous practices. Cannon first examines written testimonies from white settlers who saw instances of Indigenous non-heteronormative sexual norms. He demonstrates how sexual conservatism was an immediate impact of European intervention rather than a natural or inherent socialized norm. He uses testimonies from Jesuit settlers and French Catholic priests who, in the early 19th century, were either appalled or confused by Indigenous people’s seemingly genderless approach to sexual and social development. Cannon’s methodology in collecting and analyzing sources lacks diversity as it specifically focuses on the European accounts of Indigenous sexuality. His article could have also provided a better analysis of Indigenous gender and sexual identities had he focused on the practices of a specific community or nation. The article is best read as an introduction to understanding the regulations enforced by the Indian Act that controlled the sexual culture of Indigenous communities. While this is an excellent source for a broad analysis on the sexual and social conditioning of Indigenous communities under the Indian Act, it is important to recognize that sexual cultures vary between Indigenous groups and should not be generalized.

Cannon’s main argument is that by restricting non-heteronormative sexual practices under the Indian Act, Indigenous communities were forced to assimilate into the heteropatriarchal settler society. The Jesuit and settler testimony substantiates that the restriction of sexual exploration and non-heterosexual relationships were correlated to an individual’s accessibility to Indian Status, since status was claimed through heteronormative marriages and gender roles under the Indian Act. The sources used, such as diaries and legal documents, are credible, and Cannon explicitly discussed the assumptions made by the historical authors. He contextualizes the assumptions about hetero-normative marriages as well as spirituality regarding the objections to Indigenous sexual freedom. However, a shortcoming of Cannon’s text is that he does not discuss the Indigenous responses to sexual restriction and state-sanctioned gender oppression. For both of these reasons, Cannon’s text is important to the historiography of understanding how the Indian Act affected Indigenous sexuality and marriage. He provides a preliminary, and easily digestible, analysis of the ways the Indian Act enforced enfranchisement through the use of sexual restrictions and heteronormative familial development in Indigenous communities. Ultimately, Cannon’s text is an excellent starting place for contemporary students aiming to understand more about how the Indian Act directly affected Indigenous sexuality and marriage, as it also helps students and keen learners to formulate important questions regarding Indigenous history written by settlers.

Cavanagh, Sheila L. “The Somatechnics of Sexuality in Canada.” Somatechnics 7, no. 2 (2017): v–vi.

            Sheila Cavanagh’s article is an excellent source to understand the importance of path dependency and knowledge in Indigenous research. Cavanagh’s article gives a synopsis of how the Canadian government, as of 2017, has begun to acknowledge some of the historical wrongdoings against Indigenous communities, but not the ongoing conflicts regarding gender inequality. Cavanagh explains in-depth how not including the importance of lineage and sexually-determined heritage in modern discussions about Indigeneity discredits biopolitics as a legitimate defence against forced enfranchisement. Cavanaugh speaks about some of the important recent events that have taken place between Indigenous leaders and the Canadian federal government regarding accessibility to Indian Status. She points out that despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s rhetoric of equality and progressiveness, he does not publicly acknowledge that the Canadian government has been cited by the UN for human rights violations for the treatment and lack of care for Indigenous women, and that the Canadian government voted against gender equality under the Indian Act as recently as 2017. The article is included in this annotated bibliography because of its readability and briefness, which gives readers a chance to familiarize themselves with the important basic themes reflected in the more complicated readings.

Hackett, Lisa, Maya Biderman, Nicole Doria, Julien Courville, Emma Bogner, Rebecca Spencer, Dave Miller, Jane McMillan, and Matthew Numer. “A Rapid Review of Indigenous Boys’ and Men’s Sexual Health in Canada.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 23, no. 5 (May 4, 2021): 705–21.

This article examines how Canadian legislation, such as the Indian Act, has created a series of sexual health epidemics in Indigenous communities. These epidemics include HIV infections, domestic violence, and sexual violence against women, men, and children. Hackett et al.’s article is unique to the majority of Indigenous sexual health research because it focuses on the importance of men’s sexual and mental health in Indigenous communities. The authors argue that the neglect of men’s mental and sexual health within Indigenous communities stems from both the lack of access to healthcare, as well as the lack of support for Indigenous men who identify as two-spirit or non-binary. The authors argue that through forced enfranchisement and child apprehension, as supported by the Indian Act and residential schools, Indigenous men received teachings that led many to engage in sexually and physically damaging relationships and lifestyles. In the authors’ qualitative review of the current academic literature on Indigenous men’s sexual health in Canada, they found that out of a sample of 1550 studies, only two specifically focused on Indigenous men’s sexual health, and only one focused on the immediate sexual health of queer, two-spirited, or non-binary Indigenous men. They found that, when coupled with the ongoing refusal to discuss the importance of men’s and boys’ sexual health, colonial policies implemented through the Indian Act and residential school system continue to exercise a negative effect on the male-sexed Indigenous population in Canada. The article also includes a useful historiographical overview regarding Indigenous sexuality, marriage, and the Indian Act which demonstrates how the historical roots of colonial oppression continue to cause harm.

James, Rocky. “An Evolution in Queer Indigenous Oral Histories through the Canada Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.” The International Journal of Human Rights 24, no. 4 (April 20, 2020): 335–56.

James’s article is both a testimony of a gay Coast Salish man, as well as a reflection on the residential school settlement agreement. The central argument of James’ article is the necessity of listening and respecting oral testimonies and Indigenous research methods. He argues that the use of oral testimony and talking circles used by Indigenous researchers have allowed residential school survivors and children of residential school survivors to to discuss the trauma and abuse that was inflicted upon them. James also discusses the importance of decolonizing sexuality and promoting a healthy understanding of victimhood among sexually struggling residential school survivors. What this means is that James is interested in how residential schools and assimilative policies of the Indian Act have changed how Indigenous adults discuss sexual freedom and sexual identities. This article also deals with the importance of understanding path dependency and the value of relationships within Indigenous research. James finds that many of the survivors who were abused by same-sex pedophiles subsequently struggled with their sexuality as an adult. A significant issue for reversing the damage caused by the Indian Act and residential schools is that many Indigenous communities affected by residential schools do not differentiate between sexual abusers and homosexuals due to their intergenerational experience of abuse.

MacDonald, Cathrine. Ruth Martin-Misener, Audrey Steenbeeek, Annette Browne. “Honouring Stories” Mi’kmaq Women’s Experiences with Pap Screening in Eastern Canada.” Canadian Journal of Nursing 47, no. 1, (McGill Universiy: 2015), 72-96.

MacDonald et al.’s article examines how the lower percentage of Indigenous women seeking Papanicolaou (PAP) screenings and sexual health services is related to the higher rates of Indigenous women diagnosed with cervical cancer than non-Indigenous women. The article also contributes to our understanding of how Indigenous communities have changed their discussions about sexuality and spirituality as a result of European colonization and the post-residential school era. Specifically in their discussion about “The view of the body and self,” MacDonald et al. discuss how many Mi’kmaq women identify their genital and perineum regions as a sacred area” (82), and over the years of child apprehension policies (Indian Act. R. S., c. 43, s. 1. 1884) and patrilineal determinations of status and identity, pathways for Indigenous women to discuss sexual health with their community have been removed.

The authors explain how residential schools and child apprehension, as enforced under the Indian Act, led to sexual abuse; this in a context where it was taboo to discuss this topic in both settler and Indigenous communities. This meant that discussions between community members about sexual health were suppressed and that Indigenous women were deterred from seeking sexual health treatment in Canadian institutions. One woman quoted in the article stated that many Mi’kmaq women view the body’s health, physical, mental, and sexual, through a holistic lens. This could explain why women who have not been abused sexually, but have been physically or emotionally abused, would choose not to seeking sexual health related services. Secondly, the authors find that women have been less inclined to seek sexual health services due to the abuse, sterilization, and death of children in residential schools. Pap-screening, the test required for cervical cancer screenings and STI checks, made many women feel violated, and they would often not return for follow up consultations due to these experiences. The authors were very thorough in determining the reasons as to why Indigenous women are less inclined to seek sexual health services, and in their post-colonial feminist approach, their use of talking circles and oral testimonies helped strengthen the article’s demonstration of Indigenous respect and appreciation for the interviewer’s stories.

MacLellan, Matthew. “Indigenous Infopolitics: Biopolitics as Resistance to White Paper Liberalism in Canada.” Theory & Event 21, no. 4 (10, 2018): 914-936.

MacLellan’s article examines how the Canadian government has both segregated and enfranchised Indigenous people through policies that rely on biological lineage for membership and exclusion. He specifically examines the Indian Act with a discursive approach in order to determine how Canadian policy makers aimed to maintain two Canadian polities. He finds that the Indian Act, as well as the 1969 White Paper, ensured that the language used to describe the proposed policies were to create a supposedly inclusive and unified Canadian society. However, they stipulated that laws for Indigenous communities would be separate from others. MacLellan argues that by using explicitly anti-segregation language, in contrast to the United States Jim Crow laws, any political violence against Indigenous communities would be legitimized by the popular settler desire to resolve the costly issue of maintaining two polities. Thus, Canadian politicians, such as Trudeau and Chretien, drive a narrative that has Indigenous populations are antagonists who opposed innovation or improvement. The proposals made by Chretien and Trudeau in 1969 was a demonstration of political aggression and explicit ethnic cleansing masked by an offer of inclusion. MacLellan’s article is significant to the historiography of the Indian Act and its relationship to Indigenous marriage inequality because it examines how Canadian policy makers continue to veil Indigenous genocide by negating the discussion of biopolitics and the importance of ethnic lineage and membership.

Reeves, Allison Jane. “Honouring Womanhood: Understanding the Conceptualization and Social Construction of Young Adult First Nation Women’s Sexuality in Atlantic Canada.” MA Thesis, Dalhousie University, 2008

Reeves examines how Indigenous women in Canada continue to disproportionately struggle with sexual health conditions such as cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS, abuse, and suicide when compared to Canadians in general. This disparity stems from historical policies rooted in the assimilation, child apprehension, and cultural disconnect. Reeves uses testimonies by Indigenous women to gain insight into how they understand these questions. One of Reeve’s most notable arguments regarding the use of the Indian Act was how it continues to degrade and affect Indigenous women and girls’ self worth and self-identity. While there are explicit consequences of the Indian Act, there are also implicit consequences of sexual genealogy and cultural worth, specifically when they are coupled with the sexual integrity of the individual. The testimonies Reeves uses are well implemented since they directly reflect the emotions, views, and understandings of Indigenous women facing sexual health issues ranging from inadequate healthcare, self-neglect, and sexual violence. Reeve’s methodology of doing informal interviews with Indigenous women and healthcare providers, coupled with a qualitative review of sexual health statistics and literature on Indigenous sexual health, support her argument that the colonial roots of gendered oppression are causally related to the ongoing trends of cervical cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other sexual health issues.

Stevenson, Allyson D. Intimate Integration: a History of the Sixties Scoop and the Colonization of Indigenous Kinship. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

            Allyson Stevenson’s book discusses sex and kinship in the context of Indian Act directed forced enfranchisement of children. The book discusses how settler Canadians were encouraged to adopt Indigenous children as a way to encourage the assimilation of Indigenous children. Another section of the book examines how the disconnect between federal land regulation and provincial welfare systems further stratifies gender inequality in Indigenous marriages and kinship arrangements. Stevenson also discusses differences in the way male and female Indigenous leaders have approached discussions on self-determination, membership, and marriage. This book is important to the historiography of the Indian Act regarding sexuality and marriage because it discusses the topics of kinship, right to status, and gender stratification in depth through an Indigenous research approach. Stevenson employed talking circles, informal interviews, and even personal notes in order to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sex and marriage regulation under the Indian Act.

Thompson, Debra. “Racial Ideas and Gendered Intimacies: The Regulation of Interracial Relationships in North America.” Social & Legal Studies 18, no. 3 (2009): 353–71.

Debra Thompson’s article examines three important instances of state intervention in Indigenous sexual and marital life. She examines how Canada and the United States compared in sexual regulation of Indigenous communities by examining legislation produced in both political environments. Thompson’s article is significant to the Canadian historiography because, first, it demonstrates that while the Canadian Indian Act was not immediately punitive against Indigenous same-sex or inter-racial relations, its aims were to destroy Indigenous sexual cultures through settler assimilation. Second, it demonstrates how Canadian lawmakers were equally as racist, and increasingly manipulative, as the United States.

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