CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 21 . . . . February 2, 2018
The cultures of North American Indigenous peoples are not a single, homogeneous entity. Rather, they are distinct and diverse, and #NotYourPrincess offers a female perspective on Indigenous experience through an equally diverse collection of material: artwork, poetry, memoir, photography, excerpts from blogposts, news articles, opinion pieces, and a whole range of content which defies easy categorization. Fifty-eight women have contributed to this book; some are high school students, while others, such as Maria Campbell, "best known for her memoir, Halfbreed and credited "with a rebirth of Aboriginal literature in Canada" (p. 104) are Elders in the community. Athletes, academics, environmentalists, artists, actors, filmmakers, politicians, photographers, physicians, entrepreneurs and students – many of these women have accomplished much in the face of tremendous obstacles, and all speak strongly about their life experiences, past and present, as well as their hopes for the future.
The book is presented in four sections, beginning with "The Ties that Bind Us". Family ties resonate strongly, through stories told and lessons learned. In her poem "Tear", Linda Hogan honours her connection to her ancestors; they are her past, she is "why they survived", and they live on in her "unborn children." (p. 14) Cutting the hair of Indigenous children was a shameful rite of passage endured when they entered the residential school system. "two braids" recounts Rosanna Deerchild's first day of kindergarten through a poetic celebration of her mother's weaving of her hair "into long perfect arrows", (p. 19) an act symbolic of ties to family and heritage. The residential school experience is a sad connection shared by many Indigenous peoples, but Madelaine McCallum sees this inter-generational trauma as "a lesson and a way to build strength", (p. 21) and an opportunity to show her parents the love which they were denied as children. For Nahanni Fontaine, healing from multiple traumas and addictions comes through an understanding of what "it mean[s] to be an Indigenous woman" through reconnection with a culture that values "women and girls [as] sacred, known as life-givers, as independent, as autonomous, as decision-makers" (p. 25); Fontaine severs ties with a past that degrades Indigenous women, choosing instead to reclaim the strengths and courage shown by grandmothers and mothers.
The second section of the book, titled "It Could Have Been Me", explores not only the real fear of being one of the many missing and/or murdered Indigenous women, but also the ways in which behaviours and attitudes transmitted through generations have led to victimization. Actress Imajyn Cardinal states that she is unwilling to be afraid, despite that fact that "all over the news there are Native girls being hurt and abused." (p. 39) In Helen Knott's poem, "The Things We Taught Our Daughters", silence about domestic violence and sexual abuse is equated with consenting to violation. Instead, she exhorts young women to "Speak up. It is never your fault. No means no." (p. 45). Zoey Roy's short memoir, "Freedom in the Fog", tells the story of a young woman who seems destined for trouble. Leaving home at the age of 13, she drifts into a life of crime, finally ending up in a youth detention centre where she spends 16 months. Despite repeated offences, numerous court appearances, and multiple incarcerations (including time in solitary), she decides to master the craft of hip-hop, to become successful and not to become another statistic in a system that seems to work against Indigenous youth. She could have been a victim, but chose not to be.
In its dedication, Lisa Charleyboy states that the book is "For every Indigenous woman who has ever been called 'Pocahontas'", and the third section, "I Am Not Your Princess", explores social stereotyping, cultural appropriation, and the devaluing of Indigenous culture by popular western media. In "A Conversation with a Massage Therapist", Francine Cunningham surprises the masseuse by (a) not appearing to be "all white", (b) pursuing a master's degree, and (c) apparently being "one of the good ones . . . not a drunk or anything." (p. 59) Jessica Deer's opinion piece, "We Are Not a Costume", offers an Indigenous woman's perspective on why the wearing of "Indian Maiden" costumes at Halloween, the use of images of Indigenous people as sports mascots, as well as inaccurate representations in television and other electronic media, are offensive. Those are the reasons why she spent the Halloween weekend of 2016 campaigning against "Pocahottie" and "Indian Warrior" costumes (p. 61).
What happens when someone doesn't "look" Indigenous, but identifies strongly with her culture and heritage? In a series of photos (which look disturbingly similar to mug shots), Shelby Lisk presents as a red-haired, blue-eyed, pale-complected woman. She's Haudenosee and doesn't match up with expectations of how an "authentic Indian" should look. Lisk states that settler culture wants "buckskin and war paint, drumming, songs in languages they can't understand", a culture that is "behind glass in a museum". They may be interested in past history, but not in present day activities in which Indigenous people are "waving signs in their faces, . . . asking them why their women are going missing, asking them why their land is being ruined". (p. 65)
Hollywood has always created images of ideal female beauty, but in "Real NDNZ", Pamela J. Peters, a Navajo American photographer, challenges the Hollywood ideal with two photo portraits in which contemporary Native American actresses take the place of Audrey Hepburn and Ava Gardner, both icons of glamour. Life in the films isn't always about glamour; often it's about day-to-day life, and as actress DeLanna Studi points out, "We don't talk about 'Indian things' all the time . . . so much of our lives are lived like everyday people, why can't Hollywood reflect that?'' (p. 68)
One of the most thought-provoking contributions is Tifffany Midge's blogpost "What's There to Take Back?" She questions why an online publication seeks submissions from Native American artists, asking that these artists re-create the Disney character of Tiger Lily (featured in the animated film Peter Pan) "to fit a real model of Indigenous womanhood". Midge is incensed at the suggestion that Tiger Lily is any sort of model of Indigenous womanhood. For Midge, the perseverance, and courage exhibited by her mother, both grandmothers, her sister, aunts and cousins, during their life struggles make them genuine models of Indigenous womanhood. She concludes by asking, "Would anyone want to reclaim Frito Bandito? Aunt Jemima? Charlie Chan? . . . These images are analogous to images of Tiger Lily." (p. 67)
The final section of the book, "Pathfinders", is a celebration of Indigenous women who are leaders in a variety of endeavours. Some are very young, like AnnaLee Rain Yellowhammer, a 13-year-old activist in the Standing Rock reservation protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. "Living Their Dreams" profiles four athletes, each of whom epitomizes skill and confidence, both in her sport and in her desire to transcend boundaries of prejudice. Regardless of how accomplished one may be, it's never easy to be a pathfinder, a point made by Janet Smylie, a Métis family physician known internationally for her work in the field of Indigenous health. In an interview entitled "Good Medicine", she is open about the many personal difficulties she faced, struggled through and overcame, in order to find her true self as an Indigenous woman, and as a health professional.
As the "#" of the title suggests, the contributions to this collection are short – not as brief as Twitter's 144 characters, but never extending past two pages. The graphics, photos, and artwork work in harmony with the text, providing sophisticated visual appeal for readers who have grown up in the digital age. Although some submissions were made by younger high school students, this is a book for female readers, aged 16 and up. CBC Radio listeners will know Lisa Charleyboy as "Urban Native Girl", the host of New Fire. A member of the Tsilhqot'in – Tsi Del Del First Nation, Lisa is an accomplished writer, speaker and media personality, exploring the interests, achievements, and concerns of Indigenous youth, whether they live on remote reserves or in urban centres. An award-winning writer, editor and creator of material for children and young adults, Mary Beth Leatherdale has a long-standing interest in Native culture and a commitment to the power of literature cross cultural boundaries. Together, they have produced a collection which speaks of the past, present, and future for Indigenous women.
Throughout #NotYourPrincess, Indigenous women find their authentic voices by reclaiming, acknowledging and integrating tradition into their lives. Some of their experiences have been joyful, and some have been painful, but they are all insightful. This is a collection that is often edgy, and always provocative. Although the book is intended as a "love letter to all Indigenous young women" ("Foreword"), open-minded readers who are not Indigenous will find much to help them re-consider past assumptions, beliefs, and yes, prejudices. Highly recommended for senior high school library collections and as a supplemental resource for high school teachers of English, Indigenous Studies, and graphic arts.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB, (Treaty 1 Territory).