“Manly-Hearted Women” and Other Stories of Epic Indigenous People We Need to Hear Right Now

The past week has been a difficult one for many people. I’ve been spending a lot of my time feeling anxious and overwhelmed, scrolling through social media to stay informed, and trying to meditate on how to use my privileged position to take action in meaningful ways to combat racism, particularly in my own country. Many in the United States are facing violence while protesting against racist police violence. However, Canada in general and Saskatchewan in particular have their own problems with racism, particularly anti-Indigenous racism. I’m an educator, both in my personal life and work life. A lot of what I do is try to amplify the right voices and stories, and change hearts and minds in wider society. I provide historical context for the world came to be as it is today, challenge misunderstandings of the past, and try to bring to the fore lesser-known stories that may cast nuance and shades of grey on a past many see in terms of black and white.

It’s a chilly and rainy day today where I am, so as I often do I turn to some of my favourite history books. Sarah Carter’s The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada is one of the first books I ever read that really tilted my understanding of the world on its axis, just a little bit. (You can download a PDF of this book in full for free from Athabasca University Press’s website.) In her introduction, Carter discusses how the idea of “traditional” marriage – ’til death do you part, between one man and one woman of the same race in a church ceremony – was not in fact ubiquitous in what is now Western Canada. Intra-racial marriages, plural marriages, non-church ceremonies… these were all very, very common in the West for generations.

In this post, I want to highlight the stories of a few people, largely Blackfoot, who bucked what some would call “traditional” gender norms. I think that the stories of these awesome people, thriving, are the kinds of stories I and others need to hear right now, particularly during Pride Month. This passage is taken directly from Carter’s book:

“Aboriginal people of the plains also permitted marriages of people of the same sex. One of the spouses might be a ‘two-spirit’ who took on the activities, occupations, and dress of the opposite sex, in whole or in part, temporarily or permanently. There was no insistence on conformity to binaries of masculinity and femininity. Indian agents were frustrated by their inability to tell men and women apart, and they made mistakes, or were misled, when describing certain individuals. Oftentimes they did note the flexibility of gender roles when they described individuals to which annuities were paid, as evident in terms such as ‘wife shown as boy last year,’ ‘boy paid as girl last year,’ and ‘boy now a man formerly ran as a girl.’ Clothing, hair, footwear, and personal décor did not differentiate men from women in the way that Euro-Canadians were accustomed to. Qu’Appelle storekeeper Edward J. Brooks wrote in an 1882 letter to his wife-to-be that ‘I saw a couple of pure blooded Indians down at the station a couple of days ago and could not tell whether both were [women] or not but finally made up my mind that they were man and wife. They were both dressed as nearly alike as possible, had long braided hair, wore lots of jewellery and had their faced painted with Vermillion paint.’ An English visitor to Western Canada named Edward Roper wrote in his 1891 book that “most of us found it almost impossible to tell the young men and women apart; they were exactly alike in face [the men had no ‘beards or whiskers’], and being generally enveloped in blankets the difficulty increased.’ All wore similar beautifully decorated moccasins, bangles, and earrings, Roper wrote.

In Plains societies there were women who did not marry and pursued activities mostly associated with men. They hunted buffalo and went to war. An informant to [anthropologist Esther] Goldfrank described a woman warrior who was treated as a true leader. She was renowned for acts of bravery such as going into an enemy’s tipi and taking headdresses from behind the bed. ‘She used to leave her legging at the enemy camp and they would say ‘that woman has been here again.’ She always slept alone, while the men remained in camp. She would sleep on top of the hill and she sang a song. The next day she would know where to lead the party.’ This may have been the warrior another informant identified as “Trim Woman,” saying that ‘that kind of woman is always respected and everyone depends on them. They are admired for their bravery. They are ‘lucky’ on raids and so the men respect them.” Another Kainai woman, Empty Coulee, had a story similar to Trim Woman’s, but she had more courage, killing enemies and capturing guns, while Trim Woman only captured horses. After she became expert in raiding she changed her name to Running Eagle, a man’s name. She wore women’s clothing, but she ‘got respect as a ‘real man.’’ She never married.

Some of the women who took on ‘manly’ roles were married. . . Edwin Thompson Denig, a fur trader during the years 1833 and 1856, described a Gros Ventre woman who was a respected warrior, negotiator and hunter, and who was regarded as the third-ranked chief of her band. She had a wife.” (page 123-4)

Carter goes on to describe several historical accounts of people we today may call transgender women, who went to war but also excelled at sewing and had “a devoted husband.”

We today are informed by our past but are not beholden to it. I have found that oftentimes, people use imperfect understandings of the past to justify the status quo, that things can’t change because “it’s tradition” or “this is how it’s always been,” as if that is reason enough to justify a refusal to change things that hurt people. However, it is worth noting that many of these simplistic histories cited so triumphantly by people as they learned in school or in the movies erases the stories of people that run counter to their arguments. Our histories for many years were written by those in power, those who were literate, who could read and write in the dominant language of the state. The stories of women, the stories of people who didn’t fit the mold, were often ignored or written about by outsiders who didn’t know the people involved or who didn’t understand what they were seeing. If their stories were documented by contemporaries they may have been ignored or forgotten because they didn’t fit the dominant narrative.

However, just because we as a society aren’t broadly aware of these historical figures doesn’t mean they never existed. That’s one of the reasons why I really appreciate researchers like Sarah Carter and others, who use the very documents being produced by the state, read against the grain, to catch glimpses of these people: the men who formerly ran as girls and the women who took on men’s names and led men into battle.

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