A University Grants Commission Approved Journal
(under UGC-CARE, Arts & Humanities Citation Index)
ISSN 2582-2241




Feminist cultural practice that defines specific gender roles has often been inadequate to the agenda of Indigenous Canadian and Dalit women’s concerns for identity and self-determination. Through a few comparative case studies, this paper focuses on how such authors have tried to negotiate the challenge of representing the past from the unspoken but inexorable reality of the present. Indigenous and Dalit authors have indeed been engaged in dialogues that seek self-determination embodied in a desire to articulate literary theories and practices from an Indigenous/Dalit perspective. A gendered experience of change, place, and belonging has informed Indigenous Canadian and Dalit women’s experiences in socio-political and cultural territories. The study of literature by the Indigenous Canadian and Dalit authors in focus provides a trajectory to evaluate modes of embodied knowledges and communal values. A gendered selfhood in these contexts is not distinct from, but may also be indispensable to, the process of conveying a holistic, complex framework of Indigenous and Dalit knowledge building.

IN HER ESSAY “A VANISHING INDIAN? OR ACOOSE: WOMAN Standing Above Ground?”, Janice Acoose, who traces her ancestry to the Sakimay (Saulteaux) First Nation and the Marival Métis community, analyses her experiences in teaching as an Indigenous professor of English at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College and as a PhD candidate in English at the University of Saskatchewan. As an Indigenous[1] woman and as a writer/critic, her dilemma is in the fact that “her resolve to resist the ideological influences of the colonizer becomes weaker” when she has to negotiate with the “Wiintigo like forces of Western literary criticism and its accompanying critical language.”[2]

Most importantly, Indigenous women have often been concerned with issues related to land, sacred places, and education stemming from a communal space. Indigenous women have spoken and written powerfully from experiences that they have lived or have chosen to relive through the stories they choose to tell. In their articulation of what Métis author Marilyn Dumont calls “internalized colonialism,”[3] Indigenous women writers have discussed preconceived gender roles that have perpetuated colonial categorisations, affecting Aboriginal people of mixed ancestry and the urban population. In a special issue on Native women in Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la femme, Marlyn Kane (Osennotion) and Sylvia Maracle (Skonaganleh:rá) problematise the concept of feminism from an Indigenous perspective. Sylvia Maracle argues:

I agree we had a hard time with this thing called ‘feminism’, and writing for a ‘feminist’ journal…I understand the nature of being defined as a ‘feminist’ and wanting some sense of equality, but frankly, I don’t want equality…I want to make an effort at going back to at least respecting the role that women played in communities…[4]

Kane and Maracle’s standpoint asserts a radical dismemberment of preconceived notions of gender and critical theory. The volume, which ‘permits’ a collective of Indigenous women to be guest editors, calls for a unification of different women artists, writers and critics, “who are burdened with such labels as immigrant women, or visible minority women.” Acoose, too, would like to empower the voices of her ancestors such that they are much more assertive than ‘muted echoes.’ One of the methods of asserting their voices is the entry of Native oral traditions into print culture. In this manner, mainstream forms are revitalised with the usage of traditional forms of storytelling. Using images from daily life, household chores and pleasures related to finding, making, and eating food, the banter of children, Indigenous writers like Lee Maracle, Jeannette Armstrong, and Monique Mojica also create different registers of truth, and culturally mediated knowledges.

Indigenous authors have indeed been engaged in dialogues that seek self-determination embodied in a desire to articulate literary theories and practices from an Indigenous perspective. Authors such as Lee Maracle have vociferously critiqued colonialist assumptions of Native identity, refusing to be labelled within western literary traditions of criticism. In the celebrated instance of Anne Cameron’s collection of oral stories in Daughters of Copper Women, Maracle wrote, “Anne thinks that a writer has a perfect right to write about anything under the heavens. In the larger sense, this is true. But right now, it is a bitter pill for me to swallow.”[5] Indigenous women authors assert their feminism by refusing to internalise the ‘”white idea.” Refusing to feel “inferior, stupid, lazy,”[6] Maracle creates characters such as Marianne and Stacey who consistently provide honour and protection to their homes and community. Marianne in Sundogs and Stacey in Ravensong, by the assertion of their independence as women from within the Salish community, create a new language for their communities to address the real multilayered facets of their histories. Both novels delineate difficult stories of family violence, collective responsibility and the coercive reorganisation of familial relations conforming to a uniform patriarchal order under the Indian Act, introduced in 1876, through which the federal government of Canada administers Indian status, local First Nations governments, and the management of reserve land and communal monies.

The relevance of such a project increases since the disintegration of family and community have been historical facts of Native history in the face of internalised pain and increasing death statistics as a result of suicide, violence, alcohol, drug-abuse and similar socio-political problems. In a moving footnote to her assertion that colonialism cannot merely be a theoretical framework but a reality connected to everyday life, Acoose explains:

As I write this paper, my family is entangled in a very painful process. Because of years of drug and alcohol abuse, my youngest sister’s six children were apprehended by the Department of Social Services. Ironically, it was one of my former students of ‘Literature for Decolonization’ who rescued my nieces and nephews. And I am thankful that between my two sisters and me, we could provide safe and loving homes. Unfortunately, my baby sister is not so lucky for she remains a shadow hidden in the statistics of the ‘social problems’ of Native peoples.[7]

Acoose’s addition of the footnote dramatises another mode of subversion of mainstream methods of ideological containment. It suggests a cultural politics of difference, whereby the crumbling of socio-cultural relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women are articulated. Further, it draws our attention to an already present site of productive struggle, which recognises the power of stories to negotiate gender roles from Indigenous perspectives. 

At this point, I would like to draw attention to the issue of representing Dalit[8] women, both at the level of theory and politics, which has erupted time and again in the discourse on Dalit women in the context of feminism in India. The Indian government’s refusal to include caste on the agenda prior to the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) held in Durban, spurred a massive Dalit opposition campaign, and several heated debates about the relationship (or lack thereof) between race and caste. The moot question was whether or not caste could be re-defined as “racial discrimination based on descent” simply to draw it into the international spotlight.[9] Dalit women justify the case for talking differently on the basis of external factors (non-Dalit forces homogenising the issue of Dalit women) and internal factors (the patriarchal domination within the Dalit communities). Dalit women’s narratives foreground the experience of caste deprivation and highlight the struggle of individual women to overcome impoverishment, discrimination, and hostility, whether through education or political involvement. Dalit feminism makes one aware of the limits of theory and the fact that “we cannot take Foucault and Derrida’s side against feminists who work on the ground.”[10] In recent years, Dalit women have challenged their exclusion from the top positions in India’s literary and academic circles. Their protest has brought to the foreground three aspects of Indian society: (1) It is not only caste and class identity but also one’s gender positioning that decides the validity of an event; (2) Dalit men are reproducing the same mechanisms against their women that their high caste adversaries had used to dominate them; (3) the experience of Dalit women shows that local resistance within the Dalits is important. The whole situation compels us to defend the claim of Dalit women to talk differently.[11]

Dalit women writers have come to the forefront since the 1980s with major contributions in autobiographies from stalwarts such as Shantabai Kamble, Kumud Pawde, Mukta Sarvagod, and Babytai Kamble. In her autobiography Antasphot, Kumud Pawde narrates a story of oppression and discrimination that she suffers as a woman and a Dalit who dares to learn the sacred language, Sanskrit, in a rigid, caste-ridden Indian society. At every step, as a teacher of Sanskrit at the Government College, she is reminded of her caste and gender:

“Well, isn’t that amazing! So, you are teaching Sanskrit at the Government College, are you? That’s very gratifying I must say.” The words are quite ordinary: Their literal-meaning is straight-forward. But the meaning conveyed in the tone in which they are said torments me in many different ways! “In what former life have I committed a sin that I should have to learn Sanskrit even from you?” “All our sacred scriptures have been polluted.” Some despair is also conveyed by their facial expressions. “It’s all over! Kaliyug has dawned. After all, they are the Government’s favourite sons-in-law. We have to accept it all!”[12]

Kumud is accepted in society only after an inter-caste marriage, which then provides her a job and social security. Her experiences suggest that less powerful members of a society need to be understood from an epistemological standpoint. Further, they provide a more comprehensive view of social reality than others because of their deprived position. Their specific location in society grants them a certain epistemic privilege over others.

The central goal in the process of unlearning for the privileged communities develops from an ability to listen to the other constituency, and also to learn “to speak in such a way that one will be taken seriously by that other constituency,”[13] which does not need to imply denigration of the other or succumbing to anti-intellectualism. Hawaiian scholar Haunani-Kay Trask envisages the apparently challenging concepts of gender and culture by formulating lateral and vertical divides:

[O]ur efforts at collective self-determination mean that we find solidarity with our own people, including our own men, more likely, indeed preferable, to solidarity with white people, including feminists. Struggle with our men occurs laterally, across and within our movement. It does not occur vertically between the white woman’s movement and Indigenous women on one side and white men and Hawaiian men on the other side. . . . [W]e have more in common, both in struggle and in controversy, with our own men and with each other as Indigenous women than we do with white people, called haole in Hawaiian. This is only to make the familiar point that culture is a larger reality than “women’s rights.”[14]

Trask asserts the primacy of culture by arguing, “At this point in our struggle, race and culture are stronger forces than sex and gender.”[15] Gender does not, therefore, exist as a mere colonial development of prescribed roles for men and women in public and private lives.  A more culturally holistic imperative that highlights the responsibility of protecting land and family becomes an overriding concern.  

A gendered experience of change, place, and belonging has informed Indigenous Canadian and Dalit women’s experiences in socio-political and cultural territories. Their narratives have theorised their empirical encounters with the arts as an integral part of Indigenous knowledge systems, which, in turn, have offered possible readings for Indigenous feminist ideologies. Feminist perspectives into Indigenous lives have to be applied with the help of central feminist paradigms of intersectionality and complementarity. This would provide useful identity markers for analysing dispersed power relations in Indigenous contexts. The study of literature by Indigenous Canadian and Dalit authors in focus provides a trajectory to evaluate modes of embodied knowledges and communal values. A gendered selfhood in these contexts is not distinct from, but may also be indispensable to, the process of conveying a holistic, complex framework of Indigenous and Dalit knowledge building.

  Debashree Dattaray is Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature and Deputy Coordinator, Centre for Canadian Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She has been the recipient of a Shastri Mobility Programme at McGill University, CICOPS Fellowship at University of Pavia, Italy, Fulbright-Nehru Visiting Lecturer Fellowship at UC Berkeley, the Erasmus Mundus Europe Asia Fellowship at the University of Amsterdam, and Fulbright Doctoral Fellowship at State University of New York, Stony Brook. Debashree is the author of Oral Traditions of the North East: A Case Study of Karbi Oral Traditions (2015), and has co-edited At the Crossroads of Literature and Culture (2016); Following Forkhead Paths: Discussions on the Narrative (2017);​ Ecocriticism and Environment: Rethinking Literature and Culture (2017).


[1] According to the United Nations, Document, NUE/CNH/SUB2/L566 of June 29, 1972,

Indigenous populations are the existing descendants of the people who inhabited the present territory of a country at the time when persons of the world overcame them and anyhow reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation; who today look more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of which they now form a part.

[2] Janice Acoose, “A Vanishing Indian? Or Acoose: Woman Standing Above Ground?,” in (Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literatures, ed. Armand Garnet Ruffo (Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2001), 37.

[3] Marilyn Dumont, “Popular Images of Nativeness,” in Looking at the Words of our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature, ed. Jeannette Armstrong (Penticton, BC: Theytus, 1993), 45-49, 49.

[4] Marlyn Kane (Osennotion) and Sylvia Maracle (Skonaganleh:rá), “Our World,” Canadian Woman Studies/Les Cahiers de la femme 10, nos. 2-3 (Summer/ Fall 1989) [Special issue: Native Women]: 15.

[5] Lee Maracle, “Moving Over,” Trivia: A Journal of Ideas: Part II: Languages/ Differences: Writing in Tongues 14 (Spring 1989): 9.

[6] Howard Adams, Prison of Grass: Canada from the Native Point of View (Toronto: New Press, 1975), 7.

[7] Acoose, “A Vanishing Indian?,” 55.

[8] The word Dalit, literally, “oppressed,” refers to the politically regrouped outcastes of Hindu society, whose adoption of this name signifies their struggle for social justice. In the 1970s the Dalit Panthers revived the term and expanded its reference to include scheduled tribes, poor peasants, women and all those being exploited socio-politically and on the basis of caste and religion. The Dalit Panther movement practised an exclusionary male-dominated politics.

[9] United Nations Information Service, “Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Concludes Sixty-Fifth Session,” August 24, 2004. http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/pressrels/2004/rd985.html. Accessed December 2, 2018.

[10] Gayatri Spivak, “Discussion: An Afterword on the New Subaltern,” Subaltern Studies XI, 317.

[11] Gopal Guru, “Dalit Women Talk Differently,” Economic and Political Weekly 30, no. 41/42 (Oct. 14-21, 1995): 2549.

[12] Kumud Pawed, “The Story of My Sanskrit,” in Poisoned Bread: Translations from Marathi Dalit Literature, ed. Arjun Dangle (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1994), 92-106.

[13] Gayatri Spivak with Rashmi Bhatnagar, Lola Chatterjee and Rajeswari Sundar Rajan, “The Post-colonial Critic,” Interview in The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York & London: Routledge, 1990), 42, 57.

[14] Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1993), 264-65.

[15] Ibid, 265.