Not Just “Rearranging the Furniture”: Patricia Monture-Angus/Aye-wah-han-day (1958-2010) and the Search for Justice
Pre-contact North America had many patterns of gender relations. Some communities were matrilineal and many offered women sources of strength and power. The arrival of Europeans compromised and sometimes destroyed Indigenous traditions. Through conquest, genocide, religion, and re-education, imperialists set out to impose patriarchal models of social and political organization. The Indian Act (beginning in 1876 in the Dominion of Canada) restricted women’s rights to status even as it aimed to transform Indigenous governance. The result, in concert with a massive land grab and efforts at cultural assimilation, hit hard. The well-known prairie Rebellions of 1870 and 1885 were just the most obvious signs of resistance to European incursion. Commonplace preoccupation with male-led opposition, as with the Riel-led struggles and today’s Assembly of First Nations, detracts from a continuing story of female struggle. The Ojibwa Nahnebahwequay/ Catherine Bunch Sonego (1824-1865) embodied early challenges to newcomers (Smith). Later in the 19th century, the Mohawk Tekahionwake/ Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) repudiated the racist and sexist epithet ‘squaw’ in the course of a public career that insisted on Indigenous integrity (Gerson & Strong-Boag).
For much of the 20th century, racism and associated sexism, signaled by tightened restrictions on civil liberties, as with the 1927-1951 ban on Indians’ employment of lawyers to advance their causes and the proliferation of residential schools, endangered Indigenous survival and contributed to widespread violence against Native women. In the last decades of the century, however, an activist generation emerged to once again demand a fair deal. The Mohawk lawyer and scholar, Patricia Monture-Angus, like writers Jeannette Armstrong (b 1948) and Maria Campbell (b 1940) (Hoy) and children’s rights advocate and lawyer, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond (b 1963), renewed women’s public repudiation of colonial racism and sexism. As Monture-Angus understood, she and such contemporaries were a revolutionary phenomenon, many of them working “at the cutting edge of the ‘first wave’ of Aboriginal academics who are experiencing the university in ‘groups’ rather than in absolute isolation”(Monture-Angus, 2001, 280).
Born like Pauline Johnson in the Grand River territory of the Iroquois in Ontario, Patricia Monture (marriage to a Cree man added Angus) always highlighted her Mohawk ancestry and that particular community’s longstanding leadership in anti-imperialist struggles. When as a young Ontario law graduate in 1988, she refused a required oath of allegiance to the Crown (Gray), she reminded Canadians that the Iroquois Six Nations had never surrendered and their sovereignty was never extinguished. Her successful suit helped propel her to positions in the Law faculties at Dalhousie University and the University of Ottawa where she continued a determined critic of the imposition of foreign governance and ideas of justice. She also proved an equally thoughtful and not easily denied critic of mainstream feminism, which she condemned as frequently complicit in imperialism. She stirred many consciences and provided an important spur to modern Canadian feminism’s recognition of diversity.
When she shifted to a faculty position, and eventually a full professorship in Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, Monture-Angus remained an untamed challenger to the racism and sexism of Canadian government and society. She was, as she said, never ‘at home’ in occupied territory (Monture-Angus, 2001).
Like many post-colonial scholars, Monture-Angus firmly linked the oppression of Indigenous peoples and that of women. In particular, she argued that Europeans had attacked egalitarian pre-contact gender relations in order to seize new lands. And together with many other Indigenous champions, she drew heavily on beliefs in the centrality of maternal experience for women, a faith ironically enough that resembled that of many early First Wave settler feminists. This perspective, what Black American feminist scholar “Patricia Hill Collins calls ‘motherwork’ [or]…ability to procreate and nurture their children, communities, and the earth.”(Udel, 43), placed women at the centre of Indigenous life. In contrast, the Indian Act had empowered a male elite who under the influence of European patriarchy had lost sight of the essential legacy of egalitarianism (see McCall, 120). As she explained, “both the fact that Aboriginal governments have been interfered with and the specific manner that this interference was gender-based is important to understanding the justice obstacles Aboriginal people now face” (Monture-Angus, 1999b, 25).
Taking a position similar to that argued by US feminist Adrienne Rich—‘the master’s tools will not demolish the master’s house’—Monture-Angus demanded a wholesale revision of Indigenous-settler relations and the place of women within them. Her sustained examination of the disproportionate presence of Native women and men in the Canadian criminal justice system confirmed that settler law, like education, offered little hope of justice (1999b). Where once Pauline Johnson had counted on Christianity, schooling, and the law for remedy, her successor demanded a complete rearrangement of all the ‘furniture’ of government introduced after Christopher Columbia’s so-called discovery of North America. In her refusal to accept subordination in Native communities or in Canada, Monture-Angus was nevertheless a clear heir to the message left by Johnson in her final poem, ‘fight on.’ In the second decade of the 21st century, it is an injunction still honoured as well by Idle No More.
Gerson, Carole and Veronica Strong-Boag, “Championing the Native: E. Pauline Johnson Rejects the Squaw” in Katie Pickles and Myra Rutherdale, eds., Contact Zones: Aboriginal & Settler Women in Canada’s Colonial Past (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005).
Gray, Cynthia, “A Question of Sovereignty: Patricia Monture vs. the Queen,” Canadian Woman Studies.10:2 & 3 (1987): 146-147. http://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/cws/article/view/11195, accessed 29 Jan. 2014.
Hoy, Helen, How Should I Read These? Native Women Writers in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).
McCall, Sophie, First Personal Plural: Aboriginal Storytelling and the Ethics of Collaborative Authorship (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).
Monture-Angus, Patricia and Patricia D. McGuire, eds., First Voices: An Aboriginal Women’s Reader (Toronto: Brunswick Books, 2009).
…. Journeying Forward: Dreaming First Nations’ Independence (Halifax: Fernwood Books, 1999a).
…. “On Being Homeless: One Aboriginal Woman’s ‘Conquest’ of Canadian Universities, 1989-98” in Francisco Valdes, Jerome Accristal Culp, Angela Harris, eds., Crossroads, Directions and New Critical Race Theory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
…. Thunder in My Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks (Halifax: Fernwood Books, 1995).
…. “Women and Risk: Aboriginal Women, Colonialism,” Canadian Woman Studies 19: 1 & 2 (1999b): 26-29.
Smith, Donald B., “Nahnebahwequay (Nahneebahweeua, meaning upright woman; known as Catherine Sutton, née Catherine Bunch Sonego,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography IX (1861-1870), http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nahnebahwequay_9E.html, accessed 25 January 2014.
Udel, Lisa J., “Prevision and Resistance: The Politics of Native Women’s Motherwork,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22:2 (2001): 43-62.
 In 2004, in the course of a keynote speech to a justice conference hosted by BC’s Stó:lõ nation, Monture-Angus argued that “rearranging the furniture is not Aboriginal justice”, quoted in Ted Palys and Wenona Victor, “1. ‘Getting to a Better Place’: Qwi:qwelstóm, the Stó:lõ, and Self-Determination” in Law Commission of Canada, Indigenous Legal Traditions (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), footnote 9, p. 36.
 “And He Said, Fight On,” Flint and Feather (1913).