The Canadian Native Women’s Homemakers’ Clubs serve as an example of how 20th century Native women used small-scale, locally-based associations to promote social justice and welfare, targeting not only their particular communities, but First Nations in general. The Clubs began officially in 1942, although similar groups, such as sewing circles and traditional women’s councils, had a long history within Native communities. By the 1950s the Clubs had become an integral part to many reserves across Canada. Their popularity grew to such an extent that Indian Affairs Agents perceived the local organizations as a legitimate “movement” sweeping the entire nation.
The Native Homemakers organized themselves in such a way to meet the needs of their people and better their society as a whole. They created healthcare projects, held annual conferences and expanded their knowledge through education programs. Most clubs had 12-18 members, ranging from young girls to community Elders. Eventually support for the clubs diminished as Native women expanded their goals. Some of the women, for instance, found the Constitution of the Clubs too rigid. The 1960’s brought about a shift in focus amongst First Nation women. While the Homemaker’s Clubs had emphasized member’s responsibility to the community in conjunction with the improvement of women’s status, new organizations were focused specifically on the betterment of First Nation women with an underlying goal of improving the community as a whole.
Take the case of Alberta’s Native Homemakers’ Clubs. By 1969, there were a mere nine active Homemaker’s Clubs in Alberta, a significant difference in contrast to the 1957 count of 34. Interestingly, the same 1969 survey indicates that although the numbers were low for the Homemaker’s Clubs, there were 26 ‘Other Indian Women’s Organizations’ in Alberta at that time. These statistics demonstrate that although there was an overall decline in the Homemaker’s Clubs by the late 1960’s, the interest and dedication of Native women to organize had not diminished. Most likely, club interests transferred over in the process of creating provincial organizations such as the Voice of Alberta Native Women (later re-named Alberta Native Women’s Association). By establishing a similar association, First Nation women modeled the new organization after the smaller localized affiliations that had been so successful throughout their short existence. Taking this one step further, and considering the high level of organization in Alberta compared to other provinces (it had the most Homemakers’ Clubs by far) it may not come as a surprise that Bertha Clark Jones, the first President of the National Native Women’s Association of Canada, was from Fort McMurry, Alberta.
Overall, the Native Homemakers’ Clubs are not only a reflection of the central role of First Nations women within their communities (past and present), but may be seen as a powerful example of how Aboriginal women in the 20th century extended their influence on local, provincial and national society. In this instance, as in so many others, ‘the local’ is a good place to start in learning political skills that may be useful at national and even global levels.
Magee, Kathryn. “ ‘For Home and Country’: Agency, Activism and Education of Alberta’s Native Women’s Clubs, 1942-1970.” Native Studies Review 18, No. 2 (2009): 27-49.
Mathes, Valerie Sherer. “Nineteenth Century Women and Reform: The Women’s National Indian Association.” American Indian Quarterly 14, No. 1. (Winter, 1990): 1-8.
Landsman, Gail H. “ The “Other” as political Symbol: Images of Indians in the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Ethnohistory 39, No. 3. (Summer, 1992): 247-284.