As Elder Mae Louise Campbell explains, “feminism is an Indigenous concept”.6 Prior to colonization, Indigenous peoples lived within Indigenous matrilineal governance systems across Canada. Indigenous matrilineal values (IMV) are the ancient beliefs that defined Indigenous cultures and how they were organized around the globe before patriarchal dominance. These beliefs and cultural practices stem from the central understanding of and respect for the sacredness of Woman and the Earth Mother.7 Within the pre-colonial IMV context, violence against women rarely occurred and was not tolerated.8
6. Baljeet Sandhu, Lived Experience Leadership: Rebooting the DNA of Leadership, 2019, available at http://www.lexmovement.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/LEx-Report-Final-2.pdf; Louise Byrne, Anthony Stratford, & Larry Davidson, “The global need for lived experience leadership,” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 41(1), 2018, pp.76–79;
7. Baljeet Sandhu, Lived Experience Leadership: Rebooting the DNA of Leadership, 2019, p.3, available at http://www.lexmovement.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/LEx-Report-Final-2.pdf.
8. Elder Mae Louise Campbell, Interview. (Winnipeg, February 28, 2020)
In unity, the contributors to this project collectively call for a resurgence of matrilineal Indigenous-led governance systems to restore Indigenous ways of being and foster healing, love, nurturance, respect, justice, and peace for persons who have experienced sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.
This includes focusing on matrilineal leadership and ancestral knowledge, reconciling with Mother Earth, learning from Elders’ teachings, and creating culturally appropriate education and awareness strategies.
The following characteristics are central to IMV:
- a system of beliefs and cultural practices which stem from the central understanding of and respect for the sacredness (sanctity) of the Earth Mother and Woman;
- the recognition of the Earth Mother as the Clan Mother and Matriarch of life-loving cultures of peace;
- the recognition of the Earth Mother as a living, sacred, creative force of intelligence that guides all life;
- a reverence for Woman as life-giver; and
- the acknowledgement of Woman for carrying innate wisdom as Mother, and teaching principles of love, nurturance and growth, peace and justice from which her family, community, and nations can develop and prosper.9
9. See, for example, Alannah Earl Young & Denise Nadeau, “Decolonising the Body: Restoring Sacred Vitality,” Atlantis, 29(2), 2005, pp. 13-22.
The dismantling of these matrilineal systems and teachings as a result of colonization and patriarchal Eurocentric values continues to have substantial impacts on Indigenous communities in general, and on Indigenous women and girls in particular.
In order to end sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, the focus needs to be placed on meeting the needs of all of our relations, transforming mothering into a cultural model, as was done by Indigenous peoples prior to colonization.
Ancestral knowledge and teachings reveal that matrilineal leadership is key. So too is a matriarchal approach. A matriarchal approach is “not just a reversal of patriarchies, with women ruling over men – as the usual misinterpretation would have it.” Rather, “matriarchies are mother-centered societies. They are based on maternal values: care-taking, nurturing, mothering. This holds true for everybody: for mothers and those who are not mothers, for women and men alike.” 10
10. See, for example, Erin Hanson, “Marginaluization of Aborigianl Women”, available at https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/marginalization_of_aboriginal_women/ and Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought and Agency Amongst Humans and Non Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!),” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 2(1), 2013.
As Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth explains, “Within matriarchal cultures, equality means more than just a levelling of differences.” 11 Indeed, “matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among generations, and between humans and nature. Maternal values as ethical principles pervade all areas of a matriarchal society. This creates an attitude of care-taking, nurturing, and peacemaking. This can be observed on all levels of society: the economic, the social, the political, and the spiritual-cultural.” 12
11. See, for example, Erin Hanson, “Marginalization of Aboriginal Women”, available at https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/marginalization_of_aboriginal_women/; Kim Anderson & Bonita Lawrence, Eds., Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival (Toronto: Sumach Press, 2003); Peggy Blair, “Rights of Aboriginal Women On- and Off-Reserve,” (Vancouver: The Scow Institute, 2005); and Lisa Udel, “Revision & Resistance: The Politics of Native Women’s Motherwork,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 22(2), 2001, pp. 43-62.
12. Dr. Heide Goettner-Abendroth, “Matriarchies Are Not Just a Reversal of Patriarchies: A Structural Analysis by Heide Goettner-Abendroth,” Feminism and Religion, available at https://feminismandreligion.com/2020/02/16/matriarchies-are-not-just-a-reversal-of-patriarchies-a-structural-analysis-by-heide-goettner-abendroth/?fbclid=IwAR0Sq2GQdfbdItxqh8H1_zr1eNLTdWUajvJnWCFCmzpGNaGxajrEgOmnC-Y.
It’s time for women to reclaim their leadership and power, for our communities to celebrate, love, and honour lived experience leaders, and for all of us to collectively speak from our heart and spirit. As Elder Mae Louise Campbell emphasizes based on teachings from the Grandmothers, “You have the power to change the mind from thinking the way it does, and to get to listen to the true spirit of who you really are – this beautiful, sacred, amazing woman.”
The Earth we all share is exquisite and awe-inspiring. All life is beautiful. We must protect it, preserve it, and be good stewards and caretakers.
It’s critical that we individually and collectively reconcile with Mother Earth and all of our relations.
Indeed, we all have a responsibility to serve justice and equality. In particular, those who have benefited from injustices such as colonization and sexual exploitation have a duty to listen, work to be better allies, right past wrongs, and treat those who have been subject to abuse and suffering with dignity and respect.
It’s time to return to Spirit and relearn how to live through Spirit. As Elder Mae Louise Campbell reminds us, “We are, all of us, Spirit. […] And the greatest separation in all the separations in the world is the separation of the human spirit from us, from our bodies.” She further explains that “whatever happens to the Earth will happen to the children of the Earth, I love that, which is [the] truth, for we are all children of the Earth.”.
For those who have experienced sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, ceremony and culture provide pathways to heal and move forward in a good way amidst ongoing gender-based violence, victim blaming, and legacies of historical and intergenerational inequality.
Indigenous culture, particularly ceremonies and teachings by Elders, has been instrumental for us as lived experience leaders. As Mandy Tait Martensrecounts, “culture saved my life”.
For Mandy and others who have healed from sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, “walking with somebody, instead of saying this is where you go […] that’s what leadership is all about.”
The Elders who thoughtfully and lovingly weighed in during each step of this project gifted us with many teachings. As they emphasize, we all come from Spirit and were designed with a purpose. By returning to Spirit, each and every one of us can find our voice, speak our truth, and, most importantly, learn to love ourselves and others.
Experiential-led education and awareness are pivotal to preventing sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Nobody understands the ins and outs of these human rights abuses better than those who have experienced them first-hand.
Indeed, we know the why, what, and how of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. We are aware of past, current, and emerging trends, including the latest technology and grooming tactics used by exploiters and traffickers. We also know how to counteract them via culturally appropriate and evidence-informed prevention and intervention strategies. Having this up-to-date hands-on information from experts who are currently working in the counter-trafficking and counter sexual exploitation fields is invaluable.
Parents, grandparents, care givers, educators, community members, front-line service providers, law enforcement, leaders, the general public, and beyond urgently need to learn and understand how they can better protect our most vulnerable people from being sexual exploited. Most of all, the knowledge and wisdom of lived experience leaders must inform our systems, be respected, and acted upon.
Lastly, as Cultural Support Worker Charlene Gladue emphasizes, “I got my education and all of that, I learned so much about myself, so much about my community, so much about my people, about women, about healing.” Persons who have been sexually exploited heal and flourish when given meaningful opportunities for further education. We call for more of these opportunities, as they are empowering and transformative, and, in turn, serve to help us give back and help others.