International Women’s Day is a global celebration and acknowledgement of the value of women in society. Women of different race, culture, and nationalities are highlighted every eighth of March.
With the Nicola Valley having such a vibrant and rich Indigenous community, the Herald spoke with members of Scw’exmx Child and Family Services Society (SCFSS) to hear about their thoughts on what it means to be a woman in the Indigenous community.
“A woman’s role in our community is a major one,” said Resident Elder Nettie Ernst. “I come from a matriarchal society, that is how our community is structured. I was brought up, as a young child, to adhere to what my grandmother and mother had to offer in their roles as the matriarch of our family.”
Ernst comes from the Upper Nicola Band. Her resiliency despite her traumatic experiences growing up, being taken to the residential school, and losing her Indian Status, speaks to a valuable trait of Indigenous women.
“I think the common experience of colonialism and the disconnect the land, and working to rebuild those culture and traditions have made Indigenous women so strong and so resilient,” said SCFSS Community Planner Stephanie Tourand.
“Indigenous people in general use humour a lot. It’s a big part of the way they cope with trauma, along with connection and ceremony. I think as a community humor is used as an outlet to bring the people closer together to cope with the trauma rather than letting it harden you.”
After leaving the residential school in Kamloops, Ernst continued her education despite hearing that she is not “university material”. She became a nurse working at the Royal Inland Hospital before moving down to work at Vancouver Coastal Health.
“I met my husband while working at Royal Inland,” she recalled. “I had lost my status back in the 70’s when I married him because he was non-native. Back in those days, there was definitely a double standard.”
The Indian Act had the rule where an Indigenous woman would lose her status if she were to be married to a non-Indigenous man. This rule was amended by 1985 through the Bill C31.
“Before that bill, I lost everything,” she explained. “I didn’t have any tools to assist me with my children’s medical or dental, which is different now. We had to work our way through it all.”
Ernst regained her status and so did her son and two daughters. She began her process of healing from all the trauma with the help of her mother and grandmother.
“Thank goodness I had a grandmother and a mom that were powerful women,” she said. “Their teachings stuck with me all these years and going back to that Indigenous frame of living, I think is what probably what saved me.”
Ernst lived down the coast for most of her years, moving back to the Nicola Valley later on. She now pursues work to pass on guidance and wisdom to families, becoming a Resident Elder at SCFSS as well as a part of the team that established the Grandmother’s Group, or K?u St?mti?ma?, in Upper Nicola. Her work demonstrates a nurturing aspect to the Indigenous women.
“I wouldn’t be doing this type of work, with children and families, if I wasn’t a nurturing type of person,” she said. “I am a strong advocate today because no one was advocating for me when I was growing up. I now share my story and my experience.”
Storytelling is another important component of the Indigenous culture. Women love to be social and share stories with their families and communities.
“We are storytellers,” said Ernst. “Our legends, our laws, our lessons in life are all contained in our stories. We are considered an oral people, passing down these stories to the next generation verbally.”
“We learn how to act in society based on what are in these stories,” Tourand added. “When theres a story of a coyote doing something, making a mistake, then learning from it, it’s not just a story. It’s something that we really need to embody and learn from.”
With the advent of technology, Indigenous women started to excel and pursue opportunities that wasn’t traditionally there for them.
“Years ago, I saw women more focused on house keeping skills,” said Ernst. “Back then it was common to see women focus on cooking, or nursing, like myself. Now I see women go to post grad and higher education.”
“The fact that almost half of Indigenous people are living in more urban centres, creates a shift in demographic,” said Tourand. “The urban Indigenous experience requires women to be more proactive and reach out to their community to maintain a hold of their traditions and identity.”
Tourand adds that the challenge for Indigenous communities is to create opportunities, for these educated women, and men, so that they can come back home. However, as previously stated, perseverance and resilience are key traits of these women, motivating them to face the challenge head on.
“I think we’re stronger together,” she said. “I think it’s a challenge to ensure that everyone is still communicating even though we are not physically together.”