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How Indigenous Women Are Reclaiming Their Sexuality

Colonization taught us to feel ashamed of our bodies and desires. But through public and private expressions of our sexual selves, we are taking back our power.
By Andrea Landry
An illustration of a woman with long dark hair kneeling in a thong. (Illustration: Chief Lady Bird)

As a child, I was told that Indigenous girls and women are sacred. It's part of our traditional teachings.

But the way I was treated told me otherwise. Over and over, the world told me they believed I was worthless.

In middle school, kids would throw pennies at me and my sister. They'd call us "squaw" and "penny whore." The boys who did it were made the victims by the teachers. We were the bullies for standing up for ourselves.

Before colonization, Indigenous women played specific roles within our kinship systems. We were the ones who mentored the young girls to fill the future roles of traditional midwives, medicine women and knowledge keepers. We were the key decision makers, the ones who knew all of the rules of our traditional legal systems, and the ones who decided which wars were worth fighting. We were held in the highest esteem by our communities; we were the backbones of our peoples. And then came colonization.

Suddenly, Indigenous women were placed into the category of “other.” Patriarchy and sexism trained us to be ashamed of our bodies and our sexual selves. Our women were dehumanized and brutalized. Fetishized. Made to be submissive. Kidnapped, raped, murdered. And it was all normalized.

But things are changing. Today, Indigenous women are breaking free from this oppression and reclaiming their self-power, reviving the very thing colonialism attempted to destroy: the sacredness of sexuality and practices of body sovereignty.

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Chippewa and Potawatomi artist Nancy King—better known by her Anishinaabe name Ogimaa Kwe Bnes, or Chief Lady Bird—is one such woman, overriding the effects of colonization with her body through art.

An illustration of a naked woman reclining, holding a purple sphere. (Illustration: Chief Lady Bird)

Having experienced sexual awakening quite young, King was nonetheless able to ease and settle into her body comfortably. But outside perspectives made her question her inherent understanding of her sexuality. “Shame was planted within me by the colonial gaze,” she says. “I was made to feel disposable, undesirable, objectified and powerless. And when I was feeling these things, I didn’t feel like myself." King turned to art and photography as a conduit for healing and transformation.

“When we share our sexuality from an Anishinaabe lens, it becomes poetic,” she says. “No longer are we submissive or fetishized; instead, we are able to share the nuances of what it means for us.” Through her work, the artist and illustrator from Rama First Nation (with paternal ties to Moose Deer Point First Nation) has created a space that weaves together medicine and the restoration of our body sovereignty as Indigenous women. Her art examines the beauty of the body, images of the naked female form being the norm. The powerful depictions of sexuality and desire undo the shame many of us were taught. “My images depicting sexuality and pleasure from my perspective as an Anishinaabe Kwe include teachings and language; blood memory and the power of dream world; fantasy as a means of healing trauma; and overall, are about standing in our strength and power.”

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King is in good company in her efforts to individually dismantle colonially embedded sexual norms in Indigenous society. Nancy Petwegeeshig, a two-spirited student midwife from Bkejwanong Unceded Territory, sees self-love as playing a key role in the reclaiming and revitalizing of Indigenous body sovereignty and the sacredness of sexuality. Petwegeeshig expresses her sexual self and promotes self-love through uses dance and burlesque, as well as through photography.

A photo of a woman in pull-up stockings and a black bustier, leaning on a bar. Nancy Petwegeeshig

“My love for myself in all forms—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—has been very healing," she says. "It was not always easy as a survivor of many forms of abuse. I often felt that I was not deserving of love. I had such low self-esteem." Creating and nurturing body sovereignty, she says, has healed parts of herself that she never even knew needed healing. "I have control over this body and I choose to share it in ways that are healthy and yes, in ways that are sensual and sexual," she says. "That in itself gives me pleasure and joy.”

With almost half—46 percent—of Indigenous women having been victims of sexual assault, it is an act of resistance and reclamation when we stand firm in our bodies and within expressions of our sexual selves.

It’s also working to break down decades of shame. “It's so important to see Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people openly expressing their sexuality and feeling pleasure in it, whether it be through self-portraits, art, writing, dancing, creating, playing and being,” says Petwegeeshig. “We’ve been told that these are not things that are for others to see, but there is nothing wrong with expressing sexuality in a healthy way. In fact, these conversations of sexual self-expression and joy in feeling sensual will continue to break down the shame imposed on our bodies, in our families, communities and nations."

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No longer are we growing generations of Indigenous girls to be ashamed of their bodies, for those lessons are to be left in the residential schools with the priests and nuns who instilled that within us. We are now growing generations of girls who are proud of themselves and their bodies, and will no longer carry that intergenerational shame. No longer are we following the colonial narratives of becoming victims to the oppressor, or feeding the colonial gaze that King mentions. Instead, we are dancing with this intimate revolution of our own bodies in a way that dismantles colonial ideals.

Whether it's through art, photography, our partners and who we share our bodies with, expressions of our sexual selves in the online world in safe and consensual ways, and more, we are reclaiming what is ours. Indigenous women are ending the narrative of victimhood in bodies. And we are reclaiming the truth.

Our bodies are medicine. Our sexuality is medicine. And we will continue to honour that for generations to come.

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