“Skirting the Issue”: a response & call to action

I submitted a shorter version of this op-ed to the Winnipeg Free Press on June 17, 2015, in response to Professor Joanne Boucher’s opinion piece entitled “Dress-code message at U of W sexist”.

After this, the WFP published a response, “Pipe ceremony dress code uncalled for”, where Prof. Boucher was quoted once more, along with four men (any one of whom could’ve redirected media attention to an Indigenous woman). The voices of Indigenous women and Two-Spirits excluded on an issue that at its core impacts our bodies and our lives. We are the ones who face the consequences of these discussions, along with the backlash.

Finally, rather than choosing to publish anything submitted by Indigenous women (or any of the many Indigenous women academics who speak publicly on ceremony and protocol), the Winnipeg Free Press published an editorial calling the whole thing a result of “identity politics”. The issue of protocol in ceremonies is not about “identity politics”, but about the right of Indigenous women to exercise self-determination.

The title of my blog, “skirting the issue”, is attributed to Dr. Alex Wilson.

woman with travois and child

“Going Mobile: Cree woman with travois and child, around Saskatoon, C. 1900). Photo originally posted by Paul Seesequasis.


In the context of Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirits facing staggering colonial violence, it’s crucial to challenge sexism in patriarchy in all of our communities – white and Indigenous.

My objections to Professor Boucher’s argument are not to deny that ceremonial protocol forcing women to wear skirts is unacceptable (because it is) – it’s the claim that she was the first and only one to notice and speak up about it, and the attempt to remove ceremony from campus on the grounds that it is “religious”.

As a Cree student at the University of Saskatchewan, I have been one of many Indigenous feminists across Canada involved in speaking up for ceremonial spaces that are inclusive for all genders and sexualities. I’ve felt empowered to speak out thanks to many strong Indigenous feminists around me, whose work is often erased, or dismissed as “non-traditional”. Indigenous women are still assumed to be passive and in need of “saving” from an archaic culture, and this is not at all the case. Indigenous communities are not a monolithic group.

Many Indigenous women in the prairies choose to wear skirts to ceremony, and many do not. One of the lead organizers of Idle No More, Sylvia McAdam, joked that she tried to wear a long skirt while walking around in the thick Saskatchewan bush, and found it ridiculous rather than romantic.

Last year, there was a similar opinion to Professor Boucher’s published in the University of Saskatchewan newspaper. Once again, it was by a non-Indigenous professor who had not visibly engaged with the on-campus Indigenous community, and once again, the person claimed that they were the only one to challenge the protocol.

It’s frustrating to speak to a white audience about my activism, and the only questions directed at me are “Isn’t there a lot of sexism in Native communities?” or “What about lateral violence?” My response is usually, “Of course are talking about these things in our communities. What are you doing about sexism in your own community? What are you doing about the men from your community, who dump our bodies into ditches and rivers?” Well-meaning folks who intend to “save” us from our ceremonies should situate themselves in the history of white Canadian settlers, missionaries, and residential schools that pushed the belief that Indigenous women’s bodies were dangerous, dirty, evocative, and needed to be covered. The attempted discipline of our bodies continues today, in many forms, as does the negation of colonial violence inflicted upon us. A notable example of this is murdered and missing Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirits the and lack of action or concern on the part of Canadians. (I write about this in more depth here: https://moontimewarrior.com/2015/04/02/for-cindy-for-ourselves-healing-in-the-context-of-colonial-gender-violence/)

To call for the removal of Indigenous ceremonies from campus on the grounds that they are “religious” does not acknowledge the nature of ceremony or the ongoing history of attempts by Canada to eliminate Indigenous cultures and people. In an era where we are finally admitting that at least “cultural genocide” is a reality, it is nice to have the option as Indigenous students (even those of us who are agnostic/atheist) to take part in ceremonies in institutions where we still face daily racism and under-representation, especially for those of us in urban centers with few other spaces to access ceremony. Of course, ceremonies cannot be used in place of meaningful anti-racist curricular and policy change at educational institutions. Across Canada, pow wows and pipe ceremonies are tokenized, used in lieu of systematic change. Feathers are painted on school walls, as if this will counteract the hostility of facing classes, curriculum, peers, and teachers that stereotype and erase us.

After discussions at the University of Saskatchewan campus led by Indigenous women and Two-Spirits, and particularly work on the part of Dr. Alex Wilson from Opaskwayak Cree Nation (who has written extensively on the issue of sexism in our communities), a groundbreaking anti-discrimination policy for inclusive ceremonies on campus was enacted. I hope that the University of Winnipeg will look into this and follow suit, because protocol is not “voluntary” when one is handed a skirt the moment they walk in the door, and shamed or cast out if they fail to comply.

This issue is one of bodily self-determination and ending violence against Indigenous women and Two-Spirits. Ultimately, Professor Boucher and I agree that women should have the right to choose freely what to do with their bodies and clothing. For me, bodily self-determination also includes the right to participate in ceremonies that were stripped from my women ancestors (if I so choose), and to feel safe, not shamed while doing it.

I acknowledge that Professor Boucher’s article inspired me to complete an article on this issue, and I hope that she, in turn, recognizes the privilege in her commentary on Indigenous women as an outsider being published Canada-wide, while Indigenous feminists have never had that platform. This is not a command for non-Indigenous women to be silent on violence against Indigenous women – in fact, we need you to stand with us, not in front of us, challenging colonial violence.

I’m asking that those who want to be real allies to Indigenous women recognize the intersections of race, colonialism, and gender we face, and do not claim to speak for us. I am also against the backlash that women face for daring to speak out against patriarchal “tradition” based on values that colonial missionaries imposed on our cultures. This means implementation of policy, curriculum, governance, and ceremony that respects the bodily sovereignty of Indigenous women & Two-Spirits, while honoring the struggles of Indigenous women who bravely reject sexism today and the histories of Indigenous women fighting sexism since time immemorial.

9 thoughts on ““Skirting the Issue”: a response & call to action”

  1. Hello, Joanne Boucher here.
    Thank you for your article. It is very thoughtful and thought provoking. I believe, as you say, that we agree on the central issue. But I did wish to clarify what I thought I was speaking to in the op-ed. I do not believe that I am the only or first person to have raised this issue. I was describing my one conversation with the Student President. It was he who said he had heard no dissent. I do regret if this was unclear. I agree with you that this would be an absurd and disrespectful statement.
    I felt I was speaking primarily as someone in a particular public institution and the problem of conflicting needs and rights in public spaces. This was meant to be an entirely and completely public meeting … to foster an open discussion about the new indigenous course requirement. That’s what I thought was problematic and counter-productive.
    Actually it was disappointing that attendance at the meeting was relatively sparse. For example, only a handful of faculty members attended.
    For me, the university is a lot of things and one of the central things it is for me is a workplace. I felt I raised the issue with that specifically in mind. I thought that the university administration and student association rep. were ignoring this in a rather cavalier fashion. Indeed, if you look at the Free Press today and the UW website the Administration and student leaders seem to be defending a gender dress code as a policy that should be criticism free. Again, we may all come to agree that in particular times, places and for particular meetings this is entirely appropriate. But this requires some discussion about the issues. And I must say the perspective you’ve articulated is nowhere to be seen in their comments. I do hope that you are able to get a wide hearing on this issue and that your view is published in the Free Press.
    There is so much more to be said about this. And, I also do recognize as many have noted that in the scheme of things this may be a minor point but hopefully it allows the opening up of respectful conversations.
    Thanks for “listening”. Cheers, JB

  2. Where can I find a copy of the anti-discrimination policy for inclusive ceremonies on campus that you mention?

  3. Great article Erica. Thanks for writing it. This issue has been brought to the attention of U of W administration many times in the past. For example, a few years ago an event as part of the Transgender Day of Remembrance distributed a flyer similarly stating that women attending the event (a march) must wear skirts. Indigenous women including Elders in the community responded in objection and the U of W quickly removed that line from any materials advertising the event and issued an apology and clarification on the event facebook page that everyone was welcome to attend. The response in the WFP from Uof W student reps is obviously uninformed. They really need to do some homework before they make statements to the press.
    Here is the link to the U of S’s anti harrassment policy:

  4. Had a respectful conversation with an elder and pipe carrier this weekend. She is very clear on “women” wearing a skirt. She is Odawa and I am Ojibway/Metis of mixed blood. I identify as Ogitchidaakwe (Two-Spirit in a female body). My tribe and community greatly supports Two-Spirits. I don’t even own a skirt. The Creator will see me for who I am regardless if I am in a shorts, a towel, bathing suit, or jeans and a t-shirt. The argument from her is that the Creator will see me as a woman if I am wearing a skirt in ceremony. However I made it clear to her that I don’t even identify as a woman, I just happen to be in a female body. I know I can be myself in my community and tribe. But the community and area I live in most of the time right now has been heavily influenced by Christianity and share colonially imposed gender roles. We have ancestral Chiefs in our heritage and often I wonder what they would say about all of these imposed and unhealthy structures. I will challenge this forever. I am looking for photographs as far back as I can go on my people to see what we wore. So far I have found that those in male bodies also wore somewhat of a skirt and pants. Same with the women. But I wonder about Two-Spirits.

    Here is an interesting picture — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwe#/media/File:Hombres_ojibwe.jpg

    ** the file name is a bit odd but the picture shows what I want to share **

    1. You moved me with your words about the Creator seeing you for who you are. I can’t agree more.

  5. Hi Erica,
    Thank you for your brave response and call to action. I really appreciate how eloquently you were able to write about (what sounds like) an incredibly frustrating and complex issue on being “seen” without being tokenized on campus. I was really moved by your piece and will be making more of an effort to reach out to indigenous women on my college campus. I want to hear more of your stories and how I can be an ally and advocate for your community. The intersections of gender, culture and body policing are experiences I am familiar with as an American-Muslim woman. Looking forward to reading more of your work as I explore your page.


  6. I appreciate hearing another female speak to skirt shaming… I went to a Mide Lodge for the first time and was told ahead of time that women had to wear a skirt to enter. I am Two Spirit and my wife was very upset, she felt FORCED to act out of character in order to participate and witness ceremony. At first, I admit it hadn’t occurred to me that this was sexist, but listening to her protest, I had to agree the protocol sounded very much like colonized thinking…
    I asked why women had to wear a skirt and if my Two Spirited partner would be expected to if it went against her very being… my inquiry was left unanswered -even though I was told to ask any questions of this person.
    We didn’t end up staying at the week long ceremony, which was sad because I have been drawn to “come home” and have been working diligently to decolonize my mind and body. The thought of this imposed dress code was distracting and felt like a heavy burden in my heart. It was the exact opposite of what I had been told as a child by a Mide elder about our all-inclusive culture (Ojibwa) and acceptance of Two-Spirits…

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