Minobimaatisiiwin: The Good Life


In native communities of Canada and the United States, women are central to traditional ways of life, to indigenous economic power, and to the resistance of so many native peoples to large-scale development projects.

Why? Why are native women engaged in such a tenacious struggle to defend their communities? And why do so many work to rebuild traditional economic structures?

In the first place, relationships of women to the land have been central to conflicts between indigenous and industrial-settler societies. Eurocentric perceptions of human dominion over nature, and wider perceptions of the god-ordained subservience of women, complicate both relations between colonial society and the land and the relationship of non-indigenous societies to native women.

In addition, it is no coincidence that native women and men find themselves at the center of today's environment and economic crises. On a continental scale, although some 2,000 native communities have vanished in the 500 years since the European invasion, over 700 remain - 200 in Alaska alone, 80 in California, and hundreds more scattered as islands across what is called the United States and Canada.

Despite 500 years of occupation, native people retain ownership of significant quantities of resources required by industrial society, if it continues consuming at the present rate. Over two-thirds of U.S. uranium and one-third of all U.S. low-sulfur coal lie under Indian reservations. Most uranium in Canada is on native land as well. The last remaining undeveloped stretch of Alaska's North Slope, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is Gwich'in territory. The James Bay project - the single largest hydroelectric project in North America - is on Cree and Inuit lands in northern Canada.

Demographically, we are the majority in many regions, including parts of New Mexico, Arizona, northern Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana. That the Northwest Territories in Canada is being divided into two native territories - one Dene, one Inuit - is not surprising, since almost every one there is native. In the upper two-thirds of Canada - constituting about one-third of the land area of North America - native people are 85 percent or more of the population.

Within that framework, native thinking, the survival of native communities, and issues of sovereignty and control over natural resources become central to - indeed, challenge - North American politics. Indigenous, land-based societies fundamentally understand that all life is accountable to natural law: cycles are natural, and reciprocity - the balance of taking and giving - is essential to maintain the equilibrium of humans with the environment. Laws made by nations, states, provinces, and cities are subject to this supreme law.

The ethical code of my own Anishinabeg community of the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota keeps communities and individuals in line with natural law. "Minobimaatisiiwin" - it means both the "good life" and "continuous rebirth" - is central to our value system. In minobimaatisiiwin, we honor one another, we honor women as the givers of lives, we honor our Chi-Anishinabeg, our old people and ancestors who hold the knowledge. We honor our children as the continuity from generations, and we honor ourselves as a part of creation. Implicit in minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous habitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem and of the need to maintain this balance.

Such value systems have made it possible for many indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a way that would now be termed sustainable. Overall, land-based traditional societies value fertility, birth, and rebirth as the centerpiece of their cultural practices, with obvious implications for agricultural, harvesting, and religious institutions. Inherent and instinctual in that is the understanding that women manifest those qualities and events in physical form. Thus, most indigenous cultures view women with reverence. And women, in turn, exercise influence and authority in their communities.


There is no argument that running water and plumbing are comfortable accouterments or that many native women are pleased to have both. However, I would argue that native women and communities should not have to pay the price of ecological and cultural devastation to have running water.

Furthermore, the economic and social value of women's work declines with the onset of development. Basically, native women are asked - or forced - to abandon indigenous economies and their roles in them. Then, we are told, we can earn our own money in the workforce, freed from the pressures of family and community. And, we are told, women will benefit and blossom as individuals.

Reality is different. Many development projects today - like those preceding them - are implemented at the price of native subsistence economies that are, in essence, minobimaatisiiwin, our way of life. Or, as sociologist Ivan Illich argues, "development is a war on subsistence." Consequently, the reality is that "development" undermines the status of native women, and the Eurocentric perception that development benefits indigenous women, not only in our social setting but economically as well, is often faulty.

Consider some social impacts of development. In the early 1970s, seven hydroelectric dams went into operation on Manitoba's Nelson and Churchill river systems. Now 11 more generating stations are proposed, even though the ecological shifts brought by the first series of dams forced many small Cree reserves into rapid changes they neither chose nor control. At least three-fourths of the food, and most of the income, had come from the land, but now people must buy food at prices often 10 times what they are in the South. At Moose Lake, where two-thirds of the land was flooded and 634 people moved to a housing project, an estimated 90 percent of the adults suffer substance-abuse problems. As Jim Tobacco of the Moose Lake Band explains, "Today, we are poor and Manitoba Hydro is rich."

Attendant to that, suicide rates for young native women and men rose dramatically in those communities to around 15 times the national average. This indicator of social demise impacts on native women and men equally, since it is about the destruction of families.

Elsewhere, domestic violence is on the rise. The stress on small communities, forced into development projects and the cash economy, is often taken out on those who are accessible - women and children. Native women face much higher levels of physical and sexual abuse than their non-native counterparts. In a number of communities impacted by development schemes, they have faced rates of violence often four times that of non-native women.

Rather than automatically benefiting from entry into the wage economy, native women are often forced from a central economic role in indigenous societies to a marginal one in industrial society. In North America, with few exceptions, native women in the non-native communities, much the same is true: by and large, tribal wage economies emulate the settler economy, relegating native women to subservient positions as support staff, where they carry heavy work loads and have less decision-making authority and lower pay than men. Additionally, as government and development agencies work toward "improving the lot of native communities," capital historically goes to men, who are identified as heads of household. This alters the balance of labor and goods produced by women versus men.

Moreover, significant participation in the industrial economy often forces North American native women into being accomplices in the destruction of their own ecosystem. Most striking is the training of native women in such occupations as power-plant personnel or mining technicians, where they become invested in the destruction not only of their land but their value system as well.

Finally, perceptions of individual freedom deriving from the wage economy must be considered in their context. Without question women deserve the right to respect and reverence in any cultural context. However, Western feminists have their own needs for, and views, individual freedom. These arise in what is, for the most part, a more patriarchal, industrial context than is the case for women from indigenous cultures, which tend to have more egalitarian roles and values.

A nation is not broken until the hearts of its women are on the ground.

Beyond a doubt, North American indigenous women have much to lose from "progress." But given the ability of most native women to recognize this fact, it should come as no surprise that native women are the cornerstone of resistance to many development projects.

In northern Labrador, 82-year-old Innu women face down fighter jets on frozen runways in a protected battle for Nistassinin, their homeland. After almost two decades of conflict with the Canadian armed forces and NATO, the Innu defeated plans to site a NATO base in their homeland in 1990. However, over 8,000 low-level military test flights still pass over their territory annually, a remnant of a bygone Cold War era. The Innu continue their struggle for a halt to military tests.

In Newe Segobia - what is called Nevada - Pauline Esteves, Carrie and Mary Dann, and other elder Shoshone women struggle to keep their ranch, their animals, and their homeland from confiscation by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Energy. The U.S. government wants the Danns to procure grazing permits on land the women consider their own; ultimately, it wants Western Shoshone territory. But despite three decades of nuclear-weapons tests, not to mention almost a century of illegal occupation, primarily by the U.S. government (over two-thirds of Nevada is federal property), the Shoshone steadfastly demand the right to have their treaties honored, to control Newe Segobia, and to continue their land-based way of life.

For Carrie and Mary Dann, that way of life is all they know. Their extended-family-operated ranch remains virtually self-sufficient, an example of both the tenacity of indigenous economic ways and their adaptability. The Dann ranch maintains about 700 animals and provides food and income for a large extended family. It is exemplary of the adaptation of the Shoshone's traditional subsistence economy to a ranching economy that has minimal ecological impact. Present BLM threats to seize the Dann's livestock - modeled on what has been done to both the historical and recent practices in the Navajor nation - are intended to rob the wealth of the Danns and the Shoshone economic system.

On northern Minnesota's White Earth Reservation, Ojibwe women (Anishinabik weg) have joined together in a marketing collective, seeking a fair price for crafts and wild rice. On the reservation, 75 percent of the people hunt, 45 percent harvest wild rice, and about the same number make handicrafts. They produce more than they can use, and women are seeking to market the surplus themselves. The collective hopes to leave out generally unscrupulous middlemen or, at the very least, capture the "value added" of their resources themselves.

Throughout North America, native women, joined with families and the men of their communities, both resist environmentally and culturally destructive projects and engage in rebuilding efforts. We have a place. And many women are positive that the best security for themselves, and their families, isn't in the context of the modern, industrial world but in a self-defined context of our own cultures and ways of living.

"No matter how much we are suppressed, we will continue to endure," proclaims Anna Ronden, a Dineh and a leader of the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum. "And we, the indigenous women and our families, are getting stronger."


Land-based traditional societies recognize the centrality of fertility and birth to their continuity. This is instinctual to socio-religious systems that place women in the central role and in which women are seen as the physical representation of the sacred.

Sustainable economic values, rooted in women's roles, are evidenced in many indigenous cultures. For example, in Yaqui society in Mexico women care for the land and the fields. They are called marshals, recognizing their significant authority over human relations on the land. Maria Elena Garcia, a Yaqui from Sonora, talks about "sharing as the norm, not accumulation. Prestige is based on who shares the most."

In many Northern communities, traplines, the basis of hunting and small-game harvesting, are often inherited from the woman's family. In addition, women retain significant authority over many community-based economic activities, such as the potlatch. "Give-away" ceremonies, which display respect for generosity, are also important in most communities. That's why in most harvests, and virtually all places where hunting is a significant part of life, food is given to elders, the needy, relatives, and respected people. Often, families keep only a small portion of their hunt for themselves. In the end, all are fed.

By contrast, in many ways, the frontier mentality focuses on the conquest of land and, frequently, of women. Where native societies value the sanctity of creation, settler-industrial society objectifies women and land. Turning this around, the environmental movement now speaks of the rape of the land, analogous to the rape of women.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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