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Portrait Photos in Grid Clockwise Left to Right: Theola Ross (Sâponôwêw Kwatapiwêpinêw Pimohtêw | Pimicikamak Cree Nation), Pastoral Women’s Council (Maasai Peoples | Tanzania) photo by Roshni Lodhia, Shar Tuiasoa (Tongan | Hawai’i), Tabea Casique Coronado (Ashéninka of Ucayali | Peru), Katsitsionni Fox (Haudenosaunee | Bear Clan), Pastoral Women’s Council (Maasai Peoples | Tanzania) photo by Roshni Lodhia

Top Row Left to Right: Theola Ross (Sâponôwêw Kwatapiwêpinêw Pimohtêw | Pimicikamak Cree Nation), Pastoral Women’s Council (Maasai Peoples | Tanzania) photo by Roshni Lodhia, Shar Tuiasoa (Tongan | Hawai’i). Second Row Left to Right: Tabea Casique Coronado (Ashéninka of Ucayali | Peru), Katsitsionni Fox (Haudenosaunee | Bear Clan), Pastoral Women’s Council (Maasai Peoples | Tanzania) photo by Roshni Lodhia

March 8, 2023

Recognizing the Strength and Wisdom of Indigenous Women on International Women's Day

Nancy Kelsey

Across the span of Indigenous cultures around the world, there is a universality of women as culture bearers and knowledge keepers. From knowing how to live in reciprocity with the Earth to understanding how to use the land as medicine to keeping alive the stories and spiritual beliefs of their ancestors, Indigenous women have passed down their unique wisdom from generation to generation. Those practices – despite the best efforts of colonization aimed at rooting out Indigenousness around the world – thrive today thanks to Indigenous women.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, we share some reflections from Indigenous women around the world on what it means to be a culture bearer, a life giver and defender of Indigenous rights in their respective communities. They share how they and the Indigenous women who came before them keep alive the traditions, spirituality, and wisdom of their Indigenous communities and how they do that today. This cross-section of Indigenous women is so vast and yet intricate that this is a mere glimpse of their roles in their communities.

Maasai Peoples | Pastoral Women’s Council (Tanzania)

The Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC) is a non-profit membership organization that works in northern Tanzania to achieve gender equality and community development through the empowerment of Maasai women and girls.

In Maasai culture, women have the bulk of responsibilities when it comes to childcare, family care and the care of elderly family members, the PWC says. They also have special roles during certain ceremonies. Maasai women are a child’s first teacher, teaching the language, and modeling community norms and practices. Maasai women have deep Indigenous knowledge of herbal remedies and the various uses of plants for medicine and food. In addition, they pass down the knowledge from generation to generation of which plants are unsafe to use. They also manage natural resources, fetching firewood for household use and ensuring they collect only dried sticks and do not chop down trees. These women help manage water catchment areas for their community needs, rotating use depending on seasons.

"Although Maasai women have the bulk of care responsibilities they have only limited opportunities to contribute to decision making and development,” the Pastoral Women’s Council shares. “They are often in the front line of defending the rights of fellow women and their community, including land rights."

Katsitsionni Fox | Haudenosaunee, Bear Clan| Artist and Filmmaker (US)

Across the world from the Pastoral Women’s Council, on Turtle Island in the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne – part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, is Katsitsionni Fox. As a seasoned artist and accomplished filmmaker, she is a skilled storyteller, a Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow, and was recently featured on an episode of our Seedcast podcast.

In her Indigenous community, women play an important role as clan mothers.

"The Haudenosaunee are matrilineal, so our identity comes from our mom. Clans are passed down through the mother," she says. "The clans work in leadership too. For us, our leadership, we have clan mothers and chiefs in traditional leadership and it’s the clan mothers that choose the chiefs."

This is because the clan mothers watch children as they grow into adults, noting which people carry the qualities to be a chief. The traditional Chief position is for life and are not paid positions. They are important spiritual and leadership positions.

"It’s the clan mothers’ role to choose the leaders and they also carry the voice of the people," Fox says. "So, when there’s issues going on, that’s how regular people get their voices through in clan meetings."

Clan mothers are also responsible for naming. Only one person carries a name at a time and when they pass, it can be given to another person.

Additionally, she shares that there are faith keepers which are men and women. There is a balance of power in the roles, with specific responsibilities for each related to traditional ceremonies.

In the home, mothers are vital in passing down traditions, language and spirituality. However, there has been a loss of knowledge rooted in colonization such as the harmful legacy of boarding schools. Revitalization efforts, which are underway, have supported cultural preservation.

Shar Tuiasoa | Tongan (Hawai’i) 

Pasifika illustrator and author Shar Tuiasoa is an accomplished storyteller, infusing her unique perspectives into the work she does with the brands and organizations with whom she works. Tuiasoa is a past Nia Tero Storytelling Fellow.

"Growing up in the Pacific, in what is known as Polynesia or Pasifika, being Pasifika has directed what my art is going to be about,” she says. I’m coming from a place as an Illustrator. My big mission has been: 'how do I infuse my voice as a Pasifika woman into this artwork that’s helping to tell a story?'"

Living in Hawai’i, she has had the opportunity to observe and learn from Indigenous Hawai’ian women. Apart from her aunties, she says the woman who most helped shape her identity as a Pasifika woman was her grandmother.

"In Tongan culture, the eldest daughter in the family is sort of regarded with the utmost respect and that was my grandma in her family," Tuiasoa says. "I always grew up with her being a powerful figure in that way, but she was also very soft."

As an Indigenous woman, she feels a responsibility to pass down the traditions and culture that have been passed down to her.

"It’s our role to nurture the culture, to give direction, to lead the way," she says. "I think understanding the importance of carrying on our culture – because in the Pacific we saw so much of it lost. In Tongan culture, a lot was lost when Christianity came in and made illegal a lot of our traditions, so it is up to us to maintain or remember what was lost."

Tuiasoa adds that it is women who she sees and admires for assuming that role.

"It’s a big responsibility. Things can just easily be gone, as we’ve seen…but we are so hungry to remember our past and keep our traditions alive. And a lot of the women are leading the way and the men are there for and we’re looking at each other as equals."

Theola Ross | Sâponôwêw Kwatapiwêpinêw Pimohtêw| Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Canada)

Social worker and filmmaker Theola Ross, a 4th World Media Lab Fellow, sees the role of women in Indigenous culture as complex and changing over time.

"Historically, women were centered in the circle and protected by men and elders of the community, with children being right at the center. But, in this day and age, this time of reconciliation, we need to understand how Indigenous women are seen and why reconciliation is needed," she says. "Through colonization and today, Indigenous women's bodies are seen as less, disregarded, and erased from society. And so, the same for the role of Indigenous women. Because structural, systemic, racist institutions have been at war with the Indigenous communities by attacking the cultural makeup of Indigenous communities and the strength of the circle."

She has observed how these challenges and loss of culture makes it easier for structural, systemic, racist institutions to steal the community's resources and livelihood. This has resulted in the dark legacy of residential schools and MMIWG2S, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two Spirit.

"More and more Indigenous women are rising from the dark colonial histories and leading the way for change in mainstream and within Indigenous communities," she says. "Indigenous women are rightfully taking back their traditional roles in the circle. Every human spirit is perfect, and our spirit wants a minopimatisôwin, 'the good life,' and when you do actions from your spirit, you act in kindness."

She adds, "When you return to your center, you return to that kindness. You are coming back to the good life and culture of the community. Women are life carriers. Women are a gift of life to the spirit. The spirit comes from the spiritual world, and then life enters through women. Then the whole community helps compress that spirit beside the new human heart in the center. Some of that is knowing and teaching the history, culture, lineage, and, most of all, a sense of belonging. The whole circle does that. And the circle is slowly being put back together. And that process starts with the women."

Tabea Casique Coronado | Ashéninka of Ucayali (Peru) 

In what is present-day Peru, there are several Indigenous groups with their own distinct languages and traditions. Tabea Casique Coronado, of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Forest (Aidesep), is on the front lines of preserving Indigenous guardianship of territories in Peru. Here she shares, in Spanish, a bit about the role women play in her community.

"Las mujeres vienen aportando con sus conocimientos de transmitir de generación a generación a sus hijos e hijas familias en la comunidad, así como en tejidos, pintura de telares con plantas propias de los bosques, plantas medicinales, gestión territorial protección de las aguas a través de sus cosmovisiones en marco del respeto a la espiritualidad, conservadora de semillas para que siga existiendo productos ancestrales para la seguridad alimentaria. Actualmente las mujeres forman parte de la participación en los cargos de ser autoridades de su comunidad, en las organizaciones, y acompaña o lideran procesos para la vigilancia comunal y protección de los bosques y biodiversidad."