Achieving “bimaadiziwin.” That’s one of the goals of a new research project headed by U of G adjunct history professor Kim Anderson. After 20 years of researching and working with aboriginal women and children, Anderson was recently awarded a three-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to study the issues of masculinity among indigenous men.
Bimaadiziwin is an Ojibway word meaning “the good life,” and it includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
“I’ve been focusing on the sacredness of women and helping aboriginal women rebuild their identities and rebuild families,” says Anderson. “Often when I would go and talk in various communities, people would ask me ‘what about the men?’ I felt that it was simply not my area. But people continued to approach me, and on being approached in recent years by male aboriginal graduate students with an interest in gender, I realized that now is the time. I’m not positioning myself as an expert on this, but as a facilitator for the process of discovery.”
A core component of the work involves rebuilding culture-based identities. The question of masculine identities for aboriginal men, Anderson believes, has much to do with Canada’s colonial history. “Our men had certain types of traditional power and authority that were taken from them. They protected the community as warriors, and they provided for the community through hunting and bringing in resources,” she explains. While those roles were important, they were no more important than the roles of the women and elders in the communities. Anderson says that in these societies, everyone needed to work and everyone’s work was respected and valued.
Anderson says that when aboriginal families lost their traditional lands, the men no longer felt like providers. When children were taken to residential schools, the men felt they had failed to protect their families. “Instead of the traditional powers, which were based on respect for each other, the men were given the patriarchal version of authority based on dominance and violence. Even within that, the aboriginal men had only limited power and were ranked below white men,” she explains.
The result? “Levels of violence against women in our aboriginal communities are at epidemic levels” says Anderson. “If we want to end that, we need to look at what happened to the men, and we need to rebuild.”
While a significant portion of Anderson’s work will be done in Canada, she is also connecting with other researchers around the world, in other countries where colonialism diminished the indigenous population. She’s already finding that many of the same issues exist in places like Australia and New Zealand.
Anderson describes a traditional model of aboriginal society based on concentric circles. In the middle were the children. “Children are the heart of the community,” she explains. The next circle contained the elders, whose role was to teach others. The next circle belonged to the women, whose role was to nurture and to manage the community resources. And in the outer circle were the men, providing and protecting.
“When the children were taken away and placed in residential schools, that ripped the heart out of the community,” Anderson says, “and the rest fell apart. My work has been about putting the kids back into the centre and rebuilding the circles around them.”
Clearly, these identities need to fit into today’s world, and Anderson sees that as being entirely doable. “It’s the core of the culture that is really important. Our boys may not grow up to be hunters, but they can find new ways based on traditional values and roles that will allow them to identify as healthy indigenous men.”
She adds that she has emphasized masculine identities – plural, not singular – because there is clearly no single masculine role. “We used to have gender fluidity in aboriginal cultures,” she says. “We need to include that again, including all sexualities, and finding ways for men to feel comfortable and confident about who they are.”
One of her partners in the SSHRC grant is the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, which initiated a program in 2005 to provide community-based training to aboriginal men seeking to end violence against aboriginal women. “It is a burgeoning grassroots social movement of men who are eager to explore masculinities, identities and roles that are not based in Euro-western patriarchy,” says Anderson. Another contributing organization, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, “will help us make sure that youth are engaged in our work. They’ll be tweeting about it, posting on Facebook, getting the message out. When we applied for the grant, we were asked if we’d be publishing our results in accessible journals. I said we’d be tweeting the information. They were happy with that.”
At U of G, Anderson has been involved in the Aboriginal Resource Centre. “I am an auntie to the students,” she says, adding that she finds considerable inspiration in what she sees happening there. Not only is it a meeting place and resource centre, it has become a resource for the larger aboriginal community. “We have younger kids coming in and meeting aboriginal students from the University. This may be the first time they’ve met someone who was working on a PhD. We’re trying to show native kids that university is a place where you belong, too, that there is support for you here.”