From left, Mary Maje, Dorothy Smith and Shirley Adamson are seen during an open discussion on Yukon politics in the last 50 years at MacBride Museum on Feb. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)

From left, Mary Maje, Dorothy Smith and Shirley Adamson are seen during an open discussion on Yukon politics in the last 50 years at MacBride Museum on Feb. 9. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)

‘Women are the matriarchs’: Yukon First Nations leaders discuss activism over 50 years

This story is one segment of the Yukon News’ special International Women’s Day edition. Find it on newsstands March 8 and 9.

Yukon First Nations women have led communities through the past century, in spite of the many setbacks colonialism introduced.

In February, the 50th anniversary of Together Today for our Children Tomorrow brought several female activists and leaders together to discuss the chronology of women’s rights since colonialism.

Yukon First Nations are traditionally matrilineal, with a clan system organized by the mother’s line. Children would be born into the Wolf or Crow clan according to their mother’s heritage, and women held important leadership roles alongside men.

Colonalism brought the patriarchy.

The Indian Act of 1867 identified an Indian as “any male person of Indian blood.” It didn’t even mention women until later amendments stripped a women — and then her children — of status if she married a non-status man.

However, a status Indian man could marry a non-status woman, and that woman would gain status rights.

The marital status system directly opposed traditional ways of passing lineage through the mother until the Indian Act was modified in 1985.

Women couldn’t vote in band elections until 1951, couldn’t possess marital property and were tested for “good moral character” by Indian agents.

Shirley Adamson, a Ta’an Kwäch’än Elder of the Wolf clan, described the abrupt cultural shift during a round table with Mary Maje, Dorothy Smith, Lianne Charlie and Jewel Davies on Feb. 9.

“[The Indian Act] totally ignored our matrilineal governance … you didn’t even have to be an Aboriginal person to be chief. You just had to get voted in,” Adamson said.

“And if you were a woman, you weren’t even human.”

Mary Maje, a Kaska Elder belonging to the Crow clan, spoke of the strict codes her people followed for respecting and sharing the land.

“Understanding colonial ways is very, very difficult when it comes to our own worldview,” Maje said. “Some of these places are very sacred. You can’t go there without leaving a gift. And then we see extractive governments come in, they give that to the miners, they scar up our lands and they leave.”

Adamson also spoke of tradition, of matriarchs looking after the land for anyone who needed it, and clans respecting each other’s land and business. There was no concept of the colonial legalities of parcelling off land for sale or resource extraction.

However, as the 1970s approached in the Whitehorse region, Adamson described the mounting impact as people were blocked from their traditional lands and fishing places, “lumped together” in poor living conditions and traumatized by the Sixties Scoop and impact of residential schools.

“By this time, we’re starting to see a poverty that was not just physical, but it was of spirit as well,” Adamson said.

“We turned to our elders to try to secure the best we could with what we had.”

Adamson described the lineage of leadership that led her to dedicate so much of her life to the land claims agreements.

Her great-grandmother was directed by her mother to realize the gold rush stampeders were arriving in the Yukon for good.

“Her mother said, ‘If you think that these people are going to go when this gold is gone, they’re never going to leave,’” Adamson recounted.

At her mother’s request, she returned to Tàa’an Män (Lake Laberge) and requested a meeting with one of the federal officials.

“He said, ‘Oh, we don’t do business with women. You send us your chief, who’s your boss?’” Adamson said.

“She went back down to Tàa’an Män to talk amongst themselves — the matriarchs, so it’s all ladies.

“And then from there, she picked her younger brother, and said, ‘You’ll be the white man’s chief. We’ll tell you what to say,’” Adamson said.

Her brother, Chief Jim Boss, wrote a letter with a lawyer to the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in 1902. It requested a settlement for the loss of land and depletion of game caused by the gold rush. Their people were granted a small reserve at Tàa’an Män as a result. It was the first Yukon land negotiation between Ottawa and First Nations people.

As conversations around land claims progressed in the mid-20th Century, a select group of women fought for their rightful place to return to the table where Adamson’s great-grandmother couldn’t.

Judy Gingell travelled to Ottawa in the 1973 delegation to deliver the Together Today for our Children Tomorrow document.

Gingell was a founding member of the Yukon Indian Brotherhood in 1969 and became the Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon Indians in 1989. She was a signatory on the Land Claims and Self Governing Agreement in 1995.

“It’s not just me — it takes a lot of people to help one or two individuals move ahead,” Gingell said during a speaker session in Whitehorse on Feb. 13.

“Women are the matriarch, and that was so important. That’s why we really had to make sure that women had their roles and responsibility in place, and to be respected and be honoured for that.”

Gingell was joined by Adeline Webber, who founded the Yukon Indian Women’s Association in 1974, was president of the Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle and appointed administrator of the Yukon in 2018.

“[The ’60s and ’70s] was not a very good period for First Nation women in the community, we didn’t have a lot of respect,” Webber said. “We got involved to get the rights that we so much deserve.”

It wasn’t favoured for a First Nations woman to be a feminist at the time.

“We were not very popular, you know, they all said, ‘Oh, you just want to go on someplace and burn your bras.’ I said, ‘No, I need all the support I can get,’” Webber joked, sending a chuckle through the audience.

Across conversations with First Nations leaders, it was noted how many sacrifices in life balance and family time had to be made while fighting for equality and sovereignty. More than once, regret was expressed that children were left at home with other family members.

“We were gone many, many times,” Gingell said.

“Yesterday, I brought [my son] as my guest to the dinner with the prime minister, I thought I owed him a nice good meal with the prime minister.”