Traditional Roles of Yukon First Nations Women

(summarized from the “Raising Our Voices” WAWC Leadership Training and are excerpts from material written and developed by Ingrid Johnson and Marilyn Jensen)

  Often, people and society uses ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ to excuse unacceptable and abusive or oppressive behaviour. This can only be continued when there is an incomplete understanding of our history and culture.  It is important to learn our history and traditions to learn the powerful and respected roles women once held in our communities. Knowing our history and traditions provide strength and inspiration in ourselves, family, our communities, and our Nation.  It is important to reflect on and evaluate our cultural and traditional stories and practices to better know our own role in our ever-changing society. It is only after reflecting on and evaluating the past that we can move forward to new and empowering roles in our society.
 
Women’s roles within First Nations societies have always been of utmost importance and dignity.  Women are creators – we were given the ability to create life and so hold a sacred and respected role in First Nations culture.  We are the keepers of culture and we pass down our knowledge and skills to future generations, creating new knowledge in our children and our children’s children.
 
Women were highly valued and held a fundamental position within the realm of leadership in their communities.  Women played a central role in the family, with their clans, and within the community life of their nations.  From birth to womanhood and as an Elder, a woman was taught respect and care for self, children, Elders, community and Nation.

Life on the Land

In early times, the First Nations people of the Yukon lived on the land as ‘hunter-gatherers’.  People traveled on their lands on a seasonal cycle determined by the hunt, the harvest, and animal migrations.  First Nations people had a symbiotic relationship with the land and respected the balance of the land.
 
People traveled and lived in small extended family groups for most of the year.  These family units would consist of one or two elders, a mature couple who may have a few grown children, one who may be married with young children, as well as younger children.  The size of the group was very important, as they had to possess enough knowledge and skills to survive on the land, but small enough to be portable – to be able to move camp quickly, and to ensure that the land could sustain them and not be overwhelmed by their presence and use.
 
The adult man and woman of the group would provide leadership to the family unit, with the man imparting direction and decision-making on hunting and trapping while the woman was responsible for the camp and the welfare of the elders and children.  While Aboriginal men and women performed different roles in their family units and in their community, each role was equally vital to the family’s and community’s survival.  Therefore, there was mutual respect between men and women.
 
Men and women worked and lived in partnership; while men hunted and harvested animals, women were responsible for the essential tasks of preserving and preparing the meat and fish as well as preparing hides for clothing and supplies.
 
Women are the foundation of the home and the family.  The women’s essential role was to oversee the entire camp setup and maintenance, including caring for elders and children. But they were not alone in working to support the family unit and ensure a smooth running of the camp; it was a community endeavour, as children helped to care for elders in exchange for stories and traditional lessons.  Older children were tasked with chores around camp.  Children were in a constant state of learning, as traditions and skills were passed down through their chores and their relationships with the elders.

Traditional Governance

Traditionally, First Nations in the Yukon have been governed by the clan system.  This Clan system held women in high regard because it was matrilineal – it determines the family lines (lineage) through the woman, and property was passed down through the woman’s side of the family.  Under the clan system, a person is born into either the Crow Clan or the Wolf Clan, depending on whether your mother was Crow or Wolf.

This is a very different system than the patriarchal European tradition of tracing a family line through the man and passing property down through the man’s side of the family.  The lives of Aboriginal women changed significantly with European influence.  The patriarchal system started to influence the Aboriginal culture, and women began to be seen as subordinate to or less valued than men in society.

In the past, the law of the clan system required that everyone marry into the opposite clan.  Therefore, if you were a Crow, then you had to marry into the Wolf Clan.  This helped form strategic alliances with other clans, and helped diversify the knowledge and skills of your own clan.  Marrying into your clan was forbidden.  Couples who ignored this law risked being banished or killed. Any children of these forbidden marriages would be clanless – without a clan, meaning they would have no community or family unit to rely on and live with.

Marriages were usually arranged by parents and grandparents.   Arranged marriages ensured the success of the family unit and reassured parents that young people would make a good life for themselves, their children, and the family unit by securing a good hunter for their daughter or an industrious and clever wife for their son.

The Woman’s Journey

Birth

The birth of a girl was always celebrated among First Nations clans.  Having a daughter meant that the clan numbers, knowledge and skills would increase with the expectation that the daughter would marry well and produce children of her own to carry on the clan line.

Through guidance and mentoring of mothers and elders, a daughter learned of the responsibilities of a woman and a wife at an early age as she was a constant companion to her mother and grandmother as they performed their chores and managed camp life. At the same time, a daughter was taught the significance and responsibility of being the head of her own family one day.  Through stories, she was taught respect and pride in her history and genealogy, her clan and her name.  She learned her values, morals, and social responsibilities as well as all the practical ways of making a living on

the land.  If she showed a special skill and interest in herbs and healing, she would be schooled in medicinal plants or therapeutic procedures and the art of healing.

Adolescence

As a girl matured into a woman, she underwent an important tradition that taught her independence, inner strength, self-determination, and important skills and knowledge that would benefit her adult self.


At the first signs of menstruation, the young woman would be sequestered in her own camp built by her mother and maternal aunties. She would wear a traditional bonnet that covered her hair and face, and also limited her own vision. Prevented from seeing her surroundings, the bonnet created a physical introspection, allowing the young woman to channel and focus her own power and to direct it in ways that would benefit her and future generations.  She learned respect of self, autonomy and independence.

Isolated from her own camp for up to a year or more, the young woman would learn traditional, physical, emotional and spiritual skills that would prepare her for womanhood.  She would perfect her sewing skills as she would take on sewing projects from the entire camp.  More importantly, the young woman would learn the strength and independence required to be alone with herself and the land, and to take care of herself in solitude – skills she would need to have as a future wife, mother, and leader.

Woman

As a young wife, the woman and her husband remained with her parents’ camp for a few seasons.  This living arrangement allowed her family to evaluate her new husband’s skills and abilities as a husband, provider, and eventually, father.  The family unit wanted to be sure the new husband treated their daughter well and had the skills to provide for a family.  Once the new couple started a family and were capable of surviving on their own, they may live separately for part of the year.  New families had the flexibility of travelling and living with either of the two parent families or with another close extended family group.

As a wife and mother, the woman raised her children and educated them in the skills and traditions that would help them live independent and productive lives.  The relationship of women to their sisters and elders was strengthened, as special bonds were formed in new roles a woman would grow into.  The woman would play an important role as a maternal aunt, providing insight and guidance to sisters on raising and disciplining children from an objective point of view. She looked after and learned from elders in her care, and became an important and productive member of the family unit preparing and preserving meat and fish, making moccasins and clothing out of cured hides, and hunting and harvesting wherever she could.


Grandmother

As a woman matured, her life and role in the family unit would change with her growing knowledge and responsibilities.  As a mother of grown children, she would move into a leadership role in the camp, becoming responsible for the welfare of elders and children.  She would become the advisor and educator of her adult children.  As a grandmother, she would pass down the traditional knowledge to her grandchildren and provide leadership to younger women as a role model for proper behaviours and character traits.

With the knowledge and wisdom that accompanies maturity, the woman would be recognized as a valued and important resource in the community. She would be sought out for advice and guidance, and would take on increasing responsibility in leadership roles staging potlatches and other ceremonies.  As an Elder, the community would consult her on questions of proper protocol for traditions and ceremonies.


As the eldest woman in the extended family unit, a woman would be recognized as the matriarch – the female head of the family.  Her grown sons and daughters would ask her assistance and input on important decisions affecting the family and the community.

Older women in the community were respected and revered.  They held great sway in the political decisions of the community because no new initiatives would be approved and adopted without their blessing.  A wise chief or headman consulted with the older women before announcing political decisions and initiatives.  While men acted as spokespersons, it was the women who most often decided the direction that matters would take on a political or community landscape.