Sex Ed: Beyond the Classroom

#MeToo and the Secrets Indigenous Women Keep

Too many have stayed silent about stories of abuse. It’s time to stop protecting toxic men

BY


Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus
Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus

I have struggled with whether I should talk about toxic masculinities right now, in this moment, when Indigenous men are too often treated as disposable. I found out that Colten Boushie’s killer was acquitted hours after it happened. I had been at an NDN RuPaul’s Drag Race party that night (NDN is a colloquial term an Indigenous person may use to refer to themselves and others), surrounded by kin, with my phone stowed away in my purse. Like many other Indigenous people from the prairies, and across the country, I intuitively knew the verdict would come swiftly and that it would read not guilty, and when I did hear it, I thought, “It could have been me/my brother/my son/my grandson.” Later, I was greeted with several texts from my prairie kin, ranging from, “I have no words” to “I love you”—knowing that, in this chaotic moment, all we could do is fill one another with love. I burst into tears in the middle of an empty Montreal street. It was the most homesick I had even been.

Soon after, an image went viral across social media. This is a time, it read, when Native boys should be reminded that they are, “brilliant,” “talented,” “trustworthy,” “intelligent,” “cherished,” “loved,” and “worthy of love & life.” Of course, I agree with all this. But, it becomes difficult to speak up and call out abusive behavior when you know Indigenous men are suffering. You ask yourself: who does it help? Ultimately, though, I believe the many ways in which Native boys are criminalized means they, too, need freedom and peace from the toxic masculinity that infiltrated our communities during colonialism. In other words, I believe toxic masculinities also hurt Indigenous men. I believe this continuum of abuse settled into our bloodlines long before we were born.

There are so many layers to peel back when we talk about toxic masculinities and the frameworks in which they exist. Colonialism paired with misogyny within Canadian institutions has led to a some highly problematic men in influential positions. When I talk about abusive men, I’m not talking about my brothers, my nephews, and men like Colten Boushie. I’m talking about men who don’t ethically redistribute opportunity and resources to their communities. I’m talking about men who wield the power they attain from their celebrity—and from the colonial institutions that often support them and their work—to harm women and queer and gender-variant people. These are the types of men who reinforce white-supremacist and colonial stereotypes about violence and danger in Indigenous communities—men who have been accused of domestic abuse and assault. Boushie’s trial showed us how those stereotypes can then be weaponized by racist settlers to normalize violence against Indigenous bodies. As Canadian settlers digested his trial, there was much discussion about the rights of someone like Stanley to protect their property, implying that the mere presence of Indigenous bodies was enough to be dangerous.

I want to live in a world where my nephews won’t have to navigate this current mess of toxic colonial masculinities. I want to live in a world where Indigenous people do not have to fear having the trigger pulled on them by a white settler, and, yes, I also want to live in a world where men are not abusive within our own communities.

I’ve held secrets for Indigenous men for years, fearful of the repercussions that might result if I told those truths. I held the secret of Joseph Boyden’s questionable Indigenous identity for years. I didn’t publicly criticize the problematic nature of Wab Kinew’s homophobic and misogynistic lyrics either. I have held the secrets of artists, filmmakers, musicians, and actors who use their studio or residency spaces as revolving doors for young, creative women and then go home to their Indigenous girlfriends or wives. I have kept quiet about the toxic bro culture in the Indigenous music scene, wherein touring artists, often with wives or girlfriends at home, pick up young “groupies” as they move from town to town.

I have held these secrets, but I have also endlessly shared knowledge with my women friends, comparing notes about well-known Indigenous personalities, beyond those who I can publicly name, because I know these are not my stories to tell. There are the Indigenous musicians, talking heads, professors, writers, social media trolls, woke pipeline activists, and artists who use Instagram and Facebook as a way to “creep” young, networked women they might link up with in the cities their jobs bring them to—some of whom can turn into the late-night lurker who is meant to be your colleague but sends you a sexualized Facebook message anyway. We warn each other about the rock-star scholars who for years have reputations for being sexual predators and tyrants within their departments. Then there’s the literary community with world-famous writers your femme kin tell you never to be alone with.

These men are the perfect picture of professionalism in person but bully, antagonize, and berate women, queers, and trans people away from the prying eyes of the Canadian public and Indigenous colleagues. Indigenous women and gender-variant and sexually diverse people have been unwilling flies on the wall to a whole host of toxic behaviours and actions enacted by Indigenous men. As long as I have been participating in industries associated with Indigenous thought, I have been holding secrets for Indigenous men at an appalling frequency.

The Indigenous feminists who take to digital worlds to cry out for help amid pressure from Canadian publics, Indigenous communities, and toxic masculinist cultures have been pushed to unnatural levels of stress, exhaustion, and exposure within the Indigenous creative industries they entered out of love for their crafts. We have been told these industries were self-sustaining, supportive communities—only to be met with the same toxic cultures we were fleeing within settler institutions. If women and queer and trans individuals do respond to antagonizing behaviors within the Indigenous community, even if only to set a boundary, I have seen them isolated and their careers hurt. I have seen individuals who speak out targeted with tactical bullying campaigns, fuelled and supported by other Indigenous community members. These campaigns mirror the most toxic parts of settler industries that make up commercial and commodified Indigenous thought.

Defining that Indigenous thought is complex because it’s not a fixed space that is easily discernable. I first thought through the use of “Indigenous thought” as a descriptor in my MICE Magazine article about Womb Cxre. In it, I described a web of industries and institutions that support the production and dissemination of Indigenous knowledges—such as publishing, academe, and not-for-profits. The challenge with this web is that it we are told there are limited opportunities, and so we are forced into constant competition with one another, which we then internalize in our actions and relations to one another. But there are also community spaces wherein knowledge is produced and shared, spaces that help generate future worlds for peoples who cannot attain institutional privilege and class mobility to participate in Western industries. It can get complicated and confusing—hence the need for rigorous attention to the term.

In what world are these the individuals I would build kinship and community with? Like queer feminists of colour before me, I find myself caught between two worlds and identities: the Indigenous community, wherein harassment culture and toxic masculinity apologists dominate, and white-dominated queer spaces that often perpetuate racism and colonialism. And yet Indigenous thought needs queer ethics. We still need more transformative spaces for dealing with intracommunity conflict (such as homophobia, transphobia, misogyny) and difference (such as class, gender, colourism). Queer Indigenous ethics sees feminist transformation as happening at the relational level, arguing that the Indigenous revolution is done, enacted, and felt, not said, performed, and speculated.

An Indigenous scholar I respect recently told me the predominant ethical issue within the Indigenous thought of the previous generation was whether Indigenous peoples should publish their knowledges and reproduce them for settlers. Of utmost importance among this older guard was solidarity in the face of colonial and institutional actors, understandably so, considering the extractive and exploitive histories of the industries that sustain Indigenous thought.

Perhaps there was a fear of discovery, as well. A fear that if “they” discovered cases of unethical behaviour—“they” being Canadian settlers and administrators—it would become another reason to cast us as corrupt Indians with troubled communities who can’t, and don’t deserve the right to, manage our resources. I understand what led to silence around unethical behaviors in Indigenous thought: how scarcity-driven economies breed cruelty and how flighty we become when trapped in environments that feel hostile, such as Canadian institutions, like caged animals ready to react and to socially isolate one another with calculated bullying campaigns.

However ironically, though, I still believe in our mutual survival. Solidarity, togetherness, and community have always been part of my ways of being in the world as an Indigenous person. Maybe it’s a NDN thing—there are so few of us left. As Paula Gunn Allen has poeticized,

because the only home
is each other
they’ve occupied all
the rest

The commodification of that Indigenous self, however, is something else altogether. Of course, there are absolutely ethical ways to participate in industries associated with Indigenous thought. But the space where Indigenous peoples make themselves a product, and make money off the sale of said product, is fraught, to say the least. One can also proclaim and make themselves an Indigenous celebrity with little actual accountability to how they relate back to the communities they purport to represent. This is, in part, how figures like Joseph Boyden can rise to prominence without having to explain their ties to Indigenous communities. Indigeneity in the form of identity politics is regularly performative and made for Canadian publics.

This is partly how we’ve arrived at a place where people can argue that all mediations by Indigenous peoples inherently constitute revolutionary action. The issue with reductive Indigenous theory is that is creates a discursive space wherein individual Indigenous careers can be framed as political activism, regardless of the actions one perpetuates within our Indigenous communities. We can’t forget that it is publications, university institutions, and galleries, not necessarily Indigenous communities, that have given Indigenous personas their positions and power. A person’s performative values are not necessarily being lived in real time within the communities they represent—and Indigenous celebrity is usually built around driving public discourse about colonial issues.

Indigenous identity politics become problematic when Indigenous peoples gain institutional privilege but are shielded from critique because of their status as marginalized peoples, which can lead to abuse of that power. But it’s time for us to reframe pressure to remain silent and not critique one another. I wonder: Who do Indigenous peoples serve, besides themselves, misogyny, and colonial institutions, by silencing intracommunity Indigenous critique? In fact, this silencing dialogue between one another feels like a value inherited from settler cultures—not one I know through my Cree, Métis, and Saulteaux teachings.

My journey with toxic masculinities began with my Indigenous men relations—a term I use in Cree/Saulteaux fashion to denote individuals I am connected to vis-à-vis kinship bonds (but who are not necessarily blood kin). I have been the emotional surrogate, stand-in mother, and, at times, even the victim of men kin. I know that’s not what I’m supposed to say. I’m supposed to be gracious and grateful to do emotional labour for men in my community. I should support our mutual survival as a people and consider it a part of my duty to the overall social order of our kinship networks. I know, I know—why’d I have to go and make that a gender thing? But the reality is that toxic masculinity has been hurting me since before I left my mother’s womb. Colonization has poisoned my relationships with men kin. This manifests in legal orders, such as the inherent heteropatriarchy of band registration, and a violent social culture, as is the case on many impoverished reserves, ranging from normalized abuse to the frequent burning down of rez housing.

It’s just as nehiyaw political scholar Emily Riddle recently told me, in response to Brittney Cooper’s Cosmo article : Beyoncé’s Lemonade wasn’t just iconic pop culture—it was political. “Beyoncé named the pain of a whole generation of Black women who have had to love Black men injured and traumatized by the ravages of Reagonomics, the prison-industrial complex, and the war on drugs.” Similarly, Indigenous women, and gender-variant and sexually diverse individuals, have been undertaking emotional labour for decades for Indigenous men who are living out the hurt that’s been imprinted on their bodies by a colonial nation-state—one that has sought to destroy them.

I fully recognize the problems that face Indigenous men. Too many have been have been caught up in the prison-industrial complex. Too many Indigenous men have had to beg cops not to give them starlight tours, a term for cases in which police pick up an Indigenous person, drive them to a remote area, and abandon them. We saw one of the two police officers last seen with Neil Stonechild, who was later found frozen to death on the outskirts of Saskatoon, smirk in the face of questioning at the inquiry about Stonechild’s death—that inquiry was later found to have been “superficial and totally inadequate.” We have seen too much.. But this doesn’t change the fact that sometimes to love Indigenous men means being hurt and traumatized in return behind closed doors and then being held responsible for maintaining devout silence around their toxic behaviours. That’s mutual survivance for you.

As writer and scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt has succinctly argued, the assertion that Indigenous men are in need of special supports misses that Indigenous women and gender-variant and sexually diverse people have been doing the emotional labour around Indigenous men’s trauma our whole lives—while also grappling with our own hidden pains and receiving little support in doing so. Tl;dr: I’m not here to heal you, brother. The gag is that there is no “rise” in numbers of toxic Indigenous men; it has arguably always been this way.

Toxic masculinities have been in our communities since the first moniyaw burrowed the seed of white colonial masculinities to decimate Indigenous life, land, and love. And while it’s well known within certain Indigenous circles that prominent Indigenous men have been accused of abuse and harassment, it’s also something that is oft-ignored by the Canadian public and even within some Indigenous communities. One example can be seen in continual reference to the American Indigenous Movement (AIM) to encapsulate the spirit of Indigenous activism in the 1960s and 1970s—the same time period as Anna Mae Pictou Aquash’s kidnapping, “interrogation,” and eventual murder by AIM activists. No wonder many Indigenous feminists are questioning why Indigenous communities repeatedly return to this violent movement.

Think of the pioneering 1971 essay by America art historian and critic Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin famously observes that “genius, in turn, is thought of as an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the person of the Great Artist.” Nochlin correctly identifies that Western art circles and histories romanticize and produce genius, or ego, as the only precursor to artistic greatness although, in fact, social, economic, and gender differentiation has produced a masculinist art canonization. Indigenous thought is similarly guilty of that propping up of individual egos, predominantly those of cisgender Indigenous men, as if it were their genius alone and not the misogynist structures within the industries they work that ensured their upward mobility. The masculinist mood of Indigenous thought normalizes abusive figures as merely bold and eccentric personalities when performative Indigeneity is used to mask an individual’s cruelty and ego.

As academic Adrienne Keene exposed on her blog, Native Appropriations, in a now infamous post titled “The Native Harvey Weinsteins,” the sheer number of abusive men within Indigenous thought is jarring: “It’s something that comes up so much in my friend circles, constant sessions of story swapping and commiserating and ‘omg him too?!’ that happen whenever a table full of Native women get together.” Keene describes how tables and office spaces that have gathered Indigenous women will undoubtedly host conversations about the problematic men who circulate within Indigenous thought, simply because there are so many of them.

I’ve seen and heard these things too. Over the past year, conversations have emerged about women’s experiences with toxic Indigenous men. I know about expressions of toxic masculinities within Indigenous thought because it has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen to me, and to my relations as well. I’m not saying all this to garner sympathy. But I do believe that it’s essential to expose the daily reality facing Indigenous women and nonbinary and gender-variant individuals from the moment they enter these industries associated with Indigenous thought and from the second they enter Indigenous communities. Based on conversations I’ve shared with Indigenous women and nonbinary and gender-variant people sharing care, support, and resources around toxic masculinities within the Indigenous community, we are resoundingly a generation fed up with pretending rape, violence, and general abuse from our male relations is business as usual. I’m glad we have felt compelled to witness previously silenced individuals through the hashtag #MeToo. But it doesn’t end there. How are we going to support survivors and heal our communities moving forward so the brunt of the labour (and harm) doesn’t fall on Indigenous women and nonbinary and sexually diverse individuals?

Transformative justice in our communities would mean eventually allowing men who have hurt others back into community life. We must make sure the question does not become, What are we doing to ensure these men are welcomed back? It puts responsibility on those hurt to mediate abusive relations. We must focus on what these toxic men—who have hurt and might continue to hurt—are measurably doing within their relationships before we allow them back into community spaces. What do we require of them?

As Métis scholar Chelsea Vowel has said, there is always a fear that when Indigenous people have these kinds of conversations publicly, settlers weaponize them against Indigenous peoples and strip all nuance. It’s true: I feel guilt, shame, and even paranoia as I write these words, knowing how they might ripple through community. I worry that settlers might appropriate my words to punish men in my community.

I have wondered if it would have been easier for me to remain silent and to work these things out from within. But these are the silencing logics of kinship. There is an inherent classism within the politics of being nice and the pressure to act professional with one another (as if rape, misogyny, and abuse are professional.) I’m not one of the good NDNs. I’m not always gracious when I participate in industries that have proven to be fraught with toxic behaviours. Sometimes, I feel triggered and have mental breakdowns. I’m tired of being told I deserved abusive behaviour . I’m tired of the neoliberal rhetoric that it’s an honour, a responsibility even, to do this work, because it doesn’t change the fact that the industry of Indigenous thought exhausted and overwhelmed me last year.

On her blog, Feminist Killjoys, independent scholar Sara Ahmed describes the fragility of our understanding of evidence, which tends to dismiss evidence of racism and sexism by rendering its sources unreliable. I often find myself coming back to Ahmed’s blog. Ahmed set the academy aflame when she outed her university’s incompetence when dealing with sexual harassment and published a series of blog posts theoretically breaking down the fallout from her naming sexual harassment within her department at Goldsmiths, University of London. I was reminded of her writing during the recent media coverage of Wab Kinew’s past charges of assault. Kinew was charged in 2003 with two charges of domestic assault against his then-partner; the charges were later stayed. Last September, the alleged victim (who I won’t name out of respect for the negative impacts media attention brought into her life), was approached by media and forced to perform victimhood again and again for settler audiences—even though she never chose to go public. Kinew has consistently denied the accusations and never been convicted of domestic assault.

It’s not lost on me that the treatment of her version of events, in which Kinew allegedly pushed or threw her across a room, very likely emerged from the power and gender differentiation between her and Kinew. Meaning the alleged victim was dismissed as an Indigenous woman, while Kinew was widely accepted by settler publics as an upwardly mobile Indigenous figure. The NDP has since rallied around Kinew—notably, Jagmeet Singh came out in support of Kinew in the media, saying “the Wab I know is someone that’s been very clear on his position…towards tackling violence against women.”

Inevitably, we see patterns of men vouching for prominent men accused of misconduct, effectively dismissing or discrediting allegations. We saw this when Kinew wrote a piece about Boyden’s relationship with the Indigenous community and implied that Boyden was welcome in his circle. We also saw it when Senator Murray Sinclair called the media attention around the allegations against Kinew a “witch hunt.” I agree that Kinew’s alleged abusive past would not have reached such sensationalized levels had he not been an Indigenous man. There are likely countless other political figures in Canada with equally troubling histories. There is a history of the Canadian public and media paying special attention to abuse allegations when the accused are men of colour. But those who came forward in support of Kinew without critically analyzing the situation missed a crucial opportunity to address the aforementioned overarching culture of toxic masculinity that pervades Indigenous thought.

I know that transforming toxic masculinities within Indigenous communities is necessary. I know this through my kinship teachings, taught to me by my grandma, my mom, and all the other inner-city, bad NDNs who made me—who never took a hand or a pointed word when they could help it. I come from a long line of rez runners, some of whom escaped masculinities in their communities by working, hitching, or stealing cars. Those are my inner-city NDN roots.

My kinship teaching also tells me that my relationship with other Indigenous people must be in softness. I know that even when Christmas dissolves into screaming matches and my brother hitchhiking back to the city because I called him an asshole for yelling at our mom—a comic level of outbursts that only other NDNs will understand—I’ll still see him the next week at my nephew’s birthday party. Restorative relations are in my DNA, encoded through mutual survivance that evolved over centuries of surviving these plains together.

I want to be clear that I’m not calling for a casting out of Indigenous men or for carceral measures that punish men in ways that mirror the prison-industrial complex, because I’m not about to perpetuate a system I’ve seen harm Indigenous men my whole life. In an article for the Canadian digital magazine Guts, Kai Cheng Thom reminded readers that, even though we are witnessing a cultural climate wherein survivors are being encouraged to name their abusers, there are punitive outcomes for naming one’s abuser, especially if that individual is Indigenous, Black, or another person of colour. As Thom argues, we have been stripped of the capacity for nuanced thinking and acting around concepts like healing and justice. She continues to explain that it strikes her very hard that there remain almost no mechanisms for protecting, holding, or healing anyone involved in such confrontations.

I recognize how accountability measures led by Indigenous peoples can also mirror carceral cultures—call outs, isolation techniques, and petty gossip—and can be made scapegoats for projecting one’s colonial trauma on other peoples. Ultimately, Indigenous peoples are deeply traumatized, and trauma has a way of perpetuating itself, especially when it goes untreated. Without responsible, community-led accountability measures, survivors can be left in isolation, burdened and grappling in private about whether they should out their abuser. On one hand, there is some small chance survivors might gain support, resources, and alleviate their abuse if they reach out for help. On the other, frequently when survivors do come forward, they are only retraumatized, dragged through even more conflict in the name of narrowly defined accountability processes, with no clear outcome for healing their hurt or the individuals who have hurt them. Truthfully, I have no idea what healing and accountability could look like when we come from such deeply traumatized backgrounds as Indigenous peoples.

I don’t have all the answers. Nor do I think that we need to have all the answers today, as nîtisân Brandi Bird has told me about healing my own traumas. All I know is that abuse within Indigenous thought cannot be reduced to a focus on single figures when the system upholds toxicity, normalized violence, and abuse. In the end, I fully admit to being jaded. How could I not be, given everything I just shared? Most days, I believe I can only be responsible for myself and the kin I collect in this postapocalyptic wasteland that has made a mess of our relationships. I have no idea what “me too” and “I believe you” mean in the context of a normalized culture of abuse among Indigenous peoples or any idea of what’s next. I only know that that we need to continue having these conversations and making space for Indigenous truths.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada supported the author of this story.

Lindsay Nixon (@notvanishing) is a Cree-Métis-Saulteaux curator, editor, and writer.




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