2013 Review: Disinherited Generations: Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants

 Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nation

Valuable lessons to be learned from women’s equality rights activists


Disinherited Generations: Our Struggle to Reclaim Treaty Rights for First Nations Women and their Descendants
Authors: Nellie Carlson and Kathleen Steinhauer as told to Linda Goyette
Published by The University of Alberta Press
Review by Shari Narine

It is only fitting to hear that strong women in Alberta not only furthered the cause of non-Aboriginal women to be seen as “persons,” but that strong First Nations women in Alberta fought for the treaty rights of their own generation and descendants.
Born into the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, cousins Nellie Carlson and Kathleen Steinhauer are the founders and long-time activists with Indian Rights for Indian Women. Both women lost their treaty status when they married non-status Indians.

Their struggles, both personal and on behalf of other First Nations women is told mainly through anecdotes, both poignant and humourous, to award-winning journalist Linda Goyette. Steinhauer passed away in 2012 before the book was officially launched, while Carlson, 85, now resides in Edmonton.

In the book’s foreword, activist Maria Campbell points out that, because of Carlson’s and Steinhauer’s relentless work, “170,000 First Nations people benefited from your struggle to restore an inheritance that is about identity, belonging and place.”

Goyette does an admirable job of what had to be a difficult task: sorting through four separate conversations that took place between 2000 and 2011 and distilling the facts of the struggle while keeping the personalities of the women intact.

Writes Goyette, “I am aware that a transcriber shapes the story and becomes part of it as an invisible third author.”

However, Goyette embraces the storytelling aspect of Aboriginal culture and at times that makes the narration somewhat disjointed.

Goyette traces the two women’s fight for justice, which began when they married non-status Indians and lost their treaty rights.
Steinhauer told her husband Gilbert that while she would give up her treaty rights to get married, she would also get them back. In her words: “And I pounded the table. I was really angry, and he knew it. And I said, ‘I’ll get my rights and you’ll get your rights and our children will get their rights.’ He put on his jacket, and I said after him, ‘and all our descendants!’”

Carlson points out that the Indian Act section on women and marriage changed six times over the years and on the sixth time, women and their children lost all rights. She also talks about the promise she made to her dying mother that she would fight for the disenfranchised children.

But it wasn’t only the federal government that Carlson and Steinhauer had to battle; they also had to fight their own people. They fought the leadership of their own First Nation, stood firm against family members, and took on heavily male-dominated First Nations organizations, such as the National Indian Brotherhood (which later became the Assembly of First Nations) and treaty organizations in most provinces.

The creation of Indian Rights for Indian Women occurred in 1971, in the midst of the creation of other Aboriginal organizations, court battles for land and treaty claims, and marches against racism.

“In this lively atmosphere,” writes Goyette, “disinherited First Nations women across the country demanded an end to the sexual discrimination in the membership rules of the Indian Act.”
Indian Rights for Indian Women fought the battle for 18 years, much longer than the leaders or any of the women had anticipated.

On June 28, 1985, Bill C-31 was passed, bringing the Indian Act into line with the equality guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Disinherited Generations provides valuable insight into the hearts and the minds of the women who led the Indian Rights for Indian Women.