|Clockwise from top left: |
Whina Cooper, Sally Morgan,
Vandana Shiva, Gladys Bissonette
It has also been said that behind every great man there is a great women. That may be so, but more importantly, there are many great women that stand in their own right, rather than in the shadows of men.
Here are four short stories of just such inspiring indigenous women.
Dame Whina Cooper
In the land at the bottom of the world, Aotearoa (New Zealand), one woman stood up to the domination of the European colonisers. More than stand, Whina Cooper marched. At the age of nearly 80 Whina Cooper marched at the head of the 1975 Māori Land March that began in the far north of the country and ended on Parliament steps over 1,000 kilometres to the south. In doing so, she became a household name in New Zealand.
The idea for the hikoi (march) had been Cooper's. When, at a national gathering, Māori groups had asked her to lead a protest against the further theft of Māori land, she agreed and proposed the march that was to make her a national figure.
But, Whina Cooper had been an inspiration within Māori society for decades. In 1951, for example, she became the first President of the Māori Women's Welfare League, an organisation that became enormously important for the welfare of Māori women and families throughout the nation. When she stepped down from the president-ship the League bestowed on her the title Te Whaea o te Motu (Mother of the Nation) – an honour that not only Māori, but also Pakeha (Europeans) came to respect.
Dame Whina Cooper was awarded many honours and died in 1994 at the age of 98.
Sally Morgan came to international prominence in 1987 with the publication of her book, My Story. For many outside of Australia, and even many within Australia, this was one of the first times that the story of being aboriginal was being written down by an aboriginal woman and made accessible to non-aboriginal people.
The story tells of growing up without knowing that she was an aboriginal woman, with links to the Bailgu people in Western Australia. The book has attracted controversy, partly for suggesting that aboriginality can be written down so as to become accessible to non-aboriginal people. It is perhaps worth repeating that the title of the book is My Story, and was possibly not meant as the story of a whole peoples.
Sally Morgan, though, is inspiring for her endeavour to discover who she is in the face of a colonising force that was intent on wiping out indigenous Australians. It is noteworthy that it had only been 20 years before the book was published that aboriginal people had been automatically included in the Australian national census.
Vandana Shiva has been one of the world’s foremost proponents of indigenous wisdom. Calling on her own cultural roots in India, Shiva has published numerous books dealing with environmental issues, globalisation and women’s and peasant farmer’s rights.
Vandana Shiva is the founder of Navdanya (meaning Nine Seeds), which has a special interest in protecting seed diversity, encouraging organic farming and promoting fair trade. The organisation has worked with over 5 million farmers encouraging and promoting sustainable agriculture.
Besides working alongside farmers Shiva is a vocal critic of globalisation and transnational agribusiness. She is a prominent eco-feminist, proclaiming that
“We need to strengthen women’s role in agriculture both to remove hunger and empower women. We need to redefine development from women’s perspective to ensure no one goes hungry or thirsty on this planet.”1Vandana Shiva has written over 20 books and has appeared in numerous films and documentaries.
The battle of Wounded Knee is well known in American history. What is less well known is the Wounded Knee Incident, and perhaps less than that again, the role of women in that incident. Gladys Bissonette was one of three First Nation women (along with Ellen Moves Camp and Agnes Lamont) who became known as the Grandmas of the American Indian Movement (AIM).
In 1973 over 200 Oglala Lakota and others took over and occupied the village of Wounded Knee, partly in protest at the US government’s failure to fulfil treaties. The occupation inspired other First Nation peoples and caught the attention and gained the support of many prominent US citizens, including Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Angela Davis and Johnny Cash.
But, it was the women that inspired this action. Leading up to the occupation the situation in the Oglala Lakota reservation had been deteriorating and at a meeting of traditional elders and AIM leaders, it was Gladys that helped motivate the men to action.
“For many years we have not fought any kind of war, we have not fought any kind of battle, and we have forgotten how to fight.”she declared. Following her speech Chief Frank Fools Crows announced that the group would go to Wounded Knee to protest. The site (Wounded Knee) was deliberately chosen because of its symbolic value. It had been the site, in 1890, when 300 First Nation people had been massacred by the US 7th Cavalry.
Forty years after the occupation at Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement continues to seek justice and the fulfilment of treaties.
1. Dr Vandana Shiva, Empowering Women, BBC World Trust, June 2004. This article was written by Shiva on a train from Punjab, India.