Women are highly respected in First Nations cultures as matriarchs, Knowledge Keepers, caretakers of the water and sacred givers of life.
Matriarchs hold positions of power and are leaders in their communities – presiding over feasts, leading ceremonies to mark key life transitions such as birth and coming-of-age as well as nurturing and teaching children, the leaders of tomorrow.
Many Nations are traditionally matrilineal, meaning that peoples' identities – including clans and roles – are passed down through mothers.
Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary women are also leaders on a journey to decolonize gender and reclaim the important roles they have held in many First Nations cultures as leaders and teachers, interpreters, child minders, mediators, healers and medicine people. Download a pdf of this chapter.
“We are the mothers who give birth to our Nation. We are the mothers who bring future generations into being. We are the lifeblood of our people. We are the grandmothers and mothers and daughters, the aunties and nieces, the sisters of our Nation. We make our Nation rich. We come from the matriarchy and our womanhood is a blessing." – Heiltsuk Women's Declaration
Connections to culture and the ancestors, language and ceremony • Connections to land • Connections to community
The vision of healthy and vibrant First Nations women is grounded in the roots of wellness: their connections to culture and identity, the land, family and community.
These connections are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. When strong, these connections provide support, guidance and strength to women as they navigate the adult phase of their life journey and balance the various mental, emotional, spiritual and physical spheres of wellness. They, in turn, keep the culture alive by teaching and passing on language and tradition to children and grandchildren.“The land is the physical place we live our lives in. It is a physical representation of how we see ourselves and what we value most. If we nourish it, it will nourish us. If we degrade it, it will reinforce that same value we place on ourselves. It is a reflection, a mirror of our own level of health and what we choose every day as our priorities." – Coco Miller, Gitxsan/Tsimshian, Kitselas First Nation
The Haíɫzaqv Land-Based Wellness Centre in Qíɫcutkv (Kunsoot) is an inclusive, accessible and safe space for land-based healing and learning, built by the Heiltsuk Nation to promote wellness.
“The Kunsoot Wellness Center came to life as a result of our Nation making a clear statement that we need to take care of ourselves and we need to be well. We have a right to wellness. Several decades ago our hereditary leaders and matriarchs requested that we ask our people what they need to be well. The community spoke their truth and their answers were very simple. We need to stay connected to our land, our resources, our culture and our community." – Carrie Easterbrook, Heiltsuk First Nation
The ongoing legacies of colonialism – racism and discrimination, violence and abuse, and lateral kindness versus lateral violence • Systems – education, economic, food, health and justice
The health and wellness of First Nations women is greatly impacted by the systems that – through policies, structures, underlying values or norms – determine the conditions of their environments, where they live, work, play, learn, heal and pray.
Since time immemorial, First Nations have had systems pertaining to these various social determinants of health – systems for education, food, housing, health, justice.
While these still exist, they were undermined and disrupted by colonialism and the mainstream systems and structures in place today are rooted heavily in Canada's colonial history. As a result, the health and wellness of First Nations women continues to be shaped by their social, economic, cultural and political marginalization.
“Racism and prejudice comes from a space of lack of knowledge and ignorance. At the end of the day, don't own people's BS because it is a reflection of their own healing work that needs to be done. Arm yourself with knowledge and history and refuse to let them take away your peace. If the experiences still sting, my love, then let yourself cry, write, organize a rally, write a statement, or do whatever you need to in order to drag that experience out of you – just don't let it set up a home in your bones because it has no place there. You were brought into this world with purpose, move about it with power." – Helen Knott, Dene Zaa, Nehiyaw and mixed Euro-descent woman from Northern British Columbia
The ReMatriate Collective (on Facebook) is an Indigenous women's collective, co-founded by Kelly Edzerza-Bapty (Tahltan) and Jeneen Frei-Njootli (Vuntut Gwitchin), which aims to empower Indigenous women and provide women role models for young Indigenous girls, using social media.
As a way of enabling Indigenous women to control the visual representation of their identities, ReMatriate's ongoing social media campaign invites Indigenous women to submit an image of themselves that they feel is empowering, a short biography, a history of their community and a “we are" statement that celebrates the diversity and connection amongst Indigenous peoples.
Using art as a platform, the collective seeks to expose and respond to offensive and racist misrepresentations of Indigenous identities, found in fashion, media and other sources.
Physical activity • Eating nutritious meals • Mental wellness • Stress and depression • Respecting tobacco • Alcohol and substance use • Toxic drug crisis • Gambling • Suicides • Sexual health • Reproductive justice • Managing disease and chronic conditions • Preventative screening
The vision of First Nations women as healthy, vibrant and self-determining is grounded in the roots of wellness – their connections to culture and their relationships with the land, family and community.
This vision involves having systems in place that nurture supportive and safe environments for First Nations women – systems that respect cultural values and are free of systemic barriers. Connected and supported First Nations women throughout BC are thriving, living this vision every day. Still, there is work to be done to dismantle the barriers that continue to impede their rights and ability to flourish.
“The hard part of maintaining balance is trying focus on all four aspects of wellness: mental, physical, spiritual and emotional.
My Elder Mentor, the late Chief Leonard George once reminded me, you can't drive a car with three wheels, you've got to take care of all four aspects of your being.
Spiritual wellness is the most difficult while living in the city. Any time I go back to my hometown Campbell River, I make a commitment to do a spirit bath which is basically jumping into the ocean – the colder the better! It really shakes off any bad energy and is like pressing reset. Another easy thing I do is walk the trails near my house and pick a few branches of cedar along the way. Cedar is medicine. I give thanks and sometimes I offer tobacco.
I do what I have to do, trusting that my spirit knows what it needs. It's my job to listen and be aware." – Jennifer Smith, Tlowitsis Nation
Westbank First Nation, together with the FNHA, the Women's Health Research Institute and BC Centres for Disease Control, are conducting a pilot project to evaluate the use of self-screening for cervical cancer.
Self-screening allows people to conduct their own Pap test in a comfortable setting with control and autonomy over the exam. It can be a useful option for rural and remote communities and also help to address issues related to privacy, confidentiality, accessibility of health care providers and lack of comfort with the Pap test, which may be associated with trauma.
While the project is still ongoing, preliminary results indicate that trauma survivors especially prefer a self-screening Pap test over a pelvic exam.
Download the Adult chapter
Download the full report
Sacred and Strong honours and celebrates the strengths of all
First Nations people living in BC who identify as or express themselves as
women, including cisgender females, trans women, non-binary people and those
who identify Two-Spirit or Indigiqueer.
The binary term “woman” is used
throughout Sacred and Strong, but
please note that this term may not accurately reflect the gender and sexual
identities of all of those reflected in the experiences, data and stories