Ancestral laws illuminate critical roles of women: reclaiming traditional governance
A Master of Arts in Leadership grad’s thesis puts the spotlight on ancestral systems focusing on women’s roles in leadership and governance in Indigenous communities.
A member of the Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw nations, Marcia Dawson has more than 20 years’ experience working in community development and governance with Indigenous communities and post-secondary institutions.
In response to Indigenous people’s goals for self-determination and decolonization, Marcia recognized the need to restore balance and traditional governance systems in communities through reclaiming women’s critical leadership roles. Her thesis, łaʷeyasəns gayułas: Ancestral Teachings to Reclaim the Roles of Kwakwaka’wakw Women in Governance and Leadership, sought to answer how Kwakwaka’wakw ancestral teachings, principles and practices regarding the roles of matriarchs and women can be incorporated in contemporary systems of governance.
“There was a time when the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations were led by both men and women through inherited leadership roles as chiefs and matriarchs, an ancestral governance system that was and is the strength of Kwakwaka’wakw people. With the arrival of western settlers, this traditional system of governance was displaced by an imposed legislated patriarchal colonial system,” says Dawson.
“Indigenous communities in what is now called Canada have been working to come out of the Indian Act — a racist and oppressive legislation that continues to control Indigenous people. The way forward is by reclaiming traditional governance and organizational systems.”
With the ancestral knowledge shared by Kwakwaka’wakw Elders and Chiefs, Dawson set out to provide a framework for applying ancestral teachings to contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw governance and organizational systems.
Dawson found that ancestral systems locate women as intrinsic leaders in traditional Kwakwaka’wakw governance and the community’s governance and leadership required a balance of men and women.
“In the ancestral system, women’s roles are equal to that of the chief. They co-governed,” she says. “According to ancestral rights, it is women who record the knowledge, convey that knowledge to the chief to inform decisions, teach the children and mentor other women. It’s a very intentional and important practice, and a law of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.”
Marcia cautions readers not to apply a western lens as they journey through her thesis, which illuminates Indigenous knowledge systems and contributes to the growing field of Indigenous social science. Through a western lens, says Dawson, women’s roles were historically seen as domestic, staying home raising the children, cooking and cleaning. For Kwakwaka’wakw People, women have a critical role in cultural continuity and the future of their tribes. It was through formal and informal ceremonies and traditions—potlatches, feasts, songs, dances, and conversations—that women passed on ancestral teachings to their families.
“We sat at the feet of our grandmothers and aunties to listen and learn our language and our culture,” she says.
For Dawson, it was critical that her research methods honour Kwakwaka’wakw ways of knowing and acquiring knowledge. She used two primary methods: kitchen table conversations and the ceremony-as-research method which examined the knowledge embedded in ceremony.
“Using a Kwakwaka’wakw-centered approach highlights the strength of Kwakwaka’wakw knowledge systems which includes ceremony and story,” says Dawson. “What is unique in my thesis is the decolonizing approach I took in my writing, I honour Kwakwaka’wakw pedagogy in my thesis, I framed my findings using ceremony and I use story to invite the reader into that spiritual space.”
The ceremony-as-research method she participated in was necessary to fully understand Kwakwaka’wakw governance and women’s leadership, she says.
“I examined the knowledge embedded in ceremony and stories to identify ancestral laws regarding the roles of women and teachings of balance.”
She says she was privileged to attend Kwakwaka’wakw Nation Chief Makwala’s potlatch, to listen, learn and witness the ceremonies within the spiritual space.
“The potlatch takes place in the Big House, a space that represents the womb and is the direct connection to the female and place of birth,” says Chief Makwala Rande Cook. “It is spiritual and essential in how we view and look back at the balance of male and female.”
Dawson’s goal is one Chief Makwala supports. He understands the importance of restoring the roles Kwakwaka’wakw women in their families and traditional governance, he says.
“Women were the possessors of knowledge reaching back to creation times and connecting to Mother Earth and all entities,” he says. “As men, we need to ask how to give space to restore equality.”
Dawson has been invited by health organizations, universities and government ministries to hold training sessions, present talks and develop courses connected to her research and past experiences. She also developed curricula around governance in her teaching positions at North Island College, the University of Victoria, and the University of British Columbia. Simon Fraser University and Pearson College have invited Marcia to work with their institutions on initiatives for systems change in Indigenous education. Marcia has been offered a new teaching role at Royal Roads University as well.
At a personal level, her research journey opened the door to deeper insights. “It taught me so much about leadership, our elders, their authenticity, their vulnerability, their knowledge acquired during the time of a government policy of assimilation. I am in awe of their strength and resilience,” she says. “Learning about Kwakwaka’wakw teachings not only deepened my knowledge of ancestral governance, It also strengthened my role as a teacher, facilitator, and mother. This thesis is a gift to my four sons whose world I sought to change from the moment they were born, to give them a stronger understanding of the Kwakwaka’wakw side of their identity and how their mother’s role fits in.”
Through her research, conversations and education, Dawson hopes to bridge Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships and bring equity for Indigenous people and knowledge systems.
“That’s what’s driven me to do this work,” she says.