News | Erica Violet Lee on Indigenous feminism

Resistance through mourning, love, and reclaiming space in academia

On September 20, the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies hosted a talk by Indigenous activist Erica Violet Lee. The event, titled “For NDN Girls at the End of the World,” was part of McGill’s seventh annual Indigenous Awareness Week. Lee, a nêhiyaw community organizer from inner-city Saskatoon, and author of the blog Moontime Warrior, discussed different forms of resistance to colonialism through an Indigenous feminist lens. Lee is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto.

Lee started the event with a land acknowledgement and dedicated her presentation to Sisi Thibert, a trans sex worker from Montreal who was murdered on September 18.

“My talk today is going to be dedicated to Sisi Thibert,” she said, “another sister murdered here in Montréal at the hands of trans-misogyny and the violent colonial criminalization of sex workers.”

Decolonizing academia

Lee stressed the importance of education and recalled her experience witnessing peers being forced out of classrooms because of their Indigenous identity, “I don’t buy the argument that if Indigenous folks want to decolonize, we have to stay out of universities. […] I don’t think that school is a colonizer’s concept; intellectual learning and intellectual reflection have always existed in our community. […] Our intellectual lives were, and always have been, more complex than they’re portrayed.”

Lee later explained that she follows a “take-what-they-give-you” policy, stating that you can take the academic tools given to you by institutions like universities and actively use those tools to dismantle the unnecessary and harmful structures in our society.

Lee also spoke about how she is hesitant to draw attention to her identity as an Indigenous person in academia.

“I always wonder if at the beginning of academic lectures, I should introduce myself this way, because it positions me as a young person – a young, brown, Indigenous person who needs to prove my intelligence and worthiness to speak in a room; to take up space in the academy. But I’m going to keep doing it because Indigenous women, youth, […] have much more knowledge than is ever honoured.”

She then elaborated on her graduate work, telling the audience that her supervisor, Dr. Eve Tuck, had asked her class, “What is the story you have to tell the world before you can do anything else?” Lee’s response, she explained, will be a master’s thesis dedicated to the inner city of Saskatoon: “A project just for the freedom and love of one little west-side native neighbourhood in Saskatoon.”

“I always wonder if at the beginning of academic lectures, I should introduce myself this way, because it positions me as a young person – a young, brown, Indigenous person who needs to prove my intelligence and worthiness to speak in a room; to take up space in the academy. But I’m going to keep doing it because Indigenous women, youth, […] have much more knowledge than is ever honoured.”

Emotional resistance

Lee related the story of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old member of Saskatchewan’s Red Pheasant Nation. Boushie was shot dead for “trespassing” in the summer of 2016 by Gerald Stanley, a Saskatchewan farmer. Lee recalled being in a Saskatoon courtroom during Stanley’s preliminary trial. She sat on a small uncomfortable chair in the chamber, the size and structure of which made it difficult for people in the courtroom to physically comfort one another.
The court proceeding took place under a looming portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, whose royal officers were positioned outside the courtroom, monitoring the crowd outside who had come to grieve the loss of Boushie, a young victim of racialized violence.

“In this setting,” she said, “it feels as though Boushie is on trial, and that we are the silent witnesses. […] The reality is that Gerald Stanley left that farm alive, and Colten Boushie did not.”
“Mourning is important,” continued Lee, “because Indigenous death is not named genocide. [Indigenous] deaths are not considered a loss worth mourning, nor an illegal act, but rather our deaths become a state sanctioned event, and control of that death becomes a form of power. […] Dead bodies don’t move or migrate or transgress or trespass. […] The best way to control our existence is the destruction of our bodies.”

One year after Boushie’s death, the Red Pheasant community held a memorial feast. Everyone gathered, and grieved with each other as a picture of Boushie was passed around. Lee declared the importance of this experience, saying, “In a world where Indigenous death is constant to the point of normalcy; feasting is a rebellious act. […] Mourning is a communal activity; no one should have to do it alone.”
Lee spoke not only of physical resistance, but also of emotional resistance: “I think that native women writing, or saying anything about our feelings, is revolutionary fucking scholarship.”

“From restrictions on hunting, fishing, and trapping; to residential schooling; missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirit people,” she continued, “and overwhelmingly disproportionate rates of incarceration, the explicit and implicit policies of Canada’s settler state are the regulations of Indigenous movement. These regulations are a gendered project, and so [their] interruption is inherently feminist. To reclaim our agency in a space that has continuously denied our feeling, the essential distinction between a living body and a dead one, is radical resistance.”

“From restrictions on hunting, fishing, and trapping; to residential schooling; missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirit people,” she continued, “and overwhelmingly disproportionate rates of incarceration, the explicit and implicit policies of Canada’s settler state are the regulations of Indigenous movement. These regulations are a gendered project, and so [their] interruption is inherently feminist. To reclaim our agency in a space that has continuously denied our feeling, the essential distinction between a living body and a dead one, is radical resistance.”

Elaborating on emotional resistance, Lee transitioned to the topic of love. She explained that her existence is resistance in and of itself, but reminded the audience that she is still complex. The question she ponders is how she (and other Indigenous people) might move past resistance and let go. For Lee, the epitome of letting go is falling in love.

“[Decolonial love is] a love that cares for us, for our bodies and minds; a love that helps us do the work as Indigenous women, queer folks, trans folks, of anti-colonialism and anti-racism; the work of feminism. […] A love that centres on our freedom and liberation, not our trauma.”

“Being in love is not a distraction from our revolution, but a constant pulsing reminder that if we truly love, love deeply enough and honestly enough, we put ourselves on the line to take down the greedy few who want to steal the places, things, and people we love.”

She finished with a call to action: “The maintenance of colonial hetero-patriarchal systems is unnatural, fragile, and on the verge of collapse. All we need to do now is light a fire to help the forest along.”

“Being in love is not a distraction from our revolution, but a constant pulsing reminder that if we truly love, love deeply enough and honestly enough, we put ourselves on the line to take down the greedy few who want to steal the places, things, and people we love.”


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