How rediscovering traditional knowledges can work to empower marginalized youth
Recently I have been doing a lot of research on efforts to create more comprehensive, positive and inclusive sexual education programs for youth in Canada. Sexual education often varies between provinces and classrooms and this diversity of knowledge has long been an interest of mine. I am thus currently working on a directed study in relation to this topic for my Women and Gender Studies 400 credit. During my research on pre-colonial, indigenous sexual education I came across a brilliant article by feminist and indigenous rights activist, Jessica Yee, whose knowledge I would like to share.
The effects of colonial legacies on indigenous groups has become an increasingly complex and highly debated discussion in Canadian development academia and mainstream media. While the current experiences of indigenous groups are discussed in relation to the violence, assimilation, abuse and cultural destruction that came along with colonization, conversations often do not highlight life before settler contact, especially when it comes to ones of sexual nature. In Jessica Yee’s piece “Our Schools, Ourselves," Yee relates precolonial sexual education within indigenous communities to early feminisms rooted in reproductive rights and justice. Lessons on sex, puberty, and body autonomy, were taught by elder members of indigenous communities to youth. Sex was understood to be a sacred, yet a normal and natural part of human life. These teachings stem from the workings of a matriarchal society in which reproduction, childrearing and female leadership are highly valued and regarded. Youth were taught to have power over their own sexual decisions and to respect the sexual choices of others. Notions of homosexuality were often not discussed or necessarily identified as all sexual acts and lives were seen to be based on the essence of humanity and were not rooted in sex/gender binary or religious beliefs.
Upon settler contact, sex and sexuality became a source of grief and danger to indigenous groups as colonial administrators used sexual exploitation and abuse as a form of warfare that worked to disempower these communities and destroy indigenous culture. European settlers brought with them ideals about sexual and gender hierarchy and sexual understanding based upon male dominance over women and their bodies. Indigenous women suffered the most from this exploitation and continue to feel it’s effects today. Patriarchal values were deeply engrained into indigenous communities through forced assimilation and attempts to erase indigenous tradition and teachings. As we begin to have discussions about the ways we can begin to create education that is not based upon patriarchal dominance and set binaries, it is helpful to look to the traditional indigenous knowledges surrounding sex and sexuality.
Yee criticizes Canada’s label of multicultural diversity and argues that while Canada is home to many diverse groups, we often do not take the time to understand one another’s cultures and knowledges. She points out that indigenous communities share their struggle to maintain culture with other racialized groups that have been whitewashed over time. Indigenous youth face the highest risk of STI’s including HIV/AIDS, as well as teen pregnancy in the country. These groups have long been denied comprehensive sexual education and health resources due to socioeconomic realities and their ideas around sex often stem from colonial legacies and understandings of patriarchy. Yee discusses that she hopes that through reclaiming traditional knowledges marginalized youth will be empowered to have autonomy over their sexuality and be encouraged to lead healthier, safer and more positive sex lives.
She suggests that the imagining of new sexual health education for indigenous youth should be rooted in the knowledge that already exists within these traditional communities. Sexual education should be based upon youth experiences and curiosities, but the platforms upon which we have these important discussions need to be shifted away from patriarchal pedagogy. Sexual education needs to be more positive, inclusive and based upon keeping youth safe and respectful while allowing them to pursue their sexual desires. I believe that educating ourselves on indigenous traditional understandings of sexuality would allow us to imagine a sexual understanding that would be less scary and more exciting, less risky and more safe and less marginalizing and more inclusive. I would like to thank Jessica Yee for sharing her knowledge on this topic and would encourage you all to check out her great work.