Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

Aboriginal women and work across the 49th parallel: Historical antecedents and new challenges

Document type Book chapter
Author Sangster, Joan
Editor Williams, Carol
Book None
Publisher University of Illinois Press; Urbana, IL
Date 2012
ISBN 978-0-252-03715-3
Pages 27-45


Interpretations of Aboriginal women's work have shifted over time, but they have been absolutely central to First Nations women's experiences of colonialism. Yet, in both women's history and Aboriginal history, there has been a "mystification" of Indigenous women's labor, because it was often defined as nonproductive or marginal within capitalist economies; wage work was particularly neglected (Littlefield and Knack 1999: 4). Yet, by studying women's labor in its multiple forms (paid, unpaid, voluntary, ceremonial, commodity production), and in multiple contexts (bush, urban, reserve or reservation), we can gain immense insight into how colonialism was structured, experienced, negotiated, and resisted by women at the level of daily life. By perusing past academic writing on Aboriginal women and work, this paper explores some of the intellectual, political, and social influences that have shaped understandings of Aboriginal women's labor in Canada and the United States, asking what insights we have gained, what questions we need to answer, and what contradictions we still face in our research. Arguably, we need a dialogue that crosses disciplines and theoretical approaches, with perspectives and traditions from Aboriginal history, feminist theory, and labor studies informing and challenging each other. There are transnational trends and shared perspectives in Aboriginal women's history that cross the 49th parallel; however, we also need to identify how and why national and regional histories and interpretations diverge. Still, one transnational commonality highlighted in this paper is the close connection between politics and research, between the present and the past: the questions posed by scholars have been stimulated and inspired by Aboriginal thought and organizing, and Aboriginal politics have benefited from scholarly research. Although research may still be difficult and contested terrain in Aboriginal–non-Aboriginal relations (Smith 1999; Biolsi and Zimmerman 1997), there is hope that scholarly dialogue might contribute productively to decolonization. --From Introduction