“First Nations women” refers to a specific group of Aboriginal women, namely registered/status Indians, as distinct from Métis and Inuit women, and sometimes also distinguished from those descendants of North American Indians not recognized as Indians under the federal Indian Act. First Nations women are also identified by tribal or national affiliations. In Saskatchewan we have nehiyawak (also nehithawak : Plains and Woodland Cree), Denesuline (widely known as Chipewyan), Dakota/Lakota/Nakota (Sioux/ Assiniboine or Stoney), and Anishnabe (Saulteaux/ Ojibway). In Saskatchewan, First Nations or registered/status Indians are generally also “Treaty Indians.” As well, the Constitution denotes them as Aboriginal People, whose Aboriginal and Treaty Rights are recognized and affirmed. In October 2004, Amnesty International championed the human rights of Indigenous women of western Canada and censured Canadian and provincial governments for neglect of their plight. The report reveals that Indigenous women face harsh conditions and that their disappearances are rarely investigated properly. As a result of this attention, the First Nation Chiefs of Saskatchewan have declared 2005 the Year of the First Nations Woman.
Abuse of First Nations women in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in western Canada has a history that goes back to the early days of White settlement. In their pre-colonial societies First Nations women generally enjoyed egalitarian status, as their productive and reproductive roles were essential to the well-being of the people. When European fur traders arrived, First Nations women became their wives and helpmates. With the advent of White settlement, they were marginalized: White society began to look down on First Nations women and made them scapegoats for the deteriorating conditions of Indigenous people after reserve settlement. The women suffered the effects of racism, compounded by sexism and poverty; such discrimination continues today, regardless of legislative efforts to curb it. After confinement on reserves and implementation of strict measures by Canada, women found it increasingly difficult to supplement their families' incomes. Through hard work and determination, however, they found ways of surviving. As men learned agriculture in the south, women assisted them while maintaining traditional skills - hunting and snaring small game, picking berries, fishing, tanning hides, and making moccasins and other crafts for sale. In the early industrial and residential schools, women learned many Euro-Canadian homemaking skills that assisted reserve life.
By the 20th century the government and churches pursued rigorous policies of assimilation that involved wholesale removal of First Nations children from their mothers to attend residential schools. In the 1960s and 1970s, child welfare authorities removed children to non-Aboriginal foster homes and institutions. This prolonged assault on families and culture is manifest today in generational cycles of dysfunction among many. An issue that attracted international attention in the late 20th century was the penalty paid by First Nations women who married non-Natives or non-status Indians: Indian Act provisions meant that these women and their children lost their status and their rights to live on a reserve or benefit from education and health programs for Treaty and Status Indians. The Act was amended in 1985 to conform to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; more than 113,000 people nationally (approximately 13,000 in Saskatchewan) were subsequently re-registered as Indians. The change was brought about largely by women's political activism.
While Saskatchewan First Nations women have not generally been involved with national women's political groups, a province-wide association has existed for the last thirty-five years: the Saskatchewan Indian Women's Association (SIWA) was formed in 1971 with close ties to the mainly male Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Changes over the years have resulted in an FSIN Women's Commission. In 2004 there were seven women Chiefs of First Nations in Saskatchewan, and many more councillors. Underrepresented in the larger political arena, First Nations women are nevertheless leaders in tackling grassroots issues affecting children and families in cities or reserves. Of 114,248 members of seventy-four First Nations in Saskatchewan in 2003, women comprised 50.7% (57,887). While 28,168 women lived on reserves in the province, 29,719 lived off reserve, according to Department of Indian Affairs records. The First Nations population is extremely young, with high rates of single parenthood, unemployment, and poor housing. SIWA established three shelters for victims of domestic violence. One focus of the current FSIN Women's Commission is child prostitution in our cities. Gangs, addictions, violence and murder concern women in isolated northern areas as well as in urban centres. While teenage pregnancy is still a major cause of school dropout rates for girls, women often return and successfully complete educational programs later in life, determined to improve their children's quality of life.