Ontario Women's History
Indigenous Women in Ontario

A number of Indigenous communities lived on and claimed the lands within the boundaries of what we now call Ontario. Some nations and tribes: Haudenosaunee / Hodinohson:ni, Iroquois, Cree, Anishnabek, Odawa, Algonquin, Huron-Wendat, the Neutral peoples, and Métis people. Each community has its own history to tell. Modern-day archaeology tells us that Indigenous people have occupied the land of North America for over 15,000 years - how long precisely, we're not sure yet.

You can learn more about the traditional territories you're on, and the other lands of Ontario, by visiting resources such as Native Land, Whose Land, and "Beyond Territorial Acknowledgements" by Chelsea Vowel. These resources can help you explore in more detail the heritage of the place where you live.

A 1989 column by George Beaver. Courtesy the Six Nations Public Library.
A 1989 column by George Beaver. Courtesy the Six Nations Public Library. [Learn More]

"Most people have a misconception about the number of natives that used to live in Southern Ontario and in the rest of North America which they knew nothing about as wild and empty. Writers usually called it "the wilderness." Actually it was badly misnamed. It was not a wilderness."

As with the history of women across the world, the history of Indigenous women's lives and experiences is sometimes hard to find. Documentation can be difficult to track down, as colonial and settler records and materials more often focused on the men in charge.

Indigenous history and heritage includes more than just written words: the past is remembered through stories and traditions passed down orally and with ceremony. Historical contracts and agreements sometimes are represented through handmade items such as the wampum belt, below:

This belt commemmorates the agreement between the Six Nations Confederacy and the British Crown after the War of 1812. Courtesy the Six Nations Public Library.
This belt commemmorates the agreement between the Six Nations Confederacy and the British Crown after the War of 1812. Courtesy the Six Nations Public Library. [Learn More]

As time goes on, and white settlers occupy more of the land and set more of the rules about citizenship and identification, along with new and improved technologies more readily available, we can see into the past in new ways.

An example is the photo below, of a group of young Indigenous women dressed in western clothes, about to go to class at Brantford Collegiate Institute in southern Ontario:

A group of students heading to Brantford Collegiate Institute, 1908. Courtesy the Six Nations Public Library.
A group of students heading to Brantford Collegiate Institute, 1908. Courtesy the Six Nations Public Library. [Learn More]

With documentation such as this, it is important to ask questions. Why are these students dressed in clothing styles imported from Europe? Did they choose to dress this way? Did they want to go to school at the Brantford Collegiate Institute? Was there another school closer to their homes they could have gone to, perhaps run by Indigenous educators?

Do you think these four girls were friends? Do they remind you of your own friend groups in school? Can you imagine what they are thinking, based on the expressions on their faces?

What information do we bring to this photograph based on our own knowledge of history? For example, do you think these students had experience of residential schools in Canada? Do you think they enjoyed attending Brantford Collegiate, which at that time was a school for both girls and boys, but had a mostly white student body?

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