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The lives of aboriginal women, told by aboriginal women

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Life Stages and Native Women

Memory, Teachings, and Story Medicine

By Kim Anderson

University of Manitoba Press, 240 pages, $28

SOME indigenous stories are "story medicine." They hold powerful life lessons and can even heal the wounds of those who listen and embrace their teachings.

Life Stages and Native Women offers just that: "story medicine" for aboriginal people.

Author Kim Anderson, a Cree/Métis woman and educator from Guelph, Ont., came up with the idea while moving into her role as a new mom.

Anderson searched and found very little material about pregnancy, parenting customs or the life cycles of indigenous women.

So with the support of celebrated author Maria Campbell, she interviews 14 Ojibwa, Cree and Métis female elders in their 60s and 70s from vibrant communities in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Alberta (though none from Manitoba).

The outcome is a mosaic of knowledge and stories about the traditional roles and lives of aboriginal women, rite-of-passage ceremonies and the leadership and respect women held in their families and communities throughout their lives.

Yes, this is an academic book, published by the University of Manitoba Press, but don't let "academic" or the footnotes scare you off.

Life Stages and Native Women is an academic read more accessible than the norm, made palatable by Anderson's clear, conversational writing style. Her passion and understanding of her subject is reflected in her writing, to the benefit of the reader.

This shouldn't be categorized as a "feminist" book either. It is more about how women worked and lived within a close-knit family alongside men, elders and children.

The elders' stories depict vibrant, thriving communities that fly in the face of the stereotypes of what native communities are like.

Anderson doesn't include much about Indian residential schools, likely because it is such an extensive subject.

She does briefly touch on how residential schools and the Indian Act dealt such a devastating blow to the self-sufficiency of aboriginal families, and in turn their entire communities.

The family breakdown affected not just people who went to residential school but some of today's youths, who are being raised without the guidance of elders or a sense of pride earned by contributing to their families' well-being. Many youths are also dealing with family dysfunction.

Anderson has achieved what she set out to do -- introduce some cultural knowledge about the roles of women and the idea that some customs can be revived to everyone's benefit.

Aboriginals in Canada are a land-based people. Their survival in a robust land meant adapting to the circumstances at hand. It only makes sense that Anishinabe, Cree and Métis culture can adapt to modern times as well.

Life Stages and Native Women does not try to take the place of an elder's teachings, but rather leads you in the right direction if you want to know more.

If you're interested in a more relaxed and modern look at aboriginal women than you'd find in an introduction to native studies class, you will enjoy this.

Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer, filmmaker, North Ender and Anishinabe mother of two.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 J7

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