By Bonnie Leask, Relationship Lead, Watershed Partners, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Reposted with permission from eaglefeathernews.com. “The March 2021 edition of Eagle Feather News was dedicated to Indigenous women. We asked several Indigenous women to write about Indigenous women. This is one of those stories.” John Lagimodiere, Editor/Publisher, Eagle Feather News

What a year it’s been. After 12 months of surviving a pandemic, just like many others I am trying to stay afloat and find a way to the other side of this hardship.

Personally, I manage difficulty through laughter. I love to have big belly laughs with my people. Laughter isn’t only a release, it creates a space for vulnerability, friendship, and kinship. Sharing laughter means that we share our experiences and provides a real opportunity to open up, learn, collaborate, and act. I am grateful to have had many incredible laughs with inspirational women from all around the world, but there’s nothing like a good laugh with First Nation, Métis, and Inuit women. Our laughter is threaded with shared and individual histories, culture, tradition, and colonial experiences. Sometimes we laugh at serious things that we shouldn’t laugh at. But what else are we going to do?

Our laughter is a seed for our kinship and brings us together during moments of joy and sadness. It gives us strength to work together to make better lives and set examples for our families, our communities, and our people.

Throughout the pandemic, I have thought about the things my grandmother, Alpha Lafond, and her generation faced. She was a residential school survivor, entered adulthood post-World War II, lived through a global call for civil rights and justice, and saw the rise of Indigenous pride in the face of colonial violence.

She faced history while bringing joy into our home and into our lives. In these times of change, women just like my grandmother played an undeniable role in collectively guiding our communities forward. And they often did so outside of formal institutions or leadership roles.

Bonnie Leask Alpha Lafond

Alphonsine Lafond, elected Chief of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in 1960, is a role model for her granddaughter Bonnie Leask. Here she is with four of her children on election day from left, Al, George, Robert and Carol. Missing are Judy and Albert Dean.

Indigenous women have always led change. Despite their exclusion from formal institutions and leadership roles after colonization, Indigenous women led in their own ways, charging ahead with humility, respect, kindness, courage, wisdom, honesty—and yes, humour. And it’s because of these values that Indigenous women were, and continue to be, the best collaborators and leaders I have ever met.

I want to share some stories of true collaborative leaders who make change for our people without being elected into political positions. Women such as Priscilla Settee, who educates countless young people through her work in food security and governance at the university level, influenced by kinship and our cultures and traditions. She collaborates every day with people in service of building a better earth, a better Nation, and a better community. And she has a really good kokum laugh, too.

I think of Tasha Hubbard, an award-winning filmmaker, who educates people on the long-term impacts of continued colonialism. She’s relentless in her push for justice, inclusion, and honesty. She grounds her films in a holistic truth and mobilizes action by kickstarting uncomfortable conversations that engage both non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. Of course, she showcases some solid First Nations humour along the way.

There are so many other Indigenous women I admire, such as the late Carole Sanderson, Sylvia McAdam, Bev Lafond, Jade Tootoosis, Debbie Baptiste, Eekwol, to name a few. I admire them because of their ability to shake up the status quo and hold up a mirror of responsibility to ourselves, our Nations, and our Earth. These women lead through their values rooted in our cultures, languages, and traditions, and deeply understand that when we work together, we are stronger.

Yet so often people in our communities subscribe to a false idea that one needs to be an elected leader to be a legitimate leader. Or a serious, solemn leader. Each of these women, and many others, have meaningfully pursued change not only for themselves, but for those to come, across sectors and spaces without a formal title. Indigenous women talk. We listen. We observe. We learn. And we communicate what works and what definitely doesn’t work. We rely on each other. We share laughter while we share wisdom.

The large-scale challenges the entire world is experiencing right now are testing colonial systems that have long governed our people, community, and institutions. And guess what? Under these pressures, many of these systems are failing. This isn’t surprising, because they’ve always been at odds with our traditions, our culture, and our language.

They aren’t designed to support joy, laughter, or kinship. Instead, they enforce rigid processes and present barriers to shared progress. Being thrust into uncertainty is difficult and sometimes scary, but it also provides an opportunity for us to make real change.

And now more than ever, we need better systems. We need Indigenous women’s vocal, vulnerable, and values-driven style of leadership to get us there. And along the way, we’ll have some seriously good laughs, too—the kind of laughter that feeds the soul and makes your belly ache.