Mary Two-Axe, a Mohawk woman from Kahnawake, Quebec, was an indigenous women’s right activist that fought for equal rights for Aboriginal women after loosing her Indian “Status” under the Indian Act for falling in love and marrying an Irish-American electrical engineer, Edward Early.
I’ve personally always found this concept completely ridiculous. If I Chinese woman marries a non-Chinese man, she is still Chinese. A black woman marrying a white man, does not become Caucasian. While the Aboriginal people themselves had not previously regarded women as second-class citizens, the law reflected the Victorian European notion that women were legally the possessions of their husbands. So in other words, you were only truly recognise has Native American if you through your father or through your husband, which is completely unfair.
When Native women looses her status rights, it means that she can not longer live on the reserve where she was born, she can’t own land there, she can’t participate in the band’s political life or vote in its elections, or be buried on the reserve with her family. Even if the marriage fails or the woman becomes a widow, she and her children could be denied housing, health care and education.
A friend of Mary’s had been ordered to leave the reserve and sell her house upon marrying a Mohawk from another reserve. She died the following morning of a heart attack. Mary believed that it was the stress from the discrimination that killed her friend.
The following year, Mary founded a provincial organisation, Equal Rights for Indian Women. She made many passionate speeches and presented numerous submissions to the government. She often met with opposition from male First Nations leaders, who feared that the marriage of Indian women to non-Indians would lead to assimilation and erosion. Technically the same could have been said about male Native American who married non-native women. They also argued that the cost of extending Indian status to thousands of non-registered First Nations women and their children would be too high for the bands to bear. Even the fact that there is cost involved in getting recognised as Native American is ridiculous. Did you have to fight to have your race recognise, had to pay for a registration card with renewal fees and could stand to lose your identity if you fell in love with the wrong person?
Two years later, Mary moved back on the reserve after inheriting her grandmothers home. The band leaders made it clear she wasn’t welcomed on the reserve. Since Mary couldn’t legally own property on the reserve, she passed it on to her daughter who had married a Mohawk from the reserve and therefore regained her Indian Status. She was able to stay as a “guest” of her daughters.
In 1975, the leaders of the reserved tried to have Mary evicted while she was away debating Native American Women’s Rights at a conference in Mexico. She was advised over the phone by her daughter. Mary used the conference to tell her own story to the world and after much international publicity, the eviction notice was eventually withdrawn.
Largely because of Mary Two-Axe Early’s efforts, Parliament passed legislation in 1985 amending the Indian Act to eliminate the discrimination that penalised Native Women from marrying who they want without reprisal. They also added a reinstatement process, so that Native Women who left the reserve and lost their Indian Status can reclaim their rights under the Act.
One week later, Mary was the first person in Canada to regain her Indian status at a ceremony in Toronto. She was 73 years old.
Mary was awarded a Governor General’s Award, an Honorary Doctorate of Law from York University, and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for her work and activism.
Unfortunately, this is still happening in Quebec. For example, Tracey Deer, creator of Mohawk Girls, is facing eviction from her native Kahnawake now that she is married to a non-indigenous man.