Link to What's New ThisWeek Sharon McIvor's Classification of Assimilation for Native Peoples

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 16, 2004
Latest Update: June 16, 2004

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Index of Topics on Site Sharon McIvor's Classification of Assimilation
for First Nation Peoples

by jeanne

  1. Introduction
  2. Reading Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance by Karlene Faith. Press Gang Publishers. Canada. 1993. Pp. 201 - 203.
  3. Focus: Minority women (Native Peoples in Canada) in women's prison (P4W)
  4. Concepts: incarceration, women, assimilation, inequality before the law, inclusion and exclusion, adults with dysfunctional socialization as young people, source of problem and/or solution in individual or structure
  5. Discussion
  6. Linking to Substantive Courses

* * *


I've been reading Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance. I never thought much about what it would be like to assimilate before, because I can pass for white middle class, and have always done so. But Faith's description of the different categories of assimilation made me think about my own assimilation, so I'd like to share it with you.

My mother came from Irish aristocracy who disowned her father when he came to America after finishing his medical degree in Ireland against his father's wishes. Seven of his brothers were priests, and he was the only son left to take over the family entitlements. My mother had seven brothers and sisters. My mother disliked her family and departed permanently when her father died. I never knew any of that family. My father came from Georgia, the black sheep of a relatively well-off family. the only picture I had of him as a child was in a Little Lord Fauntleroy velvet suit: it might have been a daguerrotype. It was certainly from long, long ago. He was banished from his home for stealing and other non-conformist acts. He did things like break open some kind of meter and steal all the coins in it. He did not miraculously reform as he matured. Oh, and he had six or seven brothers and sisters, too. I never knew any of that family either.

These two black sheep, from very, very different cultural contexts, reared me in the South after numerous adventures and escapes from the authorities, who were generally chasing my father. This isn't a Bonnie and Clyde story. Just Clyde. We were poor in New Orleans, but we were not homeless, and we never really went without food, though it was occasionally close. I did have to live in a convent when my parents had only one room to live in. I threatened to run away, and they let me move in with them. I loved them, and they loved me.

Now for Faith's assimilation story. I didn't feel comfortable with the Irish family values and behaviors, though those were the ones my mother taught me as the only ones she knew. They didn't work too well in the very poor neighborhoods of New Orleans. I didn't feel comfortable with the black sheep ventures of my father, though I was thoroughly familiar with local bars and smoke-filled gambling rooms, and assorted other theatres of con and scam. There were no family friends because there was no cultural group into which we really fit.

And this is the first time I ever thought of any of that life as non-assimilated. I could change some of it. I could get professional degrees and jobs. But I never found a world in which I was comfortable. Thanks to this reading, I understand that now. I needed to understand it. jeanne


"Sharon McIvor, a lawyer and activist from the Lower Nicola Band in British Columbia, who has given voice to the concerns of First Nations women across Canada, emphasizes the flaws in stereotypes of Native ppeoples as hving a greater propensity for violence than other peoples in Canada. She identifies four categories of Native people:

"The first category is the traditional people. They're out doing what they traditiionally did, what their forefathers did, and they're quite happy. They may be outhunting and trapping and having very, very little contact with the non-Native society. No problems there.

"At the other end of the scale, the fourth category includes the people who are completely assimilated. They live in the city, work in the city, and have a lot of non-Native friends. They're quite content with their life.

"The third category . . . is when you're both. You jump back and forth. You're quite comfortable in the non-Native society, and you can also go back into your traditional society, and you're quite comfortable there.

"The remaining category is the people who have come out of the traditional society and don't fit in with the non-Native society. This last category is the one having the conflict. They haven't had their values solidly in place. When they get into the non-Native society they get mixed up, and they're having a lot of conflict. . . . They are the people that end up not only in the prisons, but also end up with social problems. . . . They're the ones that all of the conflict comes from. . . . It's just this one group. (They have one foot in each culture and ) they'renot settled in either, or comfortable in either. (Faith et al., 1990: 177)"

"Confirming McIvor's perception, the women most often sent to prisons are those who have left their rral reseraves for cities where they land on the streets and drift further away from their cultures through the exigencies of survival struggles. Most have never known their native language or experienced familial continuity. They may identify as Aboriginal women but they lack a context for expressing that identity. Growing numbers of very young Ntive women are single parents responsible for dependent children, and they are among the 76 percent of Native women in Canada who are unemployed (Law Scociety of British Columbia, 1992: 8-45). As of 1991 at least eight Native women had committed suicide in P4W since the late 1970s. The challenge for Native communities is to prevent these tragedies, and "white man's justice" is not a likely source of aid in facing this challenge.

"First Nations women in North America are reclaiming their heritage, resisting the oppressions that have claimed their sisters' and brothers' lives and forging visions of a future in which harmony is restored in their communities. Their initiatives are indicative of a rejection of state mechanisms which have entrenched structural obstacles to Native self-determination. Their work illuminates the futility of promoting assimilationist approaches to problem-solving in their communities, and is both reflective of and distinct from movements toward self-reliance in the larger society. The process begins with demystification, as articulated nearly two decades ago by Maria Campbell, a Metis woman from Saskatchewan:

"[T]here is the ancient Indian belief that women have special powers. The missionaries who came exploited this sacred belief by impressing on us that women were a source of evil. The oppression of native people will never end until these myths are recognized and destroyed. (cited in Goodwill, 1975: 61)"

"A holistic focus on healing signifies a genuinely transformative model of justice based on renewal. In the words of Paula Gunn Allen:

"[W]e acknowledge that the violation of the Mothers' and Grandmothers' laws of kinship, respect, balance, and harmony brings about social, planetary, and personal illness and tat healing is a matter of restoring the balance within ourselves and our comunities. To this restoration of balance, of health, and wellness (wealth) we contribute our energies. For we are engaged in the work of reclaiming our minds, our gods, and our traditions. The sacred hoop cannot be restored unless and until its sacred center is recognized. (Gunn Allen, 1986: 208)"

Discussion Questions

  1. Could you be assimilating from groups less pronounced than Native Peoples?

    Consider class groups, ethnic groups, cultural groups.

  2. When assimilation is an issue in incarceration, does punishment make sense?

    Consider that the social skills whose absence you may be punishing for were never there. But consider also that many groups lack some social skills. What do we do about this issue when the problem arises long after socialization practices are presumed to have been successful? What do we do about the poor, the itenerant, the children we missed as they were growing up? They are the ones who make up this particular assimilation group.

  3. Is this a problem whose cause lies with the individual or with the structure? Where does the solution lie, with the individual or the structure?

    Consider that the individual is presumed to have free will, can learn, may do so. Consider that the individual is also interdependent with the social structure in which he or she is located. Fellman on Agency and Structure

  4. Where does incarceration see the problem and the solution?

    With the individual. You can't lock up society or the Native Peoples as a group, although humans have done that in the past, including US humans. Maybe this is a hot clue to the problems with incarceration?

  5. Does it help sometimes just to understand the parameters of the field in which we exist?

    It helped me. jeanne

    Conceptual Linking

    • Agencies:
      Ways in which underlying assumptions of assimilation affect services offered and clients' ability to access and use those services.

    • Law:
      Extent to which laws are made on the assumption that we are all essentially assimilated to the dominant culture.

    • Moot Court:
      Ways in which to make the claim of non-assimilation heard.

    • Women in Poverty:
      The culture of poverty and assimilation.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, June 2004.
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