LESSON: Imperialism, Colonialism, and Decolonization

This lesson focuses on the difference between imperialism, colonialism, and decolonization to help you understand how settler colonialism is an ongoing form of colonialism. We will turn our attention to settler colonialism shortly. First, let’s identify what the terms imperialism and colonialism mean in the context of 19th-century European expansion.

Imperialism refers to the policy of exerting cultural influence worldwide. Empires are multiple states under the control of a single ruler. Often, empires are the result of the use of violence and force to take control of territory formerly under the control of another state or collective. While the nineteenth century saw the rise of the British Empire through conquest and colonization, non-Western, non-European powers also had empires. For example, the Ch’ing Dynasty persisted from 1644 to 1911, and the Ottoman Empire from 1453 to 1923. Here, we will focus on European empires and their ongoing effects in the Global South after decolonization.

Watch this video in which John Green explains how the British used force to extend their influence in Africa and Asia in the 19th century. Green explains that the British and other European powers were motivated to colonize Africa and Asia because of nationalism and industrialization; European powers wanted control over the means of production, establishing colonies to extract labour and resources to generate profits for the empire.

Next, watch Green explain decolonization in the post-war period. Independence movements, such as Gandhi’s nonviolent Indian independence movement, successfully overthrew colonial governments. But, as Green explains, the achievement of independence in former colonies did not necessarily bring about harmony, given the long-term impacts of colonization. For example, Europe’s imposition of geographical borders without regard for ethnic differences created long-term conflict and even genocide in some countries (i.e. Rwanda and Cambodia). Note that there has not been a similar decolonization process in the Canadian context. Settler colonialism is ongoing.

LESSON: Settler Colonialism as a Gendered Structure

Now, we will turn to the North American context to examine the unique contours of settler-colonialism, including its gendered dimensions. First, this requires a clear definition of the concept of settler-colonialism.  Patrick Wolfe’s (2006) definition of settler-colonialism is useful here. Wolfe (2006) explains that settler colonialism is distinct from the type of colonization practiced in colonies such as British India between 1858-1947 because, in a settler colony, the colonizers come to stay.  Whereas the Indian Independence Movement forced the British to leave India, there has been no decolonization in the Canadian context because European settlers have established permanent settlements on Indigenous land in North America.  For this reason, Wolfe explains that settler-colonialism is a structure, not an event.  By this, he means that settler colonial projects are focused on establishing a permanent population of settlers and institutions aimed at replacing Indigenous peoples and institutions. As such, colonialism in the Canadian context does not have a beginning and end date — this is what Wolfe means when he says settler colonialism is not an event. Rather, settler colonialism is an ongoing project. 

Settler colonialism is a gendered structure because it disrupts gender relations in Indigenous communities and attempts to disconnect Indigenous women and girls from their land, knowledges, and identities.  While this lesson focuses on Indigenous women, settler colonialism has also disrupted the lives and identities of Indigenous men, boys, queer folks, and two-spirit people. In order to understand the ways settler colonialism has transformed gender relations in Indigenous societies, we will consider the historical context of Indigenous societies pre-contact, after contact, and during the current period of ongoing settler-colonialism. 

Pre Contact

Indigenous societies on Turtle Island — the name some Indigenous peoples give to North America — feature complex and diverse political, legal, and cultural systems.  Anishinaabe scholar Hayden King identifies two legal principles that have governed Indigenous relations since before Europeans arrived on the continent: the principles of reciprocity and sustainability.  Sustainability means that “everything taken from the land must be given back, in one form or another” (King, 2018: 109).  The concept of reciprocity emphasizes the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living things (King, 2018: 114).  

Before the arrival of Europeans disrupted Indigenous ways of life, women, men, and two-spirit people on Turtle Island all had important and unique roles to play.  Whereas European ideology presumed that women were incapable of reason and should be excluded from leadership roles in the realms of law, politics, education, and religion, Indigenous women and girls have always had autonomy and agency. For example, Cree women have important decision-making power when it comes to land (Venne, 1997: 191).  Likewise, women of the Six Nations Confederacy have traditionally participated in spiritual ceremonies, controlled the distribution of food and other goods, and have had autonomy in sexual and marital relationships. In general, Indigenous gender roles: 

  • are not hierarchically ordered, meaning no particular role is more important than another;
  • are flexible; 
  • feature important roles for Indigenous women in spiritual and legal traditions and ceremonies. 

Contact and colonization transformed societies, in part by implementing patriarchal, homophobic, and transphobic ideas about gender and sexuality in Indigenous societies.  Importantly, however, Indigenous men, women, and two-spirit people continue to resist the imposition of these Western gender norms. 

Contact & Fur Trade

When European travellers arrived in North America in the 16th century, they did not understand peoples who lived differently from them, with different relationships to land and to each other. They claimed that the land was empty or terra nullius, and set about the project of exploiting the land and its resources for colonial powers, including France and England.  In order to justify conquest and colonization, they described Indigenous peoples as primitive and uncivilized.

From 1670-1870, French and English fur traders competed to hunt fur animals for pelts to send back to Europe.  With no knowledge of the land, no idea how to survive in the wilderness, and no idea how to navigate, European fur traders were dependent upon Indigenous women for their very survival. As the fur trade declined and the political economy shifted from the fur trade to permanent agricultural settlements, Europeans were less dependent on Indigenous women.  Because Indigenous women have historically had decision-making autonomy about land, Europeans understood that to take control of land, they had to take control of Indigenous women. Europeans’ attitudes and stereotypes of Indigenous women shifted as their goals changed to a policy of settlement. Whereas they once viewed Indigenous women as exotic, mysterious, and powerful, they now viewed Indigenous women as objects of “control, conquest, possession, and exploitation” (Anderson, 2004: 230). As Indigenous women resisted colonization, Europeans’ stereotypes of Indigenous women became increasingly dehumanizing and degrading.  White settlers used these negative stereotypes of Indigenous women to justify violence against Indigenous women and to reaffirm stereotypes of white femininity as virtuous and chaste.

In an essay titled “The Construction of a Negative Identity,” Métis scholar Kim Anderson explains that Europeans’ attitudes towards Indigenous women changed according to their own exploitative approaches to the land.  Upon contact, European travellers imagined Indigenous women — like the landscape — as beautiful, powerful, mysterious, and exotic.  European men objectified Indigenous women as symbolic of the “virgin frontier, the pure border waiting to be crossed” (Anderson, 2004: 230).   They wanted to control Indigenous women, “lay[ing] claim to the ‘new’ territory” (Anderson, 2004: 230).  These negative stereotypes changed as the fur trade ended and Europeans sought to settle the land. Because Indigenous women have historically had decision-making autonomy about land, Europeans understood that to take control of land, they had to take control of Indigenous women. Whereas they once viewed Indigenous women as exotic, mysterious, and powerful, they now viewed Indigenous women as objects of “control, conquest, possession, and exploitation” (Anderson, 2004: 230). As Indigenous women resisted colonization, Europeans’ stereotypes of Indigenous women became increasingly dehumanizing and degrading.  White settlers used these negative stereotypes of Indigenous women to justify violence against Indigenous women and to affirm stereotypes of white femininity as virtuous and chaste.


By the early 19th century, the British – as the ruling colonial power in North America — embarked upon an explicit process of assimilation to try to displace Indigenous peoples from their land.  Residential schools represent one form of attempted assimilation in order to replace Indigenous society with settler society.  The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls explains that residential schools attempted to entrench Western Christian gender norms in Indigenous children by: 

  • segregating students according to sex, thereby separating brothers and sisters;
  • teaching Indigenous children according to the Western Christian gender binary;
  • Espousing homophobic and transphobic lessons about gender and sexuality; 
  • imposing Christian gender roles and stereotypes;
  • denying children access to Indigenous traditional teachings about their bodies, which meant that girls learned that menstruation was dirty and shameful instead of a source of power and pride;  
  • Sexually abusing Indigenous children; 
  • Denying Indigenous children access to their traditional spiritual and cultural education about respectful relationships among genders (264-65).

Indigenous laws, languages, cultures, and spiritualities reaffirm relationships to land.  By stripping Indigenous peoples of their laws, languages, cultures, and spiritualities, residential schools also attempted to sever Indigenous peoples’ relationships to land to enable a process of land theft and settlement.  Attempts to institutionalize patriarchal and transphobic gender norms reflect a desire to systematically disempower Indigenous women and two-spirit people and create gender conflict in Indigenous communities. Dr. Lana Whiskeyjack’s digital story, okosisimaw, describes how residential schools attempted to disempower Indigenous girls and women and how Indigenous women and girls continue to resist settler-colonialism as a gendered structure of dispossession.

Digital Story by Dr. Lana Whiskeyjack

Indigenous Women’s Resistance to Patriarchy
Listening Time: 4 min 29
Recorded by Daisy Raphael


In the video below, educator and storyteller Geo Soctomah Neptune provides an introduction to the term “Two-Spirit.”  In this lesson, we will explore what two-spirit identity means more deeply. 

What Does ‘Two-Spirit’ Mean? InQueery by Them
View Time: 6 minutes 17 seconds
video source

In a 1996 article titled “How We Find Ourselves: Identity Development and Two Spirit People,” Alex Wilson, a two-spirit Swampy Cree woman, explains that the word “two-spirit” captures diverse and fluid Indigenous sexualities and gender identities and roles.  From the Anishinaabe term “niizh manidoowag,” the term ‘two-spirit’ describes Indigenous identities and roles that bridge masculinity and femininity.  The Intertribal Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian American Conference in Winnipeg adopted the term “two-spirit” in 1990 as an inclusive umbrella term to describe Indigenous peoples who identify as queer, nonbinary, or trans.  Wilson explains that two-spirit people are “thought to be born ‘in balance,’ which may be understood as androgyny, a balance of masculine and feminine qualities, of male and female spirits” (305). 

Two-spirit identity and resistance are the subject of a field called Queer Indigenous Studies. Anishinaabe scholar Leanne Simpson explains that queer Indigeneity is distinct from settler queer identity because: 

“Queer Indigeneity cannot be reduced to just sexual orientation.  It is about a web of supportive, reciprocal, generative relationships that we often do not have names for in English and that exist outside of the hierarchy and the imagination of heteropatriarchy — a hierarchy that places the relationship of cisgendered, married, monogamous men and women at the top and de-emphasizes or erases all other relationships” (134)

Leanne Simpson

While sexuality is part of two-spirit identity, two-spirit identity is not just about sexuality. Qwo-Li Driskill (2010), a Cherokee two-spirit scholar and editor of Queer Indigenous Studies (2011), explains that the term two-spirit is an important part of understanding queer Indigeneity because it emphasizes the importance of gender in a way that the term ‘queer,’ with its focus on sexuality, does not capture (73).

Driskill explains that Indigenous people use the umbrella term ‘two-spirit’ alongside “words and from their specific traditions to describe themselves.”  Two-spirit is an “inclusive, ambiguous, and fluid” term, according to Driskill.  Because of this, much like the term ‘queer,’ the term ‘two-spirit’ “risks erasing difference.”  By this, Driskill means that Indigenous cultures, languages, laws, and spiritual traditions are diverse.  As an umbrella term, ‘two-spirit’ collapses this diversity.  Thus, when talking about two-spirit identity, it is important to keep in mind that two-spirit identities and roles are specific to particular nations, which each have their own cultures, languages, laws, and spiritual practices.  Likewise, Métis scholar Chelsea Vowel explains in her book Indigenous Writes that because the term “two spirit” is an Indigenous concept described using the English language — a language imposed by colonizers —  the nuance and diversity that characterize distinct Indigenous conceptualizations of gender get lost.  Leanne Simpson recounts Ma-Nee Chacaby’s story, which exemplifies the particularity of Indigenous languages and gender identities. Chacaby is a two-spirit Ojibwa-Cree elder who writes in her autobiography, A Two Spirit Journey, about:

“her grandmother explaining to her that she had two spirits as a young child.  She used the term niizhin ojiijaak to describe a male and female spirit living inside a girl.  She explained that Nizhiin Ojiijaak girls were often drawn to activities that boys like, and she said that Niizhin Ojiijaak could choose not to marry, could marry someone of the opposite sex, or could marry someone of the same sex. She explained that Nizhiin Ojiijaak couples would adopt children who had lost their parents, that they sometimes had special healing or ceremonial responsibilities, and that it was her responsibility to figure out how to live her own life”. (126)

in Leanne Simpson

This is one example of a particular approach to two-spirit identity and roles in one community.  Geo Soctomah Neptune offers other examples of nation-specific descriptions of two-spirit identity in the video, including the Lakota word winkte, which means “to be as a woman,” and the Diné word nádleehi, which means ”those who transform.” 

Two-spirit identity reconnects queer and trans-Indigenous experience to Indigenous spiritualities, laws, and cultural traditions.  That is, for two-spirit people, their experiences of gender and sexuality are linked to their Indigenous cultural, spiritual, and legal traditions.  For example, in As We Have Always Done, Leanne Simpson describes her daughter’s role in ceremony:

“She helped me put the cedar in the lodge and the berries in a wooden bowl (in some ceremonial communities this is a woman’s role), and she helped with the fire (in some ceremonial communities this is a man’s role).  When it came time to go into the lodge, she sat in the circle with the rest of us, in between the men and the women.  When the pipes came around, she smoked them.  This was all normalized for her.” (119-20) 

Leanne Simpson

When Simpson describes her daughter’s fluid role in ceremony, she emphasizes how her community embraced her daughter as a person with a unique spiritual role.  This connection between spirituality and community is a fundamental part of two-spirit identity, according to Wilson: 

“When we say that we are two-spirit, we are acknowledging that we are spiritually meaningful people. Two-spirit identity may encompass all aspects of who we are, including our culture, sexuality, gender, spirituality, community, and relationship to the land.”

Alex Wilson 2008 PAGE 193

Whereas for a non-Indigenous trans or queer person their gender identity may be just one part of their overall identity or sense of self, Wilson explains that two-spirit identity is more encompassing: 

“Two-spirit identity affirms the interrelatedness of all aspects of identity, including sexuality, gender, culture, community, and spirituality.  That is, the sexuality of two-spirit people cannot be considered as separate from the rest of an individual’s identity.” (304-5)

Alex Wilson

Two-spirit identity is not simply about being trans or queer and being Indigenous. Two-spirit identity runs much deeper than this. Two-spirit identity is about adopting one’s spiritual role in their community and resisting settler colonialism.  The term two-spirit does not transfer to non-Indigenous peoples who may feel a sense of being both masculine and feminine because it is a uniquely Indigenous concept.  For example, Simpson explains that in Nishnaabeg thought, words that describe a binary approach to gender relations, like “matriarchal” — a word often used to describe Indigenous societies pre-contact — do not apply because they do not capture the gender fluidity and overlap among gender roles that are fundamental to Anishinaabe traditions (128).  Before settler-colonialism disrupted Nishnaabeg lifeways and relations, Simpson writes, words like ‘queer’ were unnecessary because being ‘queer’ “was so normal it didn’t have a name” (129).  Similarly, Wilson writes that being ‘two-spirit,’ in some ways, is a new identity because traditionally, there was no need for a special term:

“In my community, the act of declaring some people special threatens to separate them from their community and creates an imbalance. Traditionally, two-spirit people were simply a part of the entire community; as we reclaim our identity with this name, we are returning to our communities.” (305)

Alex Wilson

Identifying as two-spirit is a way of reclaiming a connection to culture, land, and community — a connection that settler colonialism has tried to eradicate through the imposition of a European Christian gender binary.  Indigenous feminists argue that because settler colonialism is a gendered structure which has imposed patriarchy and gender inequality in order to gain access to territory, decolonization requires eradicating gender inequality.  Similarly, two-spirit people argue that decolonization requires restoring traditional gender orders that value two-spirit identity and roles or creating new Indigenous traditions where there is no traditional emphasis on two-spirit identities.

BIG IDEA: Indigenous Feminisms

Indigenous feminist theories and activism identify ways that settler-colonialism institutionalizes patriarchy in Indigenous communities in order to disempower Indigenous women, divide Indigenous communities, and take control of land.  Indigenous feminists argue for a decolonization process that is attentive to gender inequality and Indigenous women and two-spirit people’s unique knowledges. Dr. Isabel Altamirano is Zapotec from Oaxaca Mexico, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the U of A, and the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Indigenous Feminist Studies. She explains that thinking about what it means to be an Indigenous feminist involves reflecting on questions such as: 

“How are we as Indigenous feminists claiming to be different from other feminists? How can both Indigenous feminists and Indigenous women ‘reinvent the enemy’s language’? How can Indigenous feminism empower women without losing touch with self-determination?” (116)

Like Black feminists who challenged their erasure in the women’s and civil rights movements,  Indigenous feminists critique women’s movements and decolonization movements that are inattentive to Indigenous women and two-spirit people’s distinct experiences of colonialism and patriarchy.  For example, in the Canadian context, a massive Indigenous movement for decolonization emerged in full force in 1969, led by the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB).  While the NIB was crucial in responding to the federal government’s “White Paper,” which threatened to extinguish Indigenous peoples’ rights, Indigenous women formed their own organizations, such as the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), to address their particular experiences of colonialism and patriarchy.

Indigenous feminists identify colonialism as the cause of their oppression and argue that a decolonization process that is attentive to gender inequality provides a path toward justice for all Indigenous peoples. While Indigenous feminists challenge decolonization movements that are inattentive to their distinct of colonialism and patriarchy, they also express solidarity with Indigenous men, who are also oppressed by colonialism. Like Black feminists, who ally with Black men, Indigenous feminists ally with Indigenous men, even as they challenge gender inequality within Indigenous communities and movements. Although Indigenous feminists engage with the work of Black feminists and women-of-colour feminisms, they argue that their particular forms of oppression under colonialism and patriarchy require a unique analysis.  

The concept of ‘feminism,’ however, is a contentious one in Indigenous communities.  For example, Mohawk scholar Patricia Monture-Angus argued that feminism is a colonial ideology imported by European women and not necessarily transferable to Indigenous relations.  Others argue that feminism is an Indigenous concept since so many Indigenous societies traditionally feature egalitarian gender roles characterized by mutual respect and reciprocity.  Importantly, there is not one Indigenous feminist perspective among Indigenous women, two spirit, and gender diverse peoples.  Altamirano-Jimenez offers this perspective: 

“Being Indigenous and being feminist does not have to be an either/or identity.  Both can be connected as a way of ‘talking back’ to the dominant society and mainstream feminism, and a way to enable Indigenous women as agents and knowers’ (117).  

Indigenous feminism, in this view, can be empowering for Indigenous women as they continually resist colonialism and patriarchy. 

In the video below, University of Alberta scholar Dr. Kim Tall Bear, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Environment, describes her own relationship with Indigenous feminisms.  Dr. Tall Bear, from the Dakota nation, begins by explaining that Indigenous feminism, at a basic level, is about being in good relation, which is a complex way of thinking and being that involves thinking about establishing reciprocal and sustainable relations among people, land, and animals.  Dr. Tall Bear describes learning about woman-of-colour feminisms, which she didn’t feel captured Indigenous women’s struggles to reclaim their land and re-establish good relations.  For Tall Bear, Indigenous feminism is about dismantling hierarchies and challenging binary (either/or) thinking that categories people as civilized or savage, man or woman, straight or queer, and human or non-human.   

Dr. Kim Tall Bear,
“Indigenous Feminisms Power Panel”

VIEW TIME: 21 minutes (start at 12:20 and end at 33:55)
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