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Indigenous Firsts: 14 Indigenous Women to Know on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Photo of a black and white eagle feather.

Indigenous Peoples Day is a chance to celebrate our First Nations, Inuit, and Métis sisters, but so many of their stories have been left out of our history books. In an effort to honour their accomplishments, Sally Simpson has been compiling a list of Indigenous women’s ‘firsts’ since 2011. Below are some of the amazing women she’s profiled in her project.

You can read the full list here, it now has 170 entries.

  1. Nahnebahwequay (Catherine Sutton)

 1860

Mississauga

Nahnebahwequay traveled to England and successfully petitioned Queen Victoria to intervene in a land claim dispute near Owen Sound, Ontario. The Queen granted Catherine legal ownership. However the Canadian government did not honour the Queen’s decision.

  1. Shaaw Tláa (Kate Carmack)

1896

Tagish-Tlingit

Shaaw Tláa was the first person in the world to discover a gold nugget, leading to the Klondike Gold Rush. She died in the influenza epidemic of 1920.

  1. Charlotte Edith Anderson Monture

1914

Mohawk

Edith Monture was a Mohawk First World War veteran, the first Indigenous woman to become a registered nurse in Canada, and the first Indigenous woman to gain the right to vote in a Canadian federal election. She was also the first Indigenous woman from Canada to serve in the United States military. Edith had to study in the US because most Canadian nursing programs excluded Indigenous women, and the federal Indian Act meant she would lose her Indian status if she attended post-secondary.

  1. Elsie Charles Basque

1937

Mi’kmaw

Dr. Basque was the first Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia to earn a teaching certificate. A residential school survivor, she believed in the “healing power of education.”

  1. Ruth Smith

1947

Sto:lo

Ruth Smith was an Editor of Native Voice, a newspaper that partially arose from the resentment and cynicism expressed by returning World War II Indigenous veterans. She edited a 1949 story about B.C. granting Indigenous people the right to vote.

  1. Pauline Johnson

1961

Mohawk

Pauline Johnson was a poet, writer, artist and performer, and the first woman to be featured on a Canadian stamp.

  1. Mary Two-Axe Earley

1967

Mohawk

An elder and human rights activist, Mary Two-Axe Earley challenged the Royal Commission on Gender Discrimination and won back her Indian status. This ruling was connected to the UN holding Canada in breach of human rights in 1981, and would become Bill C-31 in 1985.

  1. Sharon Firth
  2. Shirley Firth

1972

Dene

Twins Sharon and Shirley Firth were the first Canadian women to compete in four straight Olympics. In 2015, the Firth twins were inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

  1. Dr. Lillian Dyck

1981

Cree

Dr. Dyck was the first Indigenous woman to earn a Ph.D. in biological psychiatry. She was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005. A woman of both Chinese and Cree descent, she navigated racism and complicated feelings about her identity.

  1. Bertha Skye

1992

Cree

Bertha Skye won the Grand Gold Medal at the World Culinary Olympics in Germany in 1992. She was the only female chef in her five member team. The team was representing Native Haute Cuisine and took home the most medals (11 in total, 7 of them gold) out of the entire competition. This was also the first time a Native team participated in the competition, which consisted of 14,000 chefs from around the world.

  1. Sheila Watt-Cloutier

2005

Inuit

Sheila Watt-Cloutier launched the world’s first international legal action on climate change. She claimed Inuit hunting culture may not survive the loss of sea ice and other changes projected over the coming decades. The petition alleged that greenhouse gases have violated Inuit rights as guaranteed by the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

  1. Tanya Tagaq

2014

Inuit

Tanya Tagaq won the Polaris Prize for the best Canadian album, Animism. The Album also won a Juno in 2015. Tagaq’s unique style originates from being an Inuit throat singer.

  1. Marlene Poitras

2018

Cree

In February 2018, Marlene Poitras became the first female Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. Poitras has a background in nursing, and received the Aboriginal Humanitarian Role Model Award of Alberta in 2015.

There are so many Indigenous women and girls who have shaped our cultural and political landscape, read the full list for more.

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One response to “Indigenous Firsts: 14 Indigenous Women to Know on National Indigenous Peoples Day”

  1. Celina Quewezance says:

    Migwetch. Thank you for this. I encourage you to highlight an Indigenous Women’s perspective every month. The racism, discrimination and violence is too much and we need all the help we can get to combat the traumas and affects of Colonization.

    I truly believe there should have been a Women’s section with Calls to Action as part of the TRC and reconciliation. No doubt there will be action needed after the MMIW Inquiry. Let’s all be proactive and push for decolonization and help for Indigenous women.

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