Thursday afternoon i went to the second annual summit to end trafficking and prostitution in Vancouver. well, we’re not gonna stop with Vancouver, of course. And I heard some powerful women speak. Women told their stories. Our stories. Of the effects of colonization on their lives, even before they were born. Of the effects of patriarchy on their lives, and their mothers lives and their grandmother’s lives. Of growing up to understand that our bodies could be merchandise.
This summit was held on un-ceded Coast Salish territory-which, Cherry Smiley reminded us, means the people did not surrender the land, or negotiate or sign any treaties, and the lands are occupied illegally–pre-existing laws ignored. Cherry spoke as a member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, and said that prostitution and trafficking is “not an issue of the moment” — “I want you to know how difficult it is for us to tell our stories”, and then she told about 518 years of Indigenous women’s resistance.
Y’know, I belong to a society of storytellers. and every year we tell an epic story over the course of a weekend. We pick a story from somewhere in the world, and a couple of women divide up the stories, and rustle up people to help us with the pronunciation and the traditions of the original land and so forth, and we all work on it over the next few months. Then we figure out who will bring what food, who will coordinate billets for people coming out of town, where we will tell this story…
this year, the story we picked was Sundiata, the Epic of Mali. though Sundiata himself is the hero king of Mali, a real man who lived in the 1200s, and ruled Mali for a long time in the 13th century–women are central to his story. His magic mother, Sogolon Condé; his half-sister, Nana Triban; his sister Sogolon Kanko; his fathers’ first wife, Fatimeteh Bereté–these women and many others were vital to the life and training and reign of Sundiata, the Lion King of Mali.
And the stories of these women are shot through with magic, and mothering, and resistance and survival. And the stories of these women are the stories of women’s resistance against male violence. And they are difficult to tell. during our gatherings to prepare and go over the stories, women read the texts, the ‘freeze-dried’ versions of the stories (written by men) and sometimes we wept, and we were angry, too. We found it difficult to imagine how to tell these stories–partly because they are also our stories.
Sundiata himself was the prophesied saviour of Mali. A hunter of Dó saw his rise and his reign in a casting of stones before Sundiata’s father, the king of the Manden people. The hunter saw that Diata would be born of the king and a very ugly woman. That woman was Sogolon Condé, who was as powerful as she was ugly. Her totems were the buffalo and the panther. She had the strength and courage and cunning of those animals.
I won’t tell ya the whole epic now, i have a paper to finish, fer cryin’ out loud. But I have to tell you, hearing the stories of the women at the summit thursday afternoon–the stories of being prostituted and raped–and the stories of their resistance and cunning and unified struggle to survive and work for all of our freedom–and then hearing and telling and singing the story of Old Mali–
It is the same story for women. We are always trying to get around the power of men–we are always trying to teach them about medicine and love and good manners–but they always hear the whistle of a war spear in the air, or the shout of the gladiators, and they roar off to do battle without heeding the lessons of their mothers.
One woman began her part of the story, her part that begins with the evil king, Sumaoro, tricking the young wife of his own nephew into having sex with him: “Why did Sumaoro, who already had 300 wives, cast his eye upon the lovely wife of his own nephew and trusted general? Why did he scheme and plot to get her in his bed?” she asked us, and we knew the answer, but waited for her to say it: “because he could. He wanted to, and he had the power, and he just could. That’s all.”
And it is the same, still. Men look, they want, they take. Because they can.
And women fight, and resist, and plot our escape, and sometimes give in
Because we must.
“it is difficult to tell our stories. It is always difficult and it is difficult today,” said Cherry with tears of rage and grief in her voice. She spoke of 518 years of womens’ resistance against colonialism–against the unlawful occupation of the territory of her people–and the unlawful confinement and enslavement of her people, especially the women–by my people.
The money spent on the investigation and trial of Robert Pickton cost millions and millions of dollars. Enough to have made a real difference in the lives of women and girls now missing or dead or terribly damaged by prostitution and other forms of male violence. enough to get every woman who is presently in prostitution in Canada out of prostitution and into a world of opportunity.
Sogolon Condé (mother of Sundiata, remember) was a powerful magician. She and her children lived for years in exile from Mali and she was always moving the kids around the countryside, using her magic to protect them, holding back the evils of the evil ruler Sumaoro, plotting and stratigizing and rearing those young people to know they were loved, cherished, and had a destiny. But her own power was thwarted—always her comfort and health was second or third or fourth in the line of priorities, because Sundiata was destined to be the ruler of Mali. So. She died an old woman at the age of perhaps 35. In exile.
At the summit, one woman told her story, weaving into that story the political analysis that she has developed from hearing the stories of many many other women. She was prostituted from the time she was 11 years old. Another woman was the witness and recipient of her father’s brutality against her mother, and herself and her siblings. At fourteen, wild, unmanageable, rebellious, she turned to the streets.
Sundiata’s half-sister, Nana Triban, was given against her will to the evil king Sumaoro when she was 21 and newly widowed. The woman who told that part of the epic this weekend asked us, “Did it matter to her brother [not Sundiata, another brother] that she was still in mourning?” And the audience knew the answer but we waited for her to say it, “No. It did not matter what she wanted.”
We are still telling the same story. When women tell the epic stories, we see beneath the glorious wars and the heated battles among men. We see what men do to hold their fragile power. We see what they do, we feel– and why [because they can]–and we are telling these epic stories from how we know them. We have been telling each other these stories for — how long? Cherry said 518 years. Since contact. And what about before that? What are the epic stories of the women of the 600+ nations of Aboriginal people? Will we ever know? Are they whispered from mother to daughter still?
Sure they are. And the second wave of women is still rising. That ‘third wave’ we’ve been hearing about?
That’s the undertow. Don’t get sucked in. Rise up.