Phenomenal Woman: Mary Two-Axe Earley

Mary Two-Axe Earley, Indigenous Women’s Rights Advocate:

Mary Two-Axe Earley receiving the Governor General’s Persons Case Award, 17 October 1979
Source: Library & Archives Canada

Born on October 4th, 1911, on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake, Quebec, Mary spent of her adolescence in North Dakota with her mother (a tribal member of Oneida descent) who worked as a nurse and a teacher.

Unfortunately, while working as a nurse caring for students, Mary’s mother passed of Spanish Influenza. After that, she returned to the reserve with her grandfather, where she stayed until she turned 18 and moved to New York City.

It was here in the Big Apple, where she fell for an Irish-American and walked not only down the aisle but also a road to activism.

Upon marrying her Non-Indigenous partner, Mary learned that she would lose her tribal status. Which meant she could no longer live on the reserve, own land on the reserve, participate in political life, vote in elections or even be buried on the reservation

Her ancestral home only remained in her family because one of her daughters had married a Mohawk man who was also from the reserve.

It was this discrimination that led her to lobby against the Indian Act that treated Native Women as extensions of their partners and not full members of their communities in their own right.

It wasn’t till 1968 that Mary’s call to action caught the attention of people in power.

That is when the Royal Commission on the Status of Women took an interest in the case, and investigated for two years, before submitting a recommendation to amend the Act in 1970.

But moving at a glacial pace, the Canadian government chose to do nothing.

During which time, the Kahnawake band council tried to use the sexist double standard of the Indian Act to evict Mary while she was attending an International Women’s Year conference in Mexico in 1975. It was only her impassioned speech on the plight of Indigenous Women’s treatment at the meeting that forced the council to rescind its eviction.

Finally, in 1985, nearly 20 years after she had started her fight to give equal status to Indigenous Peoples, the Federal Government of Canada passed Bill C-31.

Which amended the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to remove the gender-based discriminatory policies of the Indian Act, and restored Indian status and membership rights to the thousands of women who had married non-Indigenous/non-status partners.

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