Mary Two-Axe Earley: Courtney Montour Investigates Her Fearless Legacy
Mary Two-Axe Earley was fearless. At a time when Indigenous women were among the most disenfranchised members of Canadian society, she was prepared to face down the most powerful political figures in the country.
Unwilling or maybe just unable to cower, Two-Axe Earley employed an effective blend of good-humoured candour and diplomacy to bring about concrete change. Co-founder and vice-president of Indian Rights for Indian Women (IRIW), she was instrumental in the adoption of Bill C-31, a 1985 amendment that addressed gender discrimination under the Indian Act, restoring basic human rights to thousands of Indigenous women and children across Canada.
Filmmaker Courtney Montour has been hearing about Two-Axe Earley all her life. She too is from Kahnawake, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community near Montreal where Two-Axe Earley — who had ‘married out’ as a young woman — famously had to fight for the right to be buried when she died after a long eventful life in 1996. Below: Two-Axe Earley receiving her Honorary Doctorate from York University in 1981.
“Identity is a huge issue for Indigenous people in Canada,” says Montour. “Whether it’s government bureaucrats, band council officials or family members, everyone has an opinion on who you should be and how you should identify yourself. It’s something we’re constantly navigating. And before Bill C-31, Indigenous women were routinely denied the right to live in their own communities, to own the home they’d been born in. They could even be denied burial with their family members.”
“In tackling the gender discrimination of the Indian Act, Mary Two-Axe Earley really put herself out there,” says Montour. “She faced resistance from all sides, including her own community. She was courageous and smart and funny — and she managed to get laws changed. That’s quite an achievement.”
Wanted: “photographs, stories, anything that brings Mary to life.”
Currently developing a documentary on Two-Axe Earley, Montour is putting out this general call for archival material and personal stories related to Two-Axe Earley and the work of Indian Rights for Indian Women. Anyone with photographs, videos, or personal stories is invited to contact Montour at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 1-800-267-7710.
“Mary’s family have welcomed me in and given me all kinds of information, and so have lots of her friends and admirers,” says Montour. “She knew so many people and changed so many lives for the better, so I’m hoping to find even more material — whether it’s family photographs or simple stories and anecdotes, anything that helps us bring her character to life.”
Montour also wants to hear from women who received ‘enfranchisement’ letters and cards, documents officially signalling the termination of their Indigenous identity. The enfranchisement letter was sent to any Indigenous woman who married a non-Indigenous man, or an Indigenous man without status, informing her she was no longer considered Indigenous under the Indian Act, having lost her status by virtue of marriage. Prior to 1985 thousands of women would have received this stark and unsettling notification from the Canadian government.
“It’s hard to imagine how it would feel to read something like that — to be told in this bureaucratic language you’re not “Indian” anymore,” says Montour. “I mean, how are you supposed to process that? It’s just heartbreaking. Lots of women have held on to these documents, tucked them away with their personal belongings, and I’m really interested in hearing from them. They’re part of Mary’s story too.”
From Brooklyn’s Little Caughnawaga to Ottawa’s corridors of power
Born to an Oneida mother and a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) father, Mary Two-Axe was raised in Kahnawake, moving to Brooklyn as a young woman, where a lively community of Kanien’kehá:ka steel workers and their families had already taken root. She married Edward Earley — “a handsome Irishman with blue eyes” as she testified in a 1993 court appearance — and kept busy raising two children. Pictured above: a riverside swimming party in Kahnawake before the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, from Montour’s documentary Flat Rocks.
In her middle years, widowed and keen to spend more time back home in Kahnawake, Two-Axe Earley found herself among growing numbers of Indigenous women who’d been stripped of basic rights, including the right to live and own property on their home reserves, because they’d “married out.” In 1966 she witnessed the death of an old friend, a Kanien’kehá:ka woman who’d married off reserve. Officially rejected by the community she considered home, she died in distress in Mary’s Brooklyn residence.
The experience galvanized Mary’s resolve and in 1967 she helped establish Equal Rights for Indian Women, a small but determined group that took aim at the discriminatory provisions of the Indian Act. In 1968, urged on by Senator Therèse Casgrain, one of a growing group of influential supporters, Two-Axe Earley presented a brief to the newly established Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and in 1972 she co-founded the Canada-wide advocacy group Indian Rights for Indian Women, demanding equal rights for Indigenous women.
“They encountered huge resistance from all sides.”
In going public with their grievances, Two-Axe Earley and other Indigenous women were challenging the entire colonial system that had come into being under the Indian Act. “They encountered huge resistance over the years, from all sides.” says Montour. “At one point the band council sent Mary an eviction notice, they even got death threats, and they were pretty sure they were being followed at various points. And it was lonely. Mary lost friends. People were afraid and stopped talking to her.”
It took years of hard work and dogged lobbying before the Indian Act was finally amended in June 1985. Along the way Mary would win the support from Indigenous women across the country and a surprising range of political heavyweights. MPs Flora MacDonald and Judy Erola, Senator Lucie Pépin, and Marguerite Ritchie, founder of the Human Rights Institute of Canada, were among her many supporters. On one occasion Quebec Premier René Lévesque offered her his seat at the 1983 constitutional talks, ensuring that her voice was heard.
When her own Indigenous status was finally reinstated, at a public ceremony in July 1985, Two-Axe Earley addressed the room with the following words: “Now I’ll have legal rights again. After all these years, I’ll be legally entitled to live on the reserve, to own property, die and be buried with my own people.”
The question of Indigenous identity remains contentious to this day. “Many band councils have their own rules, which differ from community to community, so these rights still get challenged all the time,” says Montour. “But it’s hard to imagine where we’d be without Mary and the other trailblazing members of Indian Rights for Indian Women. They fought hard for Indigenous women to be recognized for who they are, to feel that they really belong.”
“Alanis has paved the way for so many Indigenous filmmakers”
Montour had long admired Two-Axe Earley but it was only in 2016 — when presented with an invaluable audio archive from none other than Alanis Obomsawin — that Montour realized she had to make a film. Montour and producer Roxann Whitebean were being mentored by Obomsawin on Flat Rocks, a film made through the NSI IndigiDocs program that recounts the story of Louis Diabo, a Kahnawake farmer who fought to protect his community during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s.
“Alanis was guiding us on that film and we were meeting in her office one day when she mentioned that she’d known Mary Two-Axe Earley, that they’d been friends,” says Montour. “She told me how she’d visited Mary several times back in 1984 and had made audio recordings of their conversations, and if ever I wanted to do something with them, she’d be willing to give me access. Was I interested? Was I interested! To have Mary’s words and voice on tape, talking in such an intimate setting? How could I turn down an opportunity like that?” Pictured above: Obomsawin with her mentoree.
“Alanis has paved the way for so many Indigenous filmmakers,” says Montour. “Take the time to really listen to people. It sounds so simple but that’s the big lesson I take from Alanis. If you rush into a film, thinking you know the story already, then you’re missing stuff. I’ve always tried to put that principle into practice, but Alanis has really instilled in me just how important it is to be quiet, to really listen to what people have to say.” In this spirit Montour has already conducted lengthy preliminary interviews with Nellie Carlson in Edmonton, a founding member of Indian Rights for Indian Women and close friend of Two-Axe Earley’s. Pictured below: Carlson and Two-Axe Earley in their activist days.
“We’re all learning. We all have to start somewhere”
Montour’s work is anchored within a desire to educate and she divides her time between documentary production and her work at McGill University where she helped establish the Indigenous Field Studies course alongside Michael Loft and Nicole Ives.
“On one hand I hope to make academic spaces more welcoming for Indigenous students, to meet their needs, and on the other I want to raise awareness with non-Indigenous people. I’m not interested in making people feel ashamed or guilty. We’re all learning. We all have to start somewhere. I’ve got lots to learn too.”
Kat Baulu is the NFB producer of the Two-Axe Earley project. “Courtney has done exceptional work in documentary, making films that present little-known aspects of Indigenous life and history,” says Baulu. “Her films expand our knowledge of the Indigenous experience in Canada, and Mary Two-Axe Earley makes for a wonderfully charismatic subject.”
Montour’s first feature doc Sex Spirit Strength, a compassionate essay on gender identity and sexual health among Indigenous men, won top honours at the 2016 Yorkton Film Festival, including the Golden Sheaf for Best Film in Festival, and Flat Rocks, premiered at the 2017 edition of imagineNATIVE. She has also directed episodes of Mohawk Ironworkers, Working It Out Together and other documentary series.
The Mary Two-Axe Earley project is being produced by Kat Baulu at the NFB’s Quebec-Atlantic Studio. Anyone with relevant photographs or information is invited to contact Montour at email@example.com, or by phone at 1-800-267-7710.
With Little Caughnawaga: To Brooklyn and Back, Kanien’kehá:ka director Reaghan Tarbell evokes a world that Two-Axe Earley would have known well, paying tribute to the Kanien’kehá:ka high steel workers who helped create Manhattan’s monumental skyline and the formidable women who sustained their community. The film is featured on NFB Indigenous Cinema, a newly launched site featuring over 200 titles by Indigenous filmmakers.