Two years ago, Shayla Stonechild awoke from a dream at 4 in the morning in her Vancouver apartment. She had goosebumps on her arms and chills running down her back. A voice had whispered a dharma in her ear as she slept. Three little words: the Matriarch Movement. “I believe dreams are messages from your ancestors or your guides,” Stonechild says. “And I thought, I need to make this come alive.” What that would look like—that became her pathfinding mission.
The Making of a Matriarch Movement
As an Indigenous woman living in Canada, Stonechild, 27, who is Plains Cree and Métis from the Muscowpetung Saulteaux First Nation, is no stranger to fear and discrimination. Today, there are more than 4,000 documented unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native women and girls in the United States and Canada, according to a 2020 report by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a research nonprofit tracking gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. And experts warn that these estimates are low “due to underreporting, racial misclassification, poor relationships between law enforcement and Native communities, poor record-keeping protocols, institutional racism in the media, and a lack of substantive relationships between journalists and American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” wrote the Urban Indian Health Institute in a 2018 “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls” report.
At the time her ancestors brought her that dream, Stonechild was sick of feeling vulnerable. Invisible. Disposable. But her vision told her that change was afoot. In that moment, she realized she could create a ripple effect—“a rise and a reclamation of who we are as Indigenous people, but specifically women,” she says. Her idea was to develop the Matriarch Movement as a platform to rewrite the mainstream narrative around Indigenous women, to create a community for sharing stories of empowerment, prosperity, and resilience with the unified message: We are more than just a statistic.
In Canada, one piece of legislation more than a hundred years old still controls Indigenous life. The 1876 Indian Act, which dictates Native status, land, education, and resources, also imposed a European-style electoral system that overthrew the Indigenous system of self-governance that had been in place for thousands of years.
Everything in the Indian Act was designed to strip Natives of their culture and remake them in the image of colonizers. Residential boarding schools were set up to “assimilate” First Nations people. This meant removing children from their homes, sometimes violently, and putting them in highly abusive, church-run schools designed to erase their heritage, traditions, and language. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that from 1883 to 1998, at least 3,200 children died in them. Many of the deaths were covered up, the bodies never found. In fact, in 2015, the now-dissolved Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (initially organized as an effort to record the history of the residential school system) found that for nearly one-third of the known dead, the name of the student was never even recorded. Authorities routinely neglected to report deaths to parents.