A safe, online space for Indigenous women's voices: Introducing 'Rematriation Magazine'

Michelle Schenandoah is the founder of 'Rematriation Magazine' (Photo credit Jessica Sargent, Akwesasne Mohawk))

Leslie Logan

Michelle Schenandoah, Oneida, introduces a multimedia platform by, for, and about Indigenous women celebrating traditional perspectives, experiences, and voices

It all started 20 years ago on a crowded subway train in New York City. Michelle Schenandoah, Oneida, was doing her daily commute into the offices of the American Indian College Fund, where she worked. She took a look around the car at her fellow passengers and everyone was reading something. People had their noses buried in the New York Times, businessmen were reading the Wall Street Journal, black women were reading Ebony or Essence magazine and Latina women were reading Latina.

She thought to herself: “Where’s my magazine?”

In the late 1990’s Schenandoah gathered her Native girlfriends together to explore the possibility of a Native women’s magazine. Her efforts stalled when an advisor with the Small Business Administration told her that she would need $30 million to start up a publication and asked her: How will you survive?

Now, 20 years later, she is giving birth to an online magazine and a sacred space that has long been percolating in her head. Rematriation Magazine, like many publications in this digital age, cannot be found in tangible high gloss on coffee tables or rolled up in a tote bag. Rematriation will exist in the blue glow of your tablet, smartphone or laptop as an online publication and interactive multimedia platform.

But what exactly is Rematriation?

According to Schenandoah, it isn’t just another women's magazine about superficial topics such as the latest lip color or anti-aging serum, fashion trends, how to lose those last ten pounds or useless tips for online dating.

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A screen capture from the Rematriation Magazine website (Photo credit: Lisa Latocha)

"As Michelle Schenandoah, the CEO and founder of Rematriation tells it, at its core, Rematriation is an online space for Indigenous women to reclaim their voice, tell their stories, address important issues, and engage in substantive, intimate conversations for the purpose of inspiration and healing.

I had a longing and a need for conversation and the ability to talk about things  things of substance  our traditional roles within our culture, our children and their future" said Schenandoah. Rematriation is about "returning the sacred to the mother." 

The essence of Rematriation is to gather Onkewhonwe (Native/Indigenous) women's voices in an effort to break through the long-standing silence that surrounds traumas our communities have faced, and to change the pervasive mainstream narratives that tend to focus only on violence, substance abuse, and poverty.

On its face, it is a heavy and intense prospect, and perhaps a tall order.

The Grand Opening

This past weekend in Syracuse, New York, adjacent to the Onondaga territory — the central fire of the Haudenosaunee Iroquois Confederacy — the women behind Rematriation launched their ambitious new effort. While the subject matter might at times seemed intimidating and somber, the air in the room was filled with good energy.

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Attendees stand in honor of the final song at the launch of Rematriation Magazine (Photo: Michelle Schenandoah)

They billed their launch: “Where the red carpet meets the ribbon skirt!”

Sheer pink organza brought a bright and festive backdrop to the stage, and patio lights peppered the room. Ribbons skirts swept the floor, smiles beamed everywhere, and chatter could hardly be contained.

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Left to right: Jonel Beauvais, Akwesasne Mohawk, of the Seven Dancers Coalition, a partnering organization to Rematriation Magazine and Michelle Schenandoah, founder of Rematriation Magazine. (Photo: Avery Oakes, Akwesasne Mohawk)

 By all accounts, the sold-out event was a huge success and cemented support for the Rematriation’s growth.

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From left to right: Levi Confer, Oneida, Chris Thomas, Onondaga, Wesley Halsey, Oneida and Austin Glass, Oneida, sang a Haudenosaunee women's honor song in honor of the women. (Photo: Michelle Schenandoah)

It wasn't easy to get there

Arriving at the launch date was no easy path. As if there weren’t enough obstacles on the way to creating the magazine itself, the launch for Rematriation was originally scheduled for January 20. The initial date had to be rescheduled for March when Mother Nature intervened with a statewide snowstorm that paralyzed Western, Central and Northern New York state, preventing women coming from all the Haudenosaunee territories.

Michelle Schenandoah took a circuitous path in the founding of her digital publication. She went to law school in New York City and quickly realized law was not her thing. She sat on the board of the Seven Dancers Coalition, a non-profit organization based in Akwesasne focused on ending sexual assault and domestic violence in Indigenous communities utilizing Indigenous values. It was through her work with Seven Dancers that she began to gravitate back towards the idea of creating a realm in which she could deal with these serious issues.

Her own life experience also led her to Rematriation. At the launch, Schenandoah shared her intimate story of having been sexually assaulted when she was young by a close family member. For years she felt tormented. “I lived in silence. In my nightmares, I would scream but nothing would come out,” she said. “I had a sense that I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. You were told to forgive and forget.”

Schenandoah went through counseling, read self-help books, and eventually came across a Hawaiian healing ceremony. “It was a process that finally helped; ultimately it was a process about finding forgiveness,” she said.

She also began to actively organize Indigenous women's gatherings. She was integral to igniting Rekindling the Fire, a four-day women’s gathering in the summer of 2017 at Ganondagan, in Victor, NY. More than 200 Onkwehonwe women came together for a historic meeting around the solar eclipse. What developed was a sisterhood of healing.

“I shared my story at the Rekindling and I found that it was transformative for me,” said Schenandoah. After that, she really found her wheels.

She organized a summit for the magazine at Syracuse University in January 2018 with Indigenous women from across the country. She wanted to hear firsthand what some of the central concerns were for Native women in their communities and she sought out direction and input. One of the women who has been a traditional advisor and strong influence has been Wa’kerakats:te, Louise McDonald, Akwesasne Bear Clan Mother. “We Onkwehonwe women are guided by our grandmas and our traditional teachings,” said McDonald. “I would give anything to hear my great-grandmother’s story.”

Michelle credits McDonald as being a great source of inspiration for the Rematriation team, one who has given the Rematriation team direction and focus. 

"It’s only been in the last 40 years that our Indigenous people have been able to legally gather to share our cultural beliefs, so yes, we are claiming this space for our women to heal from generations of forced colonization and genocide that has been inflicted upon our people. Membership onto our magazine platform is by referral from another Indigenous sister. Any Indigenous woman may contact us directly for a referral. Friends and allies may view our public content, learn about our work and become an official ally of Rematriation on our website," Diane Shenandoah wrote to Indian Country Today in an email.

The seminal issue of Rematriation was aptly dedicated to birthing, and features a story about a traditional home birth titled, “Baby’s First Words.” “Women are life givers, we give the sacred gift of life,” said Schenandoah. “Returning the sacred to the mother in part means that we need to get back to treating our moms, girls, and babies with the respect that our culture always put in place.”

What is unique to Rematriation is its three separate and distinct spaces: the sacred, secret, and shared. The sacred space is a gathering space for Indigenous women that focuses on healing, ceremony, and reclaiming identity.

The “secret” space — that Schenandoah says may need a better name, is a private, closed access, safe online space for Indigenous women to share and discuss published stories, events, and issues, and will feature podcasts and videos. “It is for Indigenous eyes and ears only,” says Schenandoah. “Sometimes we need to keep a place just for us, where we don’t have to worry about being filtered or censor ourselves.”

Rematriation has this element of exclusivity so that participants have a safe and secure comfortable space in which they can share sensitive information and stories. Access involves a vetting process with referrals and some degree of verification. This is to ensure that sensitive storytelling stays within the circle, among Indigenous women only.

The third space, the “shared,” is the public space where content is shared worldwide for the purposes of educating the public at large about indigenous women's issues and experiences. The shared space features short films and articles.

The shared space is home to a video discussion by Rematriation: An Indigenous response to #MeToo. The short film conversation explores sexual abuse in Native communities and how traditional teachings can be applied. It can be found online at rematriation.com. The conversation has sparked a great deal of interest by the non-Native media and the public.

An Indigenous Response to #MeToo

About the film

(From the Rematriation's website #MeToo page) “An Indigenous Response to #MeToo” is a new half-hour Rematriation Magazine film featuring a group of cultural change-makers from Haudenosaunee Six Nations territories and the Guachichil de La Gran Chichimeca. The film’s purpose is to share a culturally grounded and relevant response to address the #MeToo movement in Indigenous communities, to start group conversations and to lean into culturally based solutions.

An Indigenous woman's point of view

Rematriation also satisfies the need for Native women to tell their stories from their point of view. For too long, the images, ideas, and stories in the mainstream were told by non-Natives; the perceptions were from an outsider’s point of view. Schenandoah said it was important for Rematriation to reclaim the pen, the keyboard, the microphone, and the camera and tell their own stories. “How do we change the narrative? We become the narrator,” she said.

Changing the narrative is not a new idea, and it’s not so much that Native women are late to the party, but it is perhaps a sizable step forward that indigenous women are willing to step out of the shadows to tackle difficult, sensitive issues that before now went unspoken.

“Our women, our communities have experienced trauma and we’ve been denied spaces and opportunities for healing on our own terms,” said Schenandoah. “First we have to recognize the trauma. At the end of the day, we’re all hurt. We all want to feel better. By sharing, going back to our traditions and ceremonies, healing and inspiration can take place.”

The Rematriation Team

Rematriation is not a solo effort. The founding team includes Michelle’s mom Diane Schenandoah, Oneida faithkeeper, is a contributing writer and the team’s resident elder and advisor, who is perhaps best known for her award-winning talents as an artist and singer that has often performed with her sister Joanne Shenandoah. Lisa Latocha, Oneida, is the communications strategist and editor who brings her experiences in cultural research and writing to the table. Janet Flores, Guachichil, is the director of platform management and design; she is a social activist and founder of Brown Mujeres Media. 

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Schenandoah is quick to share that beyond the founding team is the “influencers group.” At the launch in Syracuse, Schenandoah acknowledged all 180 participants for their support and informed the crowd that she considers each and every one of them to be part of the influencers group. “We want to hear from you. We need your guidance and your voice,” she said.

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Michelle Schenandoah (center) stands with her Rematriatyion Magazine team and volunteers at the launch in Syracuse. During the event, Schenandoah also acknowledged all 180 participants for their support. (Photo: Jessica Sargent, Akwesasne Mohawk)

It took Schenandoah the greater part of her adult life to find healing from the abuse she endured. And it took 20 years and a winding path to arrive at the realization of the dream she now calls Rematriation. She’s learned a lot on her journey and feels she has much to share.

Ultimately, the Rematriation message is that Indigenous women’s stories matter and their voices matter. “If I can share my story, you can share yours too. There is power in making connections with our sisters,” said Schenandoah. “And through those connections, there is healing and inspiration.”

For more information about Rematriation Magazine visit https://rematriation.com/.

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