The Current

How a self-defence course is arming Indigenous women with the tools to heal

After realizing the healing benefits of self-defence, Patty Stonefish has been on a mission to arm Indigenous women with self-love and empowerment.

'We are all in this together,' says Patty Stonefish, who created Arming Sisters in 2013

Participants at an Arming Sisters self-defence workshop in East Vancouver. Patty Stonefish runs the course as a means for Indigenous women to heal from abuse. (Pacific Association of First Nations Women)

Read Story Transcript

With her commanding presence, 27-year-old Patty Stonefish lays out the ground rules to a room full of women and girls in East Vancouver, who have come together to learn self-defence.

There is no room for apologizing.

"If you say sorry in here and it's not needed, you're doing 10 squats. I can't stand this word," says Stonefish. 

"We say sorry for simply existing. We say sorry for simply speaking."

Stonefish, who is Lakota, Polish and Russian, is originally from Fargo, N.D. She's speaking to nearly two dozen Indigenous women and girls who nod and tear up.

Most of them have experienced sexual assault and violence. Not only is Stonefish teaching them a course in self-defence, but she is teaching them self-love and empowerment.

'Your body can do amazing things'

Stonefish took up martial arts when she was 13 years old, about a year after she said she was molested for the first time.

"Someone was showing me how to fight," she said. "[As women and girls] we're not really told that: 'Oh hey, your body can do amazing things, like take down a guy that's three times your size.'"

Participants work on self-defence moves at a workshop hosted by the Pacific Association of First Nations Women. (Pacific Association of First Nations Women)

Self-defence became her calling — so much so that she followed a coach to Cairo, Egypt. She arrived during the Arab Spring and was deeply affected by seeing women there "break the boundaries of patriarchy," she said.

Her life course changed one day while she was helping teach a self-defence course. ​Stonefish was demonstrating a wrist lock when "it dawned on me, the way he was talking, it was like what you're saying is you're telling me it's my fault [for being assaulted] and I don't agree with that," she said.

"It's not my responsibility to stop anything."

After that experience, in 2013, Stonefish launched a non-profit organization called Arming Sisters as a way to formalize her own style of self-defence. It's about healing and self-empowerment for Indigenous women.

"It can be an extremely powerful tool of healing," said Stonefish. "That's what it was for me throughout my life as I've been molested, raped, sexually assaulted numerous times, as most Indigenous women have."

A different perspective

After taking her self-defence course on the road across the United States, the Pacific Association of First Nations Women asked Stonefish to bring the course to Canada this fall. 

"When I saw this course I thought: 'Oh my God, I need to bring my daughter,'" said Lorelei Williams, who was among the participants taking Stonefish's course in Vancouver.

Williams said she has lived through a lot of violence and has taken a variety of self-defence courses, but Arming Sisters stands out.

"I love that she's coming from a woman's perspective ... there is a difference to what she's teaching," Williams said. 

Patty Stonefish, left, Diana Day and Stonefish's sister, Raven Healing, stand strong after a self-defence workshop. (Pacific Association of First Nations Women)

Throughout the workshop, Stonefish teaches the women about developing awareness and personal intuition, learning to say 'no' and building healthy relationships.

There is no eye-gouging, throat punches or striking; rather, Stonefish shows women how to use pressure points.

At this point, we have no choice but to heal together.- Patty Stonefish

"I'm a big fan of pressure points because, as women, it doesn't matter that the other person is multiple times our size," said Stonefish.

Tania Tommy is another participant who brought along her teenage daughter to Stonefish's course.

"It's very emotional hearing other people's stories. It kind of brings back those feelings of going through stuff like that," Tommy said. "When I hear [Stonefish] talking about [how] it's okay to say no, I'm just slowly starting to realize that for myself."

There is emotion. There is also booming laughter and a lot of singing.

"We are all in this together and, unfortunately, many Native women are survivors of sexual assault," Stonefish told participants. "At this point, we have no choice but to heal together."

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear the full story.

Written and produced by Jennifer Chrumka.