In keeping with my goal of highlighting some of the major thinkers, texts, or figures in women of color feminism,today’s text comes from Nobel Prize nominated Indigenous feminist scholar, Andrea Smith. I have taught her book Conquest since it came out in my social movements, feminist theory, and race, class, gender courses. It was such an impressive and timely piece of research that I am already intrigued by the upcoming release of her new book: Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances. I was recently asked who I thought was one of the defining voices of feminist theory in the last ten years and her name immediately came to mind. Not only does she write theory but she also does some of the most extensive research I have seen in a single book in a long time, and I am a researcher who covers tons of bases in my own work and who works alongside others who do as well. Even her articles are well-crafted pieces of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship as evidenced by their publication in WS canonical journals like Hypatia and NWSA Journal. If she had one in Signs, it would be the trifecta.
Watching her be invited to speak at the NWSA and by various WS Programs and regional WS associations over the last few years has renewed my hope that we could speak about alternative periodization, new ways of addressing violence that deal with the prison-industrial-complex that criminalizes gendered versions of race as well as the myriad of violence against women that is equally in our bedrooms, homes, workplaces, pasts, and presents, and productive alliance building across differences.
More than that Smith embodies the essential emphasis on feminist praxis that typified the movement and the discipline of WS. Though some may criticize her ability to move between scholarship and activism, I have always believed that as long as you are open to listening and learning, being one generally makes you better at the other, in either direction. And I believe the herstory of our discipline was founded on a similar belief. Smith co-founded Incite! an organization to stop violence against women of color that has galvanized a whole new generation to participate in decolonized feminism. Incite! came out of an academic conference and has produced two accessible anthologies about violence that I have seen on many an academics shelves of late. Both books also highlighted the important work that women of color and their allies are doing to impact gender justice, which for my students is critical because they are both dismayed and turning toward apathy after hearing time and again their generation is doing and can do nothing.
I cannot stress enough how much she has inspired me as a feminist and as an academic, nor her import to the discipline as a whole.
What I like about the quoted piece below (see bottom) is that Smith once again brings in sister theorists and activists into the piece reminding us of the existence of living breathing feminism even as she talks about theory and history. Remember, the impetus for these posts has been to document that women of color have feminism in their own right, that they do address violence against women, and they deal with other forms of oppression as co-equal rather than elevate it above that violence. Thus, as with the other posts in this series, I have once again highlighted the text that speaks to those issues.
Other indigenous feminists who may be of interest to readers are:
Zitkala Sa (1876-1938) – Somewhat controversial figure due to her work with and against the state, Zitkala Sa’s contributions span political, social, economic, and literary fields. She was a writer, socio-political-feminist activist at the local, state, and national level, and educator. She worked to revitalize oral traditions while also using written work to raise awareness about indigenous communities most significantly her decidedly feminist text on the impact of boarding school education on mother-daughter and child-nation bonds & her political writing about issues of religious rights, enfranchisement, etc. She also worked to raise awareness about the plight of WWI veterans including a discussion of the poverty and domestic violence that being abandoned by the government after service caused and the corruption in the BIA (which directly affected the health and welfare of women and children). She also worked tirelessly to preserve the right to Indian lands, health care, and non-assimilation based education. She was a suffragette who worked for the right of both women and men to vote, for those votes to be counted, and for them to use them to make changes to U.S. policy toward native nations. Finally, she founded the General Federation of Women’s Clubs which investigated mistreatment and abuse.
Annie Mae Pictou Aquash – whose contributions I have highlighted already in a previous post. In short here, she was a tireless activist for indigenous rights in both the U.S. and her native Canada, as well as women’s rights within AIM. Like many on this list, she began as an educator and her passion for justice spurred her into activism beyond the classroom. Her leadership and outspokenness helped galvanize indigenous women and men to stand up for their rights (both gendered and cultural) and combined concerns about class, race, gender, and nation. Some members of the male leadership tried to discredit her as a CIA/FBI plant but Leonard Peltier, with whom she worked closesly, and others retained the truth of her activism and contribution to such important moments as Pine Ridge. She was an important enough figure that the U.S. government had a hand in her assassination and the retention of her body well into the new millenium. It has finally been returned to her, now adult, daughters. Read the full text I wrote on her including links to a moving documentary about her and activism links: here.
Winona LaDuke – I have had the privilege to see her speak multiple times on seed sovereignty, women’s rights, indigenous rights, and the interconnectedness of oppressed peoples and each time I am moved by her eloquence, commitment, sharp wit, and something inexplicably powerful that radiates from her and leaves me inspired in ways that few people since the cultural movement days have done; to quote a student “she definitely says it like it is.” As an academic, one of the things I have recently been able to love about her is that she is always open and ready to mentor students and inspire them. Her tireless socio-political advocacy has been local, national, and global. At the local level she has fought to retain schools and infrastructure on or near the rez to ensure indigenous youth get solid educations and work that supports their cultural survival; and that indigenous people retain sovereignty over the traditional harvesting practices, the seeds and the food it produces, and that these are not further eroded by genetic engineering. The latter impacts the national and global level by also ensuring the safety of everyone’s food. On the national level, she fights for the rights of indigenous women, oppressed people, and the environment; she ran on the Green Party ticket as Vice Presidential Candidate with Ralph Nader hoping to prove that another way of doing government was possible. And on the international level she has worked alongside Indian feminists, indigenous feminists in LACs and Canada, and worked with feminists and people’s organizations around the world for environmental and social causes. She is author of several books about reclaiming traditions and seeing the world through an alternative lens (like that Smith’s work refers to below). She was one of the founding members of the Indigenous Women’s Network. She worked with Women of all Red Nations to bring awareness to people about the impact of PCBs on women and children, particularly toxins in breast-milk. In 1997 she was voted Woman of The Year by Ms. Magazine. In 2007 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She has several publications including: Last Standing Woman, All Our Relations, etc.
Luci Tapahonso – I may be cheating here, I include her in this list because I have met her and she was an inspiring speaker and presence. She is a prolific poet and committed academic and I would argue that she has inspired many indigenous women and women of color in general to write and to work in academe. She has been on the editorial board of several academic journals, was on the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian section of the Smithsonian Institute, Board of Directors for the American Indian Law Center, and a review consultant for the Diversity Development Divisions of the American College Testing service (which was instrumental in ensuring that the tests were more fair toward women, people of color, and working class test takers hoping to go to college). She has also collaborated on several plays about indigenous women and indigenous culture. In short she has been one of many behind the scenes powerhouses in academe that inspires generations.
The Indigenous Women who served as members of the Armed Forces in World War II and continue to go unmarked in history. They worked tirelessly to help put an end to fascism in a military that promised equality but seldom afforded much during the war and even less when it was over. They were a strength to all soldiers but especially isolated indigenous ones, amongst which some of them could be counted. They also inspired women to take on non-traditional roles – like service – and to work in grueling but important more traditional roles – like nursing. Their leadership was an inspiration during the war and continued for many after it was over. Their contribution to history should be celebrated. read more: here.
Paula Gunn Allen – Another inspiring lesbian feminist academic whose contributions have been both literary and social. She writes on gender, sexuality, and identity and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas in 2001. Her writing draws attention to women’s experiences, the experience of colonialism and racism, and the interconnectedness of people. One of my favorite quotes from her writing is:
I have noticed that as soon as you have soldiers the story is called history. Before their arrival it is called myth, folktale, legend, fairy tale, oral poetry, ethnography. After the soldiers arrive, it is called history.
Criticisms such as these come from both an indigenous tradition, in which many of the terms cited have been used to further erode indigenous culture and/or rights, but also to all marginalized people who have had their her/hir/histories diminished by the ideological underpinnings of the craft. She also wrote one of the first and still oft-cited essays about the indigenous roots of modern day feminism and documented early collaboration or conversation between canonized feminists and indigenous women absent from the historical record. Such a criticism are echoed in the Smith piece quoted below and expanded to argue that indigenous centered perspective allows for multi-periodizations which would prevent students from arguing that women of color were insignificant in the movement until the “third wave.” She described the struggle of Native American women succinctly in an interview:
Within this geopolitical charnel house, American Indian women struggle on every front for the survival of our children, our people, our self-respect, our value systems, and our way of life. The past five hundred years testify to our skill at waging this struggle; for all the varied weapons of extinction pointed at our heads, we endure
She has also received a Ford and an NEA award along with several writing achievement awards from academic sources like the MLA. And was a tireless presence in the feminist movement for a considerable part of its radical past.
Pamela Shields – indigenous artists whose mixed media work on cloth highlights issues of gender, nation, health, poverty, and racism. Her work uses narrative layering to engage the viewer in multiple understandings of the modern and the past. She and other Native American women artists have been addressing intersectional issues from a female artist perspective throughout time. As art is not my area, you might want to find more info on other Native American Women Artists click here. If you are privileged enough to live in an area that makes room for contemporary indigenous art and discussion of past art forms from a decolonized perspective exist get thee there as soon as you can. Some important series have gone in the American Southwest in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, etc. as well as in the Pacific Northwest.
Leslie Marmon Silko – A prolific writer and poet whose commitment has been to writing about women and in supporting women and indigenous students and thinkers. Her first book Laguna Women’s Poems was published in 1974 and her most famous Almanac for the Dead (1991) was recently read aloud, in its entirety, by the author, feminist students, and others last year at the University of New Mexico. They ended the reading with a celebration of her work and that of indigenous women writers in general. Both that book and Yellow Woman (1996) criticize colonialism and its impact on women and the indigenous community including violence from within and without the community, and reassert the important roles that women play among other things. Issues like reproductive rights (eugenicism), connectivity of peoples, particularly along the margins and in the borderlands, global capitalism and its impact on women and communities, and complex discussions of sexuality and its relations to border politics, the nation, and identity are all themes that can be found in a number of her writing and all appear in Almanac. For my work, her most influential book was Storyteller (1981), which is said to echo some of the techniques Annie Mae used in her one and only, now out of print, book, because it shows the importance of the story to cultural and gendered history and the retention of the voices that are ignored and/or lost in traditional studies. It combines art, poetry, creative writing, and other forms to show how interdisciplinary crafting can make a complete story for those who have been actively erased.
Joy Harjo -whose blog I link to, she too inspires me. She is a poet, writer, filmmaker, activist, mother, etc. She has won awards for both film and writing and collaborated with musicians to bring new form to her work. She was inspired to write because of her deep commitment to political and social issues. She also di/does(?) time as an academic inspiring a number of female students to find and harness their creative voice for change. One of my favorite quotes of hers is:
I believe those so-called ‘womanly’ traits are traits of the warrior.
Like many of the people who have taken up the meme, Joy reminds us that it is not just the headliners, the published, or the academics who matter in the feminist struggle but also the working class moms who manage to feed their kids each day, the women who struggle against domestic and sexual violence and survive despite the world being against their survival, the women who confront poverty and racism to meet their needs and the needs of their children and their communities. These women are our feminist models in every day life and they should be celebrated as much as the ones we cannonize. Her work She Had Some Horses (1983) confronts the hardship of living in the intersections and the confrontation between the will to live and the desire to stop fighting and let go of life. Much of her work stresses the importance of continuance and survival as well as the mythic.
Ines Hernandez-Avila – I cannot read her work enough. Every time I do, I find news ways of teaching feminism and thinking about community building within communities of color and across difference. She is the Director of the Chicana/Latina Research Center at UC Davis which supports Chicanas, Latinas, and Native American women. She edited Telling to Live, a book I strongly recommend academic feminists of color read before choosing to enter this profession, it both frightened and inspired me with its tales of social isolation, strength, and powerful community building and Frontiers feminist academic journal. Like many others on this list she has a long list of publications, awards, and presentations. One of the presentations I saw that moved me was “Latina Feminist Testimonios” at NACCS. She currently works at UC Davis in the Native American Studies Department.
Rayna Green – wrote one of the most astute critiques of the history of Pocahontas that I have read. Like her book My Diary as a Native American Feminist is sadly out of print. She wrote creative and analytic writing about feminism and indigeneity as well as edited anthologies of writing by indigenous women. She is also a documentary film director and has received several awards including a Ford.
Audrey Huntley – Filmmaker Huntley is one of the nicest people I have spoken with in a long time (I know you care readers). She is best known for her documentary on the femicide against indigenous women in Vancouver BC entitled “Go Home Baby Girl” which aired on the CBC and also toured globally. She also did a series on CBC interviewing individual family survivors of missing women called Traces of Missing Women. Her documentary film work continues to address indigenous women’s rights across the americas and she is currently wrapping up work in Oaxaca.
Charon Asetyor – founder and Executive Director of the Native Women’s Health Education and Resource Center. She is a leader in women’s health issues and has been active at the local, national, and international level including running for state office to combat sexism and regressive reproductive health issues in South Dakota. If you did not read this study by Amnesty International when it did the rounds earlier, you may want to look at it now for why this and the next two organizations are so important; you can also find an expanded definition of sexual violence and some of the most extensive research to back it up in Andrea Smith’s Conquest.
Faith Spotted Eagle – Founder of the Brave Heart Society which mentors indigenous girls. It originally started as a four day retreat but became an ongoing organization to combat the incest, rape, and cultural trauma that indigenous girls were experiencing unchecked. It also has the goal of instilling pride and raising self-esteem. One way that BHS does this is through mentorship programs between elders, young women, and girls. The annual retreats take place in the Black Hills.
The Arctic Women’s Crisis Program – This program serves indigenous women who are survivors of sexual and domestic violence. It is one of the only indigenous women’s shelters of its kind within 500 miles. Those who have read the Amnesty International report on violence against indigenous women, or Andrea Smith’s critically important piece on this in her book Conquest will recognize the import of such a shelter.
Cecilia Fire Thunder – The first female leader of the Oglala Sioux elected in 2004. She has worked tirelessly against domestic and sexual violence and for indigenous reproductive rights. She was also the original founder of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Fire Thunder was first suspended and then removed from her leadership position for planning to build an abortion clinic on rez land to counter the anti-abortion stance of South Dakota and using the media and the US Postal Service to solicit funds for the clinic on leadership time. For more issues surrounding the legacy of abortion abuses against indigenous women and the need for reproductive justice see Andrea Smith’s Conquest.
Harriet Nahanee – Was a powerful presence who was committed to indigenous education, environmental justice, and indigenous rights. As an Indian Boarding School survivor, Nahanee worked tirelessly to ensure that indigenous education saved what she saw as “the lost generations” and also spoke out about the gendered and cultural impact of Boarding School policies – including rape, murder of babies to hide the evidence, and burial in mass graves, etc. that typified some of the “women’s issues” at Boarding Schools in Canada and N. America. She was concerned with re-instilling pride and traditional ways which she saw ran decidedly counter to nation-building in the West and its counterproductive consequences. She died last year after being released from prison on a contempt of court charge for her involvement in the Eagle Ridge Highway protest. She was an inspiration to women and men and activists everywhere. And she was defiant and bold to the last minute as evidenced by the photo of her arrest to the right.
My list could and probably should continue, especially since I have not touched on indigenous feminists in the LACS region nor Hawaii and clearly many of them have also been at the forefront of radical decolonized feminism. Nor have I made a list of key writers on the cultural trauma theory pioneered by indigenous writers, for this work see the introduction of Chicana Without Apology by Eden Torres. Some written work that may be of interest to those who want to carry these lines further:
- Brave Bird/Crow Dog Lakota Woman (soon to be a film)
- Chrystos (poet)
- Deer Mohawk Girls (film)
- Dendentdale “Chairmen, Presidents, and Princesses”
- Figuero-Romero, D. “Contested Location of Indigenous Women’s Political Struggle.”
- Green, J. “Making Space: Articulating Aboriginal Feminism”
- Haunani-Kay Trask, From a Native Daughter, Eros & Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory
- Hightower-Langston “Tired of Playing Monopoly,” “Native American Women’s Activism in the 1960s-70s”
- Hypatia Special Edition on Native American Women 18.2 (spring 2003)
- Johnson, Y. Stolen Life
- Liliuokalani Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen
- Mankiller A Chief and Her People
- Maracle, L I am Woman
- Medicine Learning to be an Anthropologist
- Mihesua Indigenous American Women
- Shelley Niro (Director)
- Singer Hozho of Native American Women (film)
- Noyes Then There were None
- Picaldo et al. Daughters of Abya Yala
- Perdue Sifters
- Red Shirt Turtle Lung Woman’s Granddaughter
- Reder, D. “Invisible Out of Place: Indig Women as Feminist Activists and/or Political Intellectuals”
- Shulz “Speaking to Survival”
- Smith, A. “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence.”
- Smith, A. “Native Feminism and Sovereignty.”
- Tsosie “Changind Women.
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list; please feel free to weigh in on your “essential reads and people” by doing the meme or commenting to this post. Now, the “key text”:
Indigenous feminism without apology
BY ANDREA SMITH
We often hear the mantra in indigenous communities that Native women aren’t feminists. Supposedly, feminism is not needed because Native women were treated with respect prior to colonization. Thus, any Native woman who calls herself a feminist is often condemned as being “white.”
However, when I started interviewing Native women organizers as part of a research project, I was surprised by how many community-based activists were describing themselves as “feminists without apology.” They were arguing that feminism is actually an indigenous concept that has been co-opted by white women.
The fact that Native societies were egalitarian 500 years ago is not stopping women from being hit or abused now. For instance, in my years of anti-violence organizing, I would hear, “We can’t worry about domestic violence; we must worry about survival issues first.” But since Native women are the women most likely to be killed by domestic violence, they are clearly not surviving. So when we talk about survival of our nations, who are we including?
These Native feminists are challenging not only patriarchy within Native communities, but also white supremacy and colonialism within mainstream white feminism. That is, they’re challenging why it is that white women get to define what feminism is.
DECENTERING WHITE FEMINISM
The feminist movement is generally periodized into the so-called first, second and third waves of feminism. In the United States, the first wave is characterized by the suffragette movement; the second wave is characterized by the formation of the National Organization for Women, abortion rights politics, and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendments. Suddenly, during the third wave of feminism, women of colour make an appearance to transform feminism into a multicultural movement.
This periodization situates white middle-class women as the central historical agents to which women of colour attach themselves. However, if we were to recognize the agency of indigenous women in an account of feminist history, we might begin with 1492 when Native women collectively resisted colonization. This would allow us to see that there are multiple feminist histories emerging from multiple communities of colour which intersect at points and diverge in others. This would not negate the contributions made by white feminists, but would de-center them from our historicizing and analysis.
Indigenous feminism thus centers anti-colonial practice within its organizing. This is critical today when you have mainstream feminist groups supporting, for example, the US bombing of Afghanistan with the claim that this bombing will free women from the Taliban (apparently bombing women somehow liberates them).
CHALLENGING THE STATE
Indigenous feminists are also challenging how we conceptualize indigenous sovereignty — it is not an add-on to the heteronormative and patriarchal nationstate. Rather it challenges the nationstate system itself.
Charles Colson, prominent Christian Right activist and founder of Prison Fellowship, explains quite clearly the relationship between heteronormativity and the nation-state. In his view, samesex marriage leads directly to terrorism; the attack on the “natural moral order” of the heterosexual family “is like handing moral weapons of mass destruction to those who use America’s decadence to recruit more snipers and hijackers and suicide bombers.”
Similarly, the Christian Right World magazine opined that feminism contributed to the Abu Ghraib scandal by promoting women in the military. When women do not know their assigned role in the gender hierarchy, they become disoriented and abuse prisoners.
Implicit in this is analysis the understanding that heteropatriarchy is essential for the building of US empire. Patriarchy is the logic that naturalizes social hierarchy. Just as men are supposed to naturally dominate women on the basis of biology, so too should the social elites of a society naturally rule everyone else through a nation-state form of governance that is constructed through domination, violence, and control.
As Ann Burlein argues in Lift High the Cross, it may be a mistake to argue that the goal of Christian Right politics is to create a theocracy in the US. Rather, Christian Right politics work throu
gh the private family (which is coded as white, patriarchal, and middle-class) to create a “Christian America.” She notes that the investment in the private family makes it difficult for people to invest in more public forms of social connection.
For example, more investment in the suburban private family means less funding for urban areas and Native reservations. The resulting social decay is then construed to be caused by deviance from the Christian family ideal rather than political and economic forces. As former head of the Christian Coalition Ralph Reed states: “The only true solution to crime is to restore the family,” and “Family break-up causes poverty.”
Unfortunately, as Navajo feminist scholar Jennifer Denetdale points out, the Native response to a heteronormative white, Christian America has often been an equally heteronormative Native nationalism. In her critique of the Navajo tribal council’s passage of a ban on same-sex marriage, Denetdale argues that Native nations are furthering a Christian Right agenda in the name of “Indian tradition.”
This trend is equally apparent within racial justice struggles in other communities of colour. As Cathy Cohen contends, heteronormative sovereignty or racial justice struggles will effectively maintain rather than challenge colonialism and white supremacy because they are premised on a politics of secondary marginalization. The most elite class will further their aspirations on the backs of those most marginalized within the community.
Through this process of secondary marginalization, the national or racial justice struggle either implicitly or explicitly takes on a nation-state model as the end point of its struggle – a model in which the elites govern the rest through violence and domination, and exclude those who are not members of “the nation.”
Grassroots Native women, along with Native scholars such as Taiaiake Alfred and Craig Womack, are developing other models of nationhood. These articulations counter the frequent accusations that nation-building projects necessarily lead to a narrow identity politics based on ethnic cleansing and intolerance. This requires that a clear distinction be drawn between the project of national liberation, and that of nation-state building.
Progressive activists and scholars, while prepared to make critiques of the US and Canadian governments, are often not prepared to question their legitimacy. A case in point is the strategy of many racial justice organizations in the US or Canada, who have rallied against the increase in hate crimes since 9/11 under the banner, “We’re American [or Canadian] too.”
This allegiance to “America” or “Canada” legitimizes the genocide and colonization of Native peoples upon which these nation-states are founded. By making anti-colonial struggle central to feminist politics, Native women place in question the appropriate form of governance for the world in general.
In questioning the nation-state, we can begin to imagine a world that we would actually want to live in. Such a political project is particularly important for colonized peoples seeking national liberation outside the nation-state.
Whereas nation-states are governed through domination and coercion, indigenous sovereignty and nationhood is predicated on interrelatedness and responsibility.
As Sharon Venne explains, “Our spirituality and our responsibilities define our duties. We understand the concept of sovereignty as woven through a fabric that encompasses our spirituality and responsibility. This is a cyclical view of sovereignty, incorporating it into our traditional philosophy and view of our responsibilities. It differs greatly from the concept of Western sovereignty which is based upon absolute power. For us absolute power is in the Creator and the natural order of all living things; not only in human beings… Our sovereignty is related to our connections to the earth and is inherent.”
A Native feminist politics seeks to do more than simply elevate Native women’s status — it seeks to transform the world through indigenous forms of governance that can be beneficial to everyone.
At the 2005 World Liberation Theology Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, indigenous peoples from Bolivia stated that they know another world is possible because they see that world whenever they do their ceremonies. Native ceremonies can be a place where the present, past and future become copresent. This is what Native Hawaiian scholar Manu Meyer calls a racial remembering of the future.
Prior to colonization, Native communities were not structured on the basis of hierarchy, oppression or patriarchy. We will not recreate these communities as they existed prior to colonization. Our understanding that a society without structures of oppression was possible in the past tells us that our current political and economic system is anything but natural and inevitable. If we lived differently before, we can live differently in the future.
Native feminism is not simply an insular or exclusivist “identity politics” as it is often accused of being. Rather, it is framework that understands indigenous women’s struggle as part of a global movement for liberation. As one activist stated: “You can’t win a revolution on your own. And we are about nothing short of a revolution. Anything else is simply not worth our time.”