Nov 20, 2013 - This is Totally Your Grandma’s Social Movement: Women in Indigenous Nationhood Struggles by Annita Lucchesi
Any indigenous decolonization movement we build will fail if it doesn’t directly engage and dismantle colonial patriarchy and violence against indigenous women. It seems as if this would be obvious considering women make up over half the population of most (if not all?) nations, and yet too much of the activism I’ve seen regarding indigenous nationhood totally disregards issues such as these, as if nationhood isn’t distinctly a “women’s issue,” and “women’s issues” aren’t issues for the rest of the community.
How is indigenous nationhood a “women’s issue”? For starters, we make up over half the population of our nations, and a nation isn’t really all that democratic or sovereign if it still adheres to a socio-political structure defined by patriarchal violence imposed by colonizers, much less does not represent or include the specific needs of the majority of its citizens in its vision for the future. Moreover, in many nations, women have historically held leadership positions (formally and informally); how decolonized are we really if we “return” to an indigenous social & governmental structure that doesn’t acknowledge women’s rightful place in community leadership? Do we expect our nations to be healthy communities with empowered and respected women if we don’t put in the groundwork of creating decolonization movements in which indigenous women are actively empowered and respected by their relations in the struggle?
Indigenous sovereignty has been mapped on indigenous women’s bodies from the beginning of colonial occupation. Gendered and sexual violence has been a key strategy used by European colonizers for centuries, and continues to be used as such through the present. The US government, for example, has a long history of targeting Native women in their efforts to exterminate Native peoples—from the removal of woman leadership and forcible indoctrination of Native men into colonial patriarchy, to the torture, sexual assault, and sexualized mutilation the US military perpetrated on Native women at massacres like Sand Creek, to the forced sterilization of thousands of Native women at the hands of IHS, the US government has always understood that the way to attack the health and survival of our nations was by attacking our women. Another clear example of how Native sovereignty has been mapped on Native women’s bodies is the recent fight for the Violence Against Women Act, which just narrowly passed with its new provisions for special tribal jurisdiction over cases of violence against Native women. VAWA’s opposition expressed concern that granting Native nations jurisdiction over a fraction of the cases of violence against Native women could be a devastating blow to US colonial authority sovereignty, while supporters of the tribal provisions heralded VAWA’s passage as a landmark moment in tribal sovereignty; in both perspectives then, we see that Native women’s bodies are understood as a major battleground for nationhood.
What would it mean for our nationhood movements to explicitly recognize Native women’s complex role in sovereignty struggles, historic and contemporary? To recognize that Native nationhood is a practice that Native women engage in every day? Even outside our more abstract figurative role in sovereignty-related legislation, Native women have been at the frontlines of every Native rights protest, teach-in, occupation, court case, and press conference I’ve seen or heard of. Native women reproduce our nations by raising children, running households, teaching in schools and cultural institutions, performing and passing on ceremonies, keeping our traditional arts alive and thriving, and building and maintaining community support networks. I want to see us celebrate the women who wove baskets banned by a colonial regime, the women who made women’s shelters out of their own homes, the women who taught their ancestral languages to their children, the women who fought through years in a colonial education system and miles of red tape to create tribal education programs. Our nationhood movement is nothing without women like them.
So here’s my challenge to Native folks fighting for indigenous sovereignty: remember that this IS your grandma’s social movement. Debra White Plume, a Native woman powerhouse in the sovereignty struggle, has said that a true leader is someone who carries their people in their heart; don’t forget that over half your people are women! Women that are not only forced to survive specific gendered colonial violence, but that are strong capable community leaders in their own rights! For that reason, stepping up and being a leader—carrying your people in your heart—requires each one of us to be mindful that fights for indigenous nationhood and decolonization are, fundamentally, “women’s issues.” Our nations will be crippled and toxic until we actively fight violence against Native women, as well as empower and respect Native women as nation-builders and community leaders.
Annita Lucchesi is a Southern Cheyenne survivor of sexual and domestic violence. She is a graduate student in the Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies department at Washington State University, and also works at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which is dedicated to reclaiming the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children.