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Native American women experience the highest rates of violence of any other group in the United States. One in three native women have been victims of sexual assault and the murder rate of indigenous women is consistently higher than the national average. On this edition, Andrea Smith, author of Conquest: Sexual Violence and Native American Genocide explains the connection between violence against women, and the colonization of native lands and bodies.
Andrea Smith’s presentation includes descriptions of racial and sexual violence, so please be forewarned.
- This week on Making Contact —
So if you want to kill off a population, you have to target the women.
Native American women experience the highest rates of violence of any group in the United States. At least one in three indigenous women have been victims of sexual assaults, and murder rates for native women are consistently higher than the national average.
As we pursue our struggle for sovereignty, then let’s make sexual violence part of that struggle, because that’s how colonization has been successful.
On this edition, Andrea Smith, author of Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide explains for us the connection between violence against indigenous women and the colonization of Native American lands and bodies. A note of warning– her presentation includes descriptions of racial and sexual violence, so please be forewarned. I’m George Lavender, and this is Making Contact.
- How I came to working on this– I can think of three pivotal incidents. One time when I was living in Oklahoma, I got the opportunity to go to this gathering of– where they needed ministry programs. And one person came to visit. He was a spiritual leader. And he said, the most important thing that we have to worry about is violence against women and children. He said, because as long as we are destroying ourselves from within, we don’t even have to worry about the enemies from outside.
So that was pivotal to me. But then the next thing that happened was I went back home, and I was telling a friend who was herself a sexual assault survivor. And I told her about what he said, and she said, do you mean other Indians have been raped too? And I said, well, yes. And she said, why aren’t we ever talking about it? So then I was struck by the silence that’s in our communities about the issue.
But then the next thing that was pivotal to me was I went– when I was working in Chicago, a young woman was gang raped by prominent members of the community. And the response of the community when she threatened to go to the police was to basically put her on trial and say, how dare you air our dirty laundry to other people? And on the other hand, when she went to get services, there was nothing that was really helpful for her either. Because the response of the mainstream movement was, well, why don’t you just leave your community?
So in all these cases, what I was seeing was a major issue of sexual violence, and yet there was no vocabulary for how to understand what was happening to native women. And what I began to conclude was that there was a problem with our analysis, that we were seeing violence against women as a separate thing from colonization. We need to worry about colonization first, and then later, we will worry about violence against women. Or conversely, in the white feminist movement, we’ll just worry about violence, and all these other issues will take care of themselves. And we were not seeing that these two processes were actually part of the same thing, and that it’s precisely through sexual violence that American Indian genocide is successful, and that we can’t decolonize without making addressing sexual violence central to our organizing work.
So the way that I see sexual violence is part of the logic of genocide is– I borrow from Ann Stoler, who says that racism is a process by which certain peoples become marked as inherently dirty, as inherently pure, from which the larger colonial body is always trying to clean itself. And if we look at the history of native genocide, we see again and again this rhetoric of native bodies being equated with pollution or dirt.
Just to give one example, this is an Ivory soap ad from 1885. And there’s a cartoonish figure of an Indian man and woman. And this is the slogan that goes with the cartoon. We were once factious, fierce, fierce and wild, in peaceful arts unreconciled, our blankets smeared with grease and stains from buffalo meat and settlers veins. Through summer’s dust and heat content, from moon to moon unwashed we went. But Ivory soap came like a ray of light across our darkened way. And now we’re civil, kind, and good, and keep the laws, as people should. We wear our linen, lawn, and lace, as well as folks with paler face. And now I take, wherever we go, this cake of Ivory soap to show what civilized my Squaw and me and made us clean and fair to see.
So you can see the joke of this ad is that because Indian bodies can’t be white, they can never be clean. And under a patriarchal worldview, only a body that is seen as pure can be violated. The violation or rape of bodies that are seen as impure don’t count. They are seen as inherently rapeable. So to give an example, when sex workers are raped, nobody cares because they are seen as inherently rapeable, inherently violable. And that is what has happened through the logic of genocide. Native peoples have become seen as inherently rapeable, inherently violable, and by extension, our lands are inherently invadable.
So when we look at the history of massacres, it’s not just that Indian people were killed off. But this is always accompanied by routine mutilation, sexual violence, et cetera. And I’ll just give one example to illustrate this from the Sand Creek Massacre. I heard one man say he had cut a women’s private parts out and had them for exhibition on a stick. I heard another man say he had cut the fingers off of an Indian to get the rings off of his hand. I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, stretched them over their saddle bows, and some of them over their hats.
So what’s happening, then, in this process is that colonizers are not just trying to kill Indian people, but to kill our sense of even being a people. In addition to this, one of the major complaints that colonizers made when they first came to this land is they said, how are we going to ever colonize them when they themselves are not structured on hierarchy? That is, they’re not patriarchal. They don’t necessarily have these hierarchical societies in which the leaders get to lead forever, in perpetuity. So if they’re not accepting that kind of leadership within their communities, why are they going to accept it from us?
So they said that we will never be able to colonize them. And they said this explicitly until native men start treating native women the way white men treat white women. And so therefore, if you want to colonize the people, it’s not going to work until colonization seems natural. Because if you know there’s another way to live, you’re going to do that. You’re not going to accept domination from other people. So the way to make domination seem natural is to instill it through patriarchy. That is just as men are naturally supposed to rule over women by virtue of biology, so it is the case that socially, some people are naturally born to rule over other peoples. So sexual violence was a process by which hierarchy becomes literally inscribed on the bodies of native peoples.
So when we’re looking at this logic of sexual violence, it’s broader than just simply looking at rape or sexual assault. And it infuses a variety of practices that native peoples have to address. So I’ll just briefly go through a few of them to illustrate what I mean. One policy where you can see this logic of sexual violence is that of environmental racism. That is, certain communities who are seen as inherently impure or dirty then become seen as the worthy repositories of all nuclear waste or toxic waste. Since they’re inherently polluting anyway, more pollution on their land doesn’t count.
But as [INAUDIBLE] further notes, we can also see environmental racism as another form of sexual violence because the effects of environmental contamination tend to first become manifest often in women’s reproductive systems. So for instance, we see areas like Akwesasne where women have PCBs in their breastmilk. In the areas in the four corners, we see major birth defect rates, et cetera, where there’s been nuclear contamination. And where the most intense effects of this can be found in the indigenous women of Marshall Islands, where the US basically used them as Guinea pigs. They exploded these nuclear bombs that were much more powerful than the bombs thrown in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and didn’t evacuate the peoples there. And the result– the devastating effects on women’s reproductive systems is almost mind-boggling. Here’s the testimony.
The most common birth defects has been jellyfish babies. These babies are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and hearts beating. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing. Many women die from abnormal pregnancies, and those who survive give birth to what looks like purple grapes that we quickly bury. So [INAUDIBLE] reports that the life expectancy has gone down to 40 years in the area and that some communities have decided to go extinct because their DNA has been permanently altered, and they can’t give birth now to children that don’t have major birth defects.
At this International Women Health Meeting in India, representatives came from the Marshall Islands. And I was very much struck with what they said, because what they report– they talked about how they had eight or nine miscarriages. Nobody had ever been able to give birth to a baby that didn’t have major birth defects. And they said that the reason they were there was not to organize on their own behalf. They said, it’s too late for us. There’s nothing that we can do for ourselves. We are here to stop this from happening to you. We’re the testimony to what happens with nuclear contamination. So they weren’t even trying to organize for their own survival. They were trying to organize for the world’s survival.
So again, we can see how another form of sexual violence has been perpetrated against indigenous women through these policies of environmental racism. Another policy we can see that follows this similar logic is issues of sterilization abuse. Again, as Ines Hernandez notes, if you want to kill off a population, you have to target the women. Otherwise the population may not be severely affected. And that’s something that colonizers explicitly stated. They said, after massacres, make sure you finish off the women so that we can finish off that population.
So it’s not a surprise, then, that native women’s ability to reproduce then becomes imaged as inherently polluting, particularly in the population control movement. We see many environmental groups are saying, the reason why there’s so much pollution is there’s too many of them polluting our environment. They’re destroying it for the rest of us. And so particularly during the 1970s when the population control movement began to proliferate, we saw all these slogans that we need to stop native women from reproducing so that they don’t pollute the world for everybody else. The sterilization abuse became uncovered when one Cherokee Choctaw doctor had a woman come in for a womb transplant. She had been given a hysterectomy and had been told that it was reversible. And when she went to investigate, she found that this was not an isolated incident.
And actually, the US did its own investigation and found that there was mass numbers of women being sterilized, and they were not following the proper procedures. But interestingly, they would not find out if they had been given consent because they said women won’t remember if they consented to a sterilization. Now, you have to ask– if you don’t remember consenting to a sterilization, something went wrong. But in any case, that was the logic used by the US government. So they were even covering up the issue of informed consent.
But in any case– and interestingly, though, when you look at the rhetoric that was being by doctors for sterilizing women– and this is what Dr. [INAUDIBLE] found out– again we see the same logic of pollution coming up. For instance, one woman was sterilized because, quote, she was told she was, quote, dirty and unkempt, and hence, she should be sterilized. Another woman went to a doctor for ischemic problems, and the doctor said, well, why the hell don’t you get your tubes tied so you won’t get sick anymore? One woman went into a doctor because she had headaches, and the doctor said that she had headaches because she was afraid of becoming pregnant and advised her to get sterilized. So she did, but the headaches persisted, and she later found out she had a brain tumor. And this happened to a friend of mine. She went in for Indian Health for a back surgery. And they didn’t touch her back, but she came out without a uterus.
So in any of these cases– I’ll just briefly take a little aside to show that this also shows the need to look at issues of reproductive justice outside of a choice framework. That is, the way we look at these issues is often pro-life versus pro-choice. And the assumption behind this pro-choice– there is a number of problematic assumptions, but one big one is that the only important choice is the choice of whether or not you’re going to have an abortion. And all the other economic and political and social conditions that gave rise to you having to make this choice suddenly disappear from the analysis.
So for instance, when Bill Clinton signs into law anti-welfare or anti-immigration legislation that certainly doesn’t do anything to promote choice for poor women or immigrant women, nobody was organizing as an anti-choice president because we were looking at it in a very narrow way. And certainly for native peoples, if we’re going to fight for reproductive justice, we have to develop a holistic framework that looks at all the conditions that give rise to the so-called choices that we make.
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To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts, go to radioproject.org, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making_contact. We now return to Andrea Smith talking about the connection between violence against native women and colonization. And again, please be advised that her talk does contain descriptions of sexual and racial violence.
- Another brief example of this policy of sexual violence in which native peoples become seen as inherently inhuman, as property, as something for somebody else’s benefit is the issue of medical experimentation. And I mention this in case there’s any scientists in the audience. Because what we’ve found is that many activists are looking at this and finding these widespread medical experimentation programs going on in native communities, but we don’t necessary have the medical expertise to do anything about it, to advocate for it. And then meanwhile, people that do have expertise, they tend to unquestioningly assume that if doctors are doing something, it must be good. So if there’s anybody who’s got expertise and wants to do more investigation, this would be very beneficial.
One program, just to illustrate, was one that happened amongst Alaska Native children in 1992 where they were given a hepatitis B vaccine. And two activists, Mary Anne Nelson and Bernadine Atchison, went to investigate because they had not been given– they had not given permission to be part of this trial vaccine. But in the process of these investigations, it was very interesting to look at the rhetoric being used by US agencies to support this trial vaccine program.
For instance, the [INAUDIBLE] Research Policy Committee said that quote, native villages were an extensive database and an ideal laboratory which provides a resource for studying health problems that will benefit other populations. And the company that did the vaccine, [INAUDIBLE], said that they experimented on, quote, chimpanzees and Alaska Native children. So again, we see native people seen as laboratory animals, not as people deserving respect or integrity.
And I’ll just mention during this research that they were engaged in, they got a letter from Theresa Brown from Clear Lake, California to testify about her experiment history of medical experimentation. She says, quote, in 1929, were we were removed from the Catholic Church into the Indian Bureau. When we got into the Indian Bureau, we were used as Guinea pigs. They gave us vaccinations. Needles broke in some of the people’s arms. They were not removed.
Then they came into the reservation for dental work. They drilled from under our jaws and into our mouths and caused infections. They put black stuff into our teeth as experiments. This was very painful. We were used by the government to test a new material as fillings for teeth. Today the dentists look at our mouth and tell us there was never anything wrong with our teeth in the first place. They used us to make drugs for other people. They gave so many of us vaccinations, and after the vaccinations, many people became sick with tuberculosis. Most of our people died from tuberculosis and smallpox that were given to us by the government. This was forced on us, and we had no choice. And I will answer to anyone that this is what happened to us in Big Valley in California.
- So now after hearing all the depressing news, the issue is what is to be done. So this then gives rise to the history of how we start to think about how to work on these issues differently. I have been involved in the antiviolence movement, and we were kind of getting annoyed with the approach to multiculturalism that was being adopted in these movements, which was basically, take the model that has been developed with white women in mind, and then put a medicine wheel on it, and it becomes an Indian model.
And we started to say, is there a different way to do this work? Because it seemed like all the monies we’d put into this was not really ending violence. We were not seeing a deep decline in the race of violence against women. And in particular, what we started to say is that we need to develop a different approach that’s beyond a politics of inclusion, which is just include you in this, and then we will be all diverse and feel happy with ourselves, and instead developing an approach which we called re-centering, which is, what if we centered women of color in the analysis? How would we look at this issue differently?
And when we did that, we saw that women of color, and native women in particular, are not just dealing with violence in our communities. We are also equally dealing with state violence. And as I’ve just demonstrated, the state is primarily responsible for the sexual violence in our communities. So it doesn’t really make sense to think the state is going to be the solution to the problems that it has created. It becomes clear that if we want to address what’s going on in native communities, we need an approach that addresses state violence at the same time that we’re addressing violence within our communities.
So then the question is, well, what is to be done? Well, therefore, we start to look at other models. And this is how INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence formed. And we looked to other models in terms of the restorative justice framework. If you’re not familiar with that, that’s a movement that’s part of the anti-prison movement that says, well, crime is not just between a victim and a perpetrator. Crime is about a breakdown in the whole community. So you need a community-based response.
And if somebody is not following the norms of society, does it make sense to take them even more out of society, put them in prison where they’re going to be even less likely to fit into that community when they come back? Or does it make sense to have the community develop a response that makes that person behave in an appropriate way? So this looks all very well and good, but the problem is that these models all seem to break down when it comes to domestic and sexual violence. And the reason is that they’re all based on the notion that we have a community that’s intact, that’s not sexist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic, and that they will actually side with the person who’s been victimized by violence. But as we all know, when it comes to issues of sexual and domestic violence, communities often don’t side with the woman or the person who’s been victimized by violence. They often side with the perpetrator. So they’re not going to hold him accountable.
One thing we strive to do is try to develop strategies that directly address interpersonal and state violence at the same time. And there’s been many of these, but I’ll just briefly mention one, which is a Boarding School Healing Project. If you’re not familiar with the history of boarding schools, this was the policy of the US government, which was to save the man by killing the Indian. So basically, the idea was to abduct native children from an early age, take them from their homes, force them to be Christians, force them to speak English. And there was this rampant sexual, physical, and emotional violence. And this is really where we see the large-scale introduction of violence in our communities where native children were not parented, so then they couldn’t pass that onto their own children.
And in fact, I’ve been in many workshops where we’re supposed to trace where does disfunctionality start in your family. And almost invariably, it’s a boarding school. In any case– and you might have heard in Canada, where there’s been all these lawsuits against residential schools, which was similar to the boarding schools here, and all the rampant sexual violence– there turned out to be pedophile rings involving priests and– police officers, and priests, and clergy members. There was unmarked graves in some schools where children had been buried because they had been– girls had been raped by the priests. And some people were calculating as many as 50,000 children were killed during this period. But there hasn’t been a same similar outcry in the US. And many of the documentation programs tend to present a more sanitized view of boarding school.
So we started a documentation program to document these abuses. But the idea about this was to not so much pursue individual lawsuits, but to build up a movement for collective remedy against native peoples to address the continuing effects of human rights violations perpetrated by state policy. So this enabled us to make two interventions. One, we’re able to say, well, why do we think, again, the state is going to be the solution to ending sexual violence in our communities when the state is responsible for bringing it into our communities? And at the same time, it enabled us to talk a little more freely about issues of sexual violence within our communities because we could show, look, this isn’t about we’re so dysfunctional, and that’s why we have sexual violence. This is the colonial legacy. This is the effect of state policy of we should hold the state accountable.
And as we pursue our struggle for sovereignty, then let’s make sexual violence part of that struggle, because that’s how colonization has been successful. So again, we’ve been documenting this, and we’re starting to find that the abuses that were as extreme in Kenya are happening here too. Just to give one example, one woman reported how, in her school, they used to hear babies crying all the time, and they didn’t know what it was. But then later, they tore down the school, and they found the skeletons of babies hidden in the walls of that school. So anyway, that’s one approach, as of many, where you can put the state policy together with interpersonal violence and address them simultaneously.
Another thing that we found is that one of the problems with the antiviolence movement, particularly as it got more federal and state funding, is that we stopped seeing survivors of violence as potential organizers and started seeing them only as clients for services. And consequently, that did not enable us to build a stronger and stronger base of survivors who could demand an end to violence in their lives and the lives of other peoples. So that’s why some of these projects are now trying to focus on base building, which is not just working with other activists or not just working with other advocates, but bringing new women and new, other peoples who aren’t already activists into the movement.
However, we’ve learned that in developing these models, it’s important to not just look within the US, but look at what is going on globally. Because sometimes we had the idea, well, we in the US know everything, so we should share the light to the rest of the planet. But actually, on the issues of violence, what we’ve found is that in other countries, there’s just no illusion the state is going to do anything for you at all except kill you. So groups have had to find ways to deal with violence on their own. And they’ve come up with some very interesting models.
So I will just mention one of the many that we’ve learned from, and that’s the Landless Movement in Brazil, which is very much informed by indigenous peoples’ organizing strategies. Anyways, the Landless Movement takes over area that’s been abandoned and occupied until they get the– win the right to title over this land. And they call this occupation. So during this 10-day course, they’re not going to get any help from the police because the police are trying to drive them off the land. But what they do is they’ve set their own governance system. And they say– what they do is, one, they have different sectors. But they make sure a man and a woman are equally represented in all areas of leadership. And they also say they make sure women are equally in charge of security because that makes women rethink– and other people rethink women’s vulnerability to violence. And in addition, they also make sure leadership is rotating so that there is no static hierarchical leadership.
And then finally, they also make sure that all decisions are dealt with in a very public and transparent way, because abuse tends to proliferate when there is isolation and nobody else knows what’s going on. So they make sure everything is public so that it’s harder to get away with this. Anyway, what they say is that there’s no panacea, but the longer an occupation happens, the less violence there is. So this, I think, is helpful for us in the US because we tend to focus on crisis intervention. What do you do after violence has happened? But what they are doing is creating communities where violence stops happening. So that’s what we could think to ourselves is, are new ways of governing ourselves? Are there new ways of structuring our world such that violence starts to become unthinkable?
And I think we can also then be informed by indigenous peoples’ organizing and indigenous women’s theories about nationhood and sovereignty. Because what is coming out of this work is saying that there is a difference between a nation and a nation state. So you can have national sovereignty and self-determination, but the model of governance that you might have may not be the nation state that we’re used to where somebody is in charge, and they rule by power and might, and they have a military, et cetera. And they argue that if we look to pre-colonial forms of governance, we can see alternative models in which we were governed based on inter-cooperation and mutual respect and responsibility. And the goal was not so much we’re in, you’re out, screw the rest of the world, but it was about being in a rightful and good relationship to everybody on a global scale as well as within your own particular community.
So to conclude, then, I would say that this might sound all very pie in the sky, and blah, blah, blah. But I do think it’s important to not lose track of a long-term political vision for no other reason than there’s no other way to measure whether or not your short-term strategies are working. We may not be able to envision what a world that’s not structured on oppression might look like given the fact that we’ve all been raised under this current society based on oppression, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of a collective vision and a collective movement that will go past our lifetimes and which we can contribute towards becoming closer to building the kind of world we actually want to live in.
And so I will close with a quote from John Singler from the 2003 World Social Forum. He said, quote, “we know what we don’t want, but the new world belongs to the liberated freedom of human beings. There is no way you make the way as you walk. History doesn’t fall from heaven. We make history. Thank you.
- And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Special thanks to Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy for use of their recording. Check out our website, radioproject.org, to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like Making Contact on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making_contact. The Making Contact team includes Lisa Rudman, Andrew Stelzer, Nancy Lopez, Kwan Booth, Barbara Barnett, Dan Turner, and Alton Byrd. I’m George Lavender. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.