Recently I was reading this article by Jenni Monet for CNN about some of the different issues surrounding Native Americans portrayal that have been making headlines, probably some that you’ve noticed. From Karlie Kloss in an offensive “Native American-style headdress” on the Victoria’s Secret runway to the video “Looking Hot” by No Doubt, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the way that Native Americans are represented and discussed in our culture. As the article cites, many people felt that these incidents shouldn’t have been perceived as offensive. Yet there is a more systemic problem that underlies these responses.
As Monet writes, “what lies at the core of these sexually charged fetishizations of Native women is an ongoing fight to protect the safety of Native women. According to congressional findings of the 2010 Tribal Law & Order Act (PDF), 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped; 39% will be subjected to domestic violence. That is more than twice the national average. In addition, the 2008 study by the National Institute of Justice (PDF) suggests that on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the rate of their non-native counterparts.” That’s astonishing. Really, its so outrageous and upsetting that this isn’t garnering more attention, but as Monet later points out, while there are blogs and Facebook posts about it, the only real people who seem to be noticing are people within the native community.
This is a question that I’ve been pondering for a long time, probably about a year or so. What can feminists contribute to this issue? Is there even a place where I can contribute, based on where I intersect with feminism? My understanding, my placement as a feminist, while empowering and powerful for me, is from such as very different place than one that perhaps a Native American woman could relate to. I certainly face challenges as a woman, but I can also acknowledge the multitude of privileges that I have access to based on my sexual orientation, skin color and socioeconomic status.
I read from “Native American Feminism, Sovereignty, and Social Change” by Andrea Smith. She interviews many Native American women who feel that they cannot identify with Western Feminism, because, as Lorelai DeCora, an activist for Native peoples says “We are American Indian women, in that order. We are oppressed, first and foremost, as American Indians, as peoples colonized by the United States of America, not as women. As Indians, we can never forget that. Our survival, the survival of every one of us-man, woman and child-as Indians depends on it. Decolonization is the agenda, the whole agenda, and until it is accomplished, it is the only agenda that counts for American Indians. You start to get the idea maybe all this feminism business is just another extension of the same old racist, colonialist mentality?” (pg. 117)
It can be hard to acknowledge this from my feminist standpoint, after all, I wasn’t on the receiving end of this aspect of colonial America. But there are many Native American women who do either identify as feminists or who agree with many feminist issues, such as abortion rights, birth control, and “workforce equality. Yet still the question for me remains, how do I interact with what is ( and probably rightly so when considering this perspective) essentially a rejection of my western feminist understanding? As Smith includes, many Native American women reject the feminist label because they view it as an alignment with the imperial “white” heritage that oppresses them (pg. 120). I don’t have time to do justice to all that Smith writes but I do believe that it is as simple as creating a dialogue, creating a space where we listen, we hear what Native American women are saying. We support, we talk, but we allow them to create a space, a movement where they can directly address that issues they face. Instead of forcing or expecting them to conform to a “feminist” label, lets acknowledge that when we say “the personal is political”, that the personal can take on many different appearances and names.
Native American Feminism, Sovereignty, and Social Change