Professor Chris Cormier Hayes
Multicultural Core Course (MCC) 101 Section 12
December 2, 2007
Sexual Violence Against Native American Women
In a society where the theft of culture and the colonization of people are celebrated through holidays like Thanksgiving or Columbus Day, it is not surprising to hear that American Indian women are targeted for sexual violence. Over the five hundred years that this land has been occupied by "the White man," the exponential amount of rape against Native women continues to be unheard. This has occurred for various reasons: the ethnocide of the indigenous peoples, the weakening of gynocracies, the alteration of historical facts and culture, the "savage" stereotype, governmental downplay, uninterested police, and many others. Why are American Indian women targeted for sexual violence?
Before the European colonizers arrived to the Americas, the American Indian tribes almost had a utopia. Their gynecentric system is unbeknown to the world today. Women's lives were valued much greater than the men's. In the tribe of the Iroquois and many others, the death of a woman was punished twice as much than if a man was killed, partly because they considered the death of a woman as a reproductive loss (Allen 32). The tribes were led, fought, resolved, raised by, and their race was considered passed on by the women (202-8). When Columbus arrived, he was astounded that the tribes had made no attempt to convert to totalitarian agriculture (the locking up of food to turn it into a form of currency) or to form hierarchal class systems (215). The European colonizers were used to patriarchal societies in which men were the authoritative figures and usually have numerous forms of control, one of which was class. William Brandon, a historian, refers to the European reaction:
…the Indian seemed free, to European eyes… to the European soul shaped by centuries of toil and tyranny… the Indian world gave an impression of classlessness, propertylessness… and [thus exercised] 'humanity unrestrained… in the exercise of liberty absolute'. (Brandon 7-8)
The outsider view, tainted by years of oppression and inequality, immediately saw their differences as blasphemous. They quickly began to ruin the Native societies because of their differences: the women were too powerful, the people were too free, and they enjoyed ultimate equality (though the women were more revered). The pre-colonization population is estimated at 20 to 45 million (Allen 188). According to the 2000 Census, there are only 2.5 million full bloods existing today. In addition to the genocidal tactics that the Europeans used, the targeting of American Indian women has continued today.
In order to conquer a people, the leaders must be discredited. Since many Native societies were gynecocracies, especially in the Keres tribe, the colonizers targeted the women (Allen 209). In the countries that they came from, the men dominated. Paula Gunn Allen explains that if the "white women discovered that all women were not mistreated, they might have been intolerant of their men's abusiveness" (Smith 23). Therefore, with great effort, they altered the Indian culture to mirror theirs. The colonizers, "literally brutalizes her [the Native], while symbolically brutalizing the white women" (22). The men, who greatly enjoyed their patriarchal power, were scared that their own women would revolt upon seeing the power of women in Native societies. One of the ways that they did this, and continue to do so, is by raping American Indian women and propagandizing against them.
There is an ongoing campaign to twist the American Indian history into something that it is not. In the past, the colonizers portrayed Native men as savages and the women as submissive prostitutes. When white women decided to stay with Native societies, which happened 40% of the time, the colonizers said that Native men had abducted them (Smith 21). The colonizers secretly controlled the white women by minimizing their potential to overthrow the patriarchy and instantaneously created the illusion that they had rescued them from "savages" (21). However, the Europeans were the true abductors. They colonized Native women when they captured them and forced them into the colonizer's society. The Mariposa Gazette, a newspaper at the time, said that they made the Natives, "neat, and tidy, and industrious, and soon learn to discharge domestic duties" (23). They needed to domesticate the Native women to take away their power and force them to conform to the same gender role that the white woman had to. These occurrences have been portrayed in the present day media and stories that are told to children.
In the movie Pocahontas, the truth about Native women was greatly obstructed. It gives the message that Native women are submissive and disloyal. Yet, this emblemizes nothing of the real Native culture. It is true that they are willing to share everything, but it is not true Native woman would betray her own people. In the Cheyennes tribe they had "a number of strong women fighters". The Cherokee have the Da'nawa-gasta, which is a "tough warrior and head of a women's military society". They also had the power to "decide the fate of their captives" (Jaimes 316). They led many battles against the colonizers to defend their societies that they led and were unwilling to negotiate unless it benefited their people. In The New World, a movie from 2005, they show Pocahontas go to Europe with John Smith. She puts on a corset, high heels, and bathes extensively. This portrays her as needed to be cleansed, which is further stated when they convert her to Christianity. She also has a child with him, which greatly goes against the true Native culture in which the lineage is matrilineal and is to be preserved. The propaganda has continued, causing Native women to be confused with their identity.
Modern American Indian women are stuck in two cultures: the whites and the remainder of their own. In their small bit of land, they are surrounded by an intrusive culture. To survive, they must conform to the capitalistic system and submissive gender role of their conquerors. Their ancestors had ultimate freedom: everything was shared and the power of the female was acknowledged. This system, or lack thereof, is nonexistent today. It is not because of its fallibility but because of the threat of equality. If equality existed, the power of one would never be greater than another. This paradox confuses the native population. Allen describes:
Indian women… are in a bicultural bind: we vacillate between being dependent and strong, self-reliant and powerless, strongly motivated and helplessly insecure…we are unhappy prey to the self-disparagement common to… Indians in the United States today. (49)
The "bicultural bind" weakens the psyche of the Native women. Stuck between the ghost of a culture that strongly values them and the oppressive American government that silences their voices, the women suffer greatly. A lot of their culture has not survived, and the parts that have are denied by the mainstream history. While their former culture had given them much power, they are now victims to the image that society portrays them as today: powerless savages. This impacts the Native American rape victims the most. After being sexually violated, a Native woman experiences more helplessness than a non-Native woman.
Native American women are targeted for sexual violence and rarely receive recognition. For the whole population of the United States, one in five women are raped. For Native American women, more than one in three women are raped and are 2.5 times more likely to be a victim of sexual violence than white women. In addition to rape, 50% of the Native victims are attacked with physical violence. Due to cultural differences, many do not even report the rape ("Maze of Injustice"). This occurs for several reasons, one being that health workers and police "tend to focus on a woman's blood alcohol level at the time of the rape rather than a sexual violence" (Helgeland 1). Another major struggle for recognition of their sexual violence is the confusion of “whether state, tribal or federal police are to respond” (“Senate...”). Therefore, forensic examinations are not made and their cases cannot be prosecuted. The justice system often does nothing to help the victims. Native American women are extremely apprehensive to report rape due to the overwhelming complexity of the process. In order for Native women to receive help, they must first be recognized as credible people and treated with respect.
European colonizers raped the Native women because they did not recognize them as people, which is the foundation of the present day sexual violence. They believed that Native's were "dirty," "polluted with sexual sin," and "impure" (Smith 10). By making them into "savages," it was then acceptable to rape, mutilate, or kill them. They performed gruesome acts like cutting children from the "palpitating body of its mother," raping wives in front of their husbands, cutting out genital organs and then murdering them, and cutting out "woman's private parts and… on exhibition on a stick" (Smith 11). To cover up their acts, they blamed the Indian men for it, which was believed by almost everyone due to colonial propaganda (Smith 12). These atrocities have built the foreground for sexual violence. To escape responsibility, they shifted the blame from the colonizers unto the white men.
To cover up the rapist's acts, the Europeans used colonial propaganda to convince everyone that the Native men were the perpetrators. This practice has continued today. American Indian men have been portrayed historically as animal warriors with no mercy; presently they are stereotyped as alcoholics, violent, and addicted. This not only serves the purpose of destroying their credibility, but also to use them as a scapegoat. In the past, the white men wanted their women to rely on them for safety from the savages (Smith 22). Presently, Indian men are still blamed for sexual violence. In Minnesota in the year 1995, a woman identified her rapist as a "white 25 year old with a shag haircut" (26). The man who was charged was a full-blooded Native American man that was 35 with long hair. The majority of rapists are often the same race as the victim, but this is not true for Native Americans. The greatest percentages of perpetrators are white men, which make up 86% of the sexual violators ("Maze of Injustice"). Yet, the judicial system still persecutes innocent Native men, which shows the continued influence of European propaganda that has taken on a new form. By disregarding the fact that a rape victim's perpetrator was white and by not penalizing the real rapist, the brute history of the colonizers continues to victimize Native women.
Today, Native women are still dehumanized. In a porno from 1999 titled Native Tongue, "Cherokee" girls perform sexual favors on a white man. The first statement says that each girl is of "Cherokee ancestry". They state, "I was taught to worship nature and honor my traditional religion. They knew how connected everything was" (Smith 127). They go on to state that they can learn from "animals" and then have sex "doggy-style" (127). This portrays Native women as sexually promiscuous and that they will consent to sex. It also exploits their religion by saying that the Native culture promotes sexual acts between a white man and a Native, which is not true. In a video game called "Custer's Revenge" in 1988, the white man rapes an Indian women with the slogan, "when you score, you score" (29). Both of these examples promote the mentality that women are rapeable and will consent, and if they do not, it doesn't matter. Native women then pay the consequences through the humiliation and are targeted for sexual violence.
Rape is detrimental to any women, but is even more so to a Native American. Due to the lack of recognition and the racism behind it, many women internalize their problems. Even those that are not victims have problems dealing with sex. A Native boarding school student wrote, "you better not touch yourself… if I looked at somebody… lust, sex… I got scared of those sexual feelings… if intercourse is a sin, why are people born?" (12). The confliction of two cultures and the fear of sexual violence have confused many Native women. They are often embarrassed about being the race that they are. In response to being raped, many women claim that they "no longer want to be Indian" (8). Rape is a violation of their identity because of the history behind it and the way that people deal with them because they are Native. This mentality is a result of past propaganda that continues today. The media and history portrays American Indian women as being the opposite of what they really are in their culture: submissive, traitors, sexually promiscuous, and unimportant. This results in Native women being ashamed of themselves, and even if the portrayal is inaccurate, it can lead to suicide and self-hatred.
A woman named Rhea was raped and severely beaten by four men in 2003 on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. After being raped, she tried to overdose on an anti-diabetic medication. She was brought to a hospital where she lied in the bed "beat up, with big black eyes" ("Maze of Injustice"). The police came but were forced to talk to her friend due to the victim's inability to do so. Two weeks after the rape she died; a year after her rape case was still closed ("Maze of Injustice"). Rhea's story epitomizes the story of all Native American women: the struggle for self-respect and the struggle against helplessness in a postcolonial world. In response to the flawed system that perpetuates the attacks on Native women, they have given up. If their culture hadn't been so violently suppressed, they would have the strength to fight back- physically and mentally.
Native American women were first targeted because their power needed to be handed over to the white man. What about the modern day? They are still targeted and nothing is being done to stop them. Native women are easy targets; their perpetrators will go unpunished and the women will not be recognized as victims. This inhumane treatment has been perpetuated by the propaganda against Native Americans. It has been used as an instrument to dehumanize and violate them and is still being used today. The United States government does not recognize the need for federal intervention in the growing sexual violence dilemma. Therefore, the Native women's voices are unheard. Their bodies are mutilated. They are killing themselves. The powerful Native American women that have fought to hold onto their culture, to keep their tribes alive, and to raise their children- are being targeted. What will you do?
Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian
Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
Amnesty International. “Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from
sexual violence in the USA.” 24 Apr. 2007.
Brandon, William. The Last Americans: The Indian in American Culture. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1971.
Grounds, Richard A., George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkens eds. Native Voices:
American Indian Identity and Resistance. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
Helgeland, Annalyssa. “Project Protocol working for Native American victims of sexual
violence.” The Circle: News from an American Indian Perspective. 31 Jul. 1999.
Ethnic News Watch. ProQuest. 2 Dec 2007.
Jaimes, M. Annette and Theresa Halsey. “American Indian Women: At the Center of
Indigenous Resistance in Contemporary North America.” The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. Jaime, M. Annette ed. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
“Senate hears testimonies of sexual assault on reservations.” The Circle: News from an
American Indian Perspective. 12 Oct. 2007. Ethnic News Watch. Pro Quest. 2 Dec. 2007. .
Smith, Andrea. Conquest: sexual violence and American Indian genocide. Cambridge:
South End Press, 2005.
United States Department of Commerce. Economics and Statistics Administration. The
American Indian and Alaska Population: 2000. Feb. 2002. 2 Dec. 2007. http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/c2kbr01-15.pdf.