Native American Liberation or Rights? A Critique of Perspectives on Native American Feminism
Native American Liberation or Rights? A Critique of Perspectives on Native American Feminism
by Nick Brown, originally posted at peopleofcolororganize.com
Feminism is a controversial topic amongst Native North Americans. Over the last quarter century, there has been a proliferation of books and essays expressing various views on feminism from Native women’s perspectives. M. Annette Jaimes’s in ‘American Indian Women: At the Center Stage of Resistance in North America’ (1992) assert any discussion of or identification with feminism is divisive to the struggle against colonialism and is itself a symptom of assimilation. Devon Abbott Mihesuah in ‘Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment and Activism,’ (2003) gives merit to such an argument. Mihhesuah describes Native women’s struggle against a narrowly-framed ‘colonization,’ towards the goal of ‘respect’ within a modern, multi-cultural Amerika, and she constructs a ‘feminisms’ of post-modernist identity politics. More nuanced and far better are writings by Andrea Smith, such as ‘Indigenous Feminism Without Apology’ (2006) and ‘Native American Feminism, Sovereignty, and Social Change,’ (2005) in which addressing patriarchy within native communities is said to be central to the struggle against colonization by the US.
The controversy over Indigenous feminism mirrors a larger one: the exact manner and degree to which any number of ‘progressive’ and ‘radical’ banners upheld by members of oppressor and exploiter nations relate to the struggles of the oppressed and exploited. While authors such as Jared Diamond are rather transparent in their ‘enlightened’ and ‘researched’ assuagement for to the current mode of productive (capitalist-imperialism and neo-colonialism), it has been books such as J. Sakai’s ‘Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat’ (1989) and E. Tani and Kae Sera’s ‘False Nationalism, False Internationalism: ‘ (1985), as well as more contemporary literature (Morgan: 2010) that have done the most to shed much light how ‘progressive,’ ‘Marxist’ and even ‘national liberation’ ideas have served to either disempower or demobilized oppressed masses while keeping them locked inside the various layers of the colonial/neo-colonial framework. Such writers and their contemporaries suggest the struggles of oppressed masses must address all aspects of oppression in a thorough way in order to most effectively address the most pressing forms of oppression, often national oppression and exploitation under imperialism. In turn, they assert, it is only through effectively resolving the pressing form of oppression that sweeping programs to end all oppression can be fully carried out.
Thus far, most social analysis on Native American women deals with the effects on colonization on themselves, particularly regarding their status in their communities and Amerikan society at large; the harmful role of patriarchy has played in recent struggles by American Indians against colonization; specific health issues regarding native women; and carrying forward differing visions, some better than others, of Native liberation and women’s empowerment. (Mihesuah: Chapter 4, 5) (Jaimes p. 322-36) Recent scholarship expanding on ‘Settlers’ and ‘False Nationalism’ has brought into focus on how imperialism– the division between what authors such as Samir Amin and Arghiri Emmanual have described at the core and periphery– has imparted upon the populations of imperialist countries specific class consciousness which often becomes an ideological battering ram on the struggle for self-determination and liberation of oppressed and exploited peoples.
It is intersection between these divisions that are of concern: contending visions of the past and future of Native women’s struggles, and the degree of influence of the existence of a large body of marginal exploiters on strains of thought amongst the oppressed and exploited. Feminism as a ‘white, middle class thing’ exists amongst assimilated Native women, as does feminism as a prerequisite for genuine decolonization of North America.
Devon Abbott Mihesuah’s, ‘Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment and Activism,’ while getting many things right and exposing salient issues, is an example of feminism firmly rooted in the White, exploiter world.
The title itself is a misnomer. Decolonization is rarely discussed, though many of the effect of colonization are. In a sleight of the hand, she instead reduces ‘decolonization’ to two untenable extremes: “the complete return of traditions, which also mean that whites will disappear, bison will return, dead Natives will arise, and the tribes will no longer use any material goods or political, religious, social or economic ideas brought to the New World by foreigners,” or “tribes will become self-sufficient–decolonized tribal governments will make their own decisions without interference and will no longer depend on the US government for assistance (p. 167) Absent from serious discussion is land and how control and use of it is arranged. ‘Empowerment” is thus reduced to various ‘rights’ within the existing system and that alone. She devotes two chapters to issues of Native American women and White academia. (Chapter 3, 6) She avoids any serious discussion of Native pan-nationalism and with it the need to build independent institutions in opposition to imperialist states. She instead insists on defining Natives as a ‘race’ and musing over identity politics. (Chapter 8) Though Mihesuah rightly questions the intention and effect some White writers have had in portraying Native problems, her discourse again veers to the extreme of post-modern identity politics within the framework of White academia (Chapter 3, 6) Minuesuah admits colonization is the problem and US society is as much a prop to patriarchy even in their historic resistance movements (p. 164). Yet, she spends more time criticizing the resistance movements themselves and calling into question their more radical goals (land and self-determination) than analyzing or attacking the White colonizing society. (p. 162) Indeed, she seems rather comfortable inside academia despite her protests otherwise. Mihesuah gives certain meaning to the words of M. Annette Jaimes, who is quoted in the work, stating Native women ‘feminists,’ “have tended to be among the more assimilated of Indian women activists, generally accepting of the colonists ideology that indigenous nations are now legitimate sub-parts of the US geopolitical corpus rather than separate nations, that Indian people are now a minority of their own distinctive nations. Such Indian women activists are therefore usually more devoted to ‘civil rights’ than liberation per se.” (qtd. p. 162) Indeed, Mihesuah goes to extreme lengths to fit in with White academia. Though she does a good job at highlighting the effects of colonization of Native societies and women in particular (Chapter 6), she refuses to use the correct term that defines the historical experience shared by Natives: “genocide.” The omission is stark: it is a common understanding amongst politicized Natives, yet a taboo in much of White-sponsored academia. (2) Mihesuah even goes so far as to abbreviate quotes to mask the very conception of a historic and ongoing genocide against First Nations peoples. (3)
With its many flaws, the book does raise some salient points when placed in the correct context. Questions of how patriarchal expression hurt anti-colonization struggles are relevant and have been discussed by other Native women (Smith: 2005) and anti-imperialist writers alike. (Lee, Rover) However, these good points are lost in Mihesuah’s acceptance of dominant norms and values within the US. Mihesuah isn’t concerned with social justice broadly, at least in a serious way, or else she would do more to cast doubt on the legitimacy of US society generally. Instead, she seems to seeks for herself and other Native women a place inside it. Collective liberation of Native people’s thus is replaced by the individualist “taking responsibility for our own actions.” The feminism in “Indigenous American Women” is one that will dismantle what is left of Native identity and further incorporate Natives into various rungs of the multi-national imperialist core. For Natives genuinely concerned over lost of land, self-determination and independent identity, the ‘feminism’ proposed by Mihesuah is rightly viewed with suspicion and scorn. Mihesuah ‘feminism’ further marginalizes Natives as a distinct people with a distinct collective claim on the future. Mihesuah’s post-modernism, identity politics and tacit promotion of academia generally will result in little tangible direct gains for Native people as a whole, but will further their dependence on and eventual disintegration into imperialism.
Falling more firmly in the camp of sovereignty and liberation are authors such as M. Annette Jaimes. In ‘American Indian Women: At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in Contemporary North America,’ (1992) she argues the main form of oppression Native women need to fight is colonization. ‘Feminism,’ according to Jaimes, is among many oppressor-born ideologies which weaken Native sovereignty. Quoting another Native woman, Janet McCloud, Jaimes asserts:
“Many of these ‘progressive’ non-Indian ideas like ‘class struggle’ would at present time divert us into participating as ‘equals’ in our own colonization. Or, like ‘women’s liberation,’ would divide us among ourselves in such a way as to leave us colonized in the name of ‘gender equality.’… So, let me toss out a different sort of ‘progression to all you marxists and socialists and feminists out there. You join us in liberating our land and lives. Lose the privilege you acquire at our expense by occupying our land.”
The statement certainly does call into question to Mihesuah’s feminism and White feminism generally while framing contemporary struggles of Native women as ones for collective liberation for Native people. Whatever problems it has, Jaimes’s works certainly has more merit than Miheshuah’s.
Jaimes’s work is focused at a wider audience, and hence is more forthcoming on critiques of the US and society society generally. Jaimes presents a solid narrative in which the US actively built up patriarchy amongst Indigenous societies where it had not previously existed. (p. 322) Prior to contact, Jaimes claims, most Indigenous societies were matrilineal with strong religious reverence for the feminine. (p. 316-18) Thus she asserts, “The disempowerment of Native women corresponded precisely with the extension of colonial domination of each indigenous nation.” (p. 323) Native women, Jaimes contends, did not passively accept their subjugation. Instead, “female fighters were never uncommon once the necessities of real warfare was imposed by Euroamericans.” (p. 316) Jaimes discusses many of the same issues as Mihesuah, such as Native women’s health issues in the wake of colonization (p. 326)
Jaimes’s view on feminism is best summed up when she states, “Women’s liberation, in the view of most ‘minority’ women in the United States and Canada, cannot occur in any context other than the wider liberation, from Euroamerican colonial domination, of the peoples of which women of color are a part. Our sense of priorities is therefore radically…different from those espoused by the ‘mainstream’ women’s movement. ” Jaimes sees alliances between different women of color organizations working to end “racial and cultural” as well as gender oppression as strategic in realizing the “core agenda” for Natives: “the recovery of land and resources, reassertion of self determining forms of government, and reconstitution of traditional social relations within our community.” (p. 336)
Unlike Mihesuah’s work, Jaimes combines aspirations of national and women’s liberation. Her own vision is firmly rooted in national liberation, collectivism and social equalitarianism. This stands in contrast to the ill-defined ‘empowerment’ and bourgeois individualism of Mihesuah.
Where nuance is lacking in Jaimes’s analysis, it is put forward by Andrea Smith, who describes herself as a ‘feminist without apologies.’ (2006) This should not be taken as a complete refutation of Jaimes’s ideas and a move towards Mihesuah’s. Rather, it marks the reflection that has occurred on the part of many Native women activists since Jaimes’s essay was published. Though criticism of White and post-modern feminism remain, Native women have grown more comfortable with the suggestions of Jaimes’s and have become more accustomed with a women of color approach. Hence, ‘Indigenous feminism’ is said to be a central force for ‘revolutionary change.’
In ‘Native American Feminism”, Smith opens by discussing Jaimes’s work. “The critique and rejection of the label feminism made by Jaimes is important and shared by many Native women activists,” Smith writes. “However, it fails to tell the whole story.” For Smith, the struggle against colonialism and the struggle against patriarchy are intimately connected: “It has been through sexual violence and through the imposition of European gender relationships on Native communities that Europeans were able to colonize Native peoples in the first place. If we maintain these patriarchal gender systems in place, we are then unable to decolonize and fully assert our sovereignty.” (Ibid) In a sense, Smith seeks to reclaim ‘feminism’ for the struggle of the oppressed and disentangle the term from White feminists and academia.
Smith, it could be asserted, is as Indigenous ‘without apology’ as she is feminist:
“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.” (2006)
This quote occurs within a wider discussion of Indigenous feminism’s radical vision for the future:
“Whereas nation-states are governed through domination and coercion, indigenous sovereignty and nationhood is predicated on interrelatedness and responsibility.[...]” (4)
“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….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.” (Ibid) Regardless of labels, Smith is most dedicated to the struggles of her people while singling out the US as an entity with many enemies. Her essays are predicated on the idea that the US will come to an end, not solely through the struggles of Natives people but by the struggles of all those who have faced colonization.
Smith’s essays, while typified by its ‘feminism,’ could also be described as ‘pan-Native’ and pan-oppressed. Her ‘Indigenous feminism’ is universal and part of larger current of the oppressed, a sharp difference from that constructed by either Jaimes or Mihesuah. Living up to one’s feminist, native and internationalist duty, for Smith, are all one in the same; not being a feminist is a sign of cognitive colonization. (2006)
Though Smith’s essays are the best from those surveyed, that it not to say they are without fault. Smith (as well as Jaimes), while hinting at unity between the vast, Third World-centered, modern proletariat (as well as those displaced from it) and those of internal colonies inside the US and Kanada, never states so in undiluted terms. She is certainly not focused on Third World women, said by some to be the backbone of the modern proletariat (Lee, Rover: 1993) (Lee 2003) , and Smith herself may be guilty of what White feminism is accused of all along: ignoring the determinant experience and agency of those oppressed in different, yet fundamental ways. More directly, insofar as Smith is genuine about her vision, which she herself states is ‘revolutionary,’ Smith lacks clarity on the primary questions of any revolutionary struggle: ‘Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?’ and the question of, ‘how to unite real friends of the revolution against real enemies of the revolution?’ (Mao: 1926) Surely, Native women authors such as M. Annette Jaimes and Andrea Smith must more seriously analyze how their efforts of decolonization and national liberation in North America may coincide with the struggles of the Third World’s people’s struggles against exploitation by Amerikan imperialism, particularly how these struggles may strengthen and reinforce one another.
Additional attention must be paid to White and otherwise co-opted ‘allies’ of Natives and the ideologies they harbor. While many Amerikan “liberals” are too chauvinist to even provide lip service to Native struggles (5), others traffic themselves as variously named allies while objectively working to weaken Indigenous sovereignty and with further Native dependency on their colonizers.
These are dangerous elements for two reasons.
The first problem is their preference for integrationist, pro-white strategies, within the framework of preference towards modern imperialism. Between the intersections of historic colonization and genocide of First Nations peoples and the current exploitation and class warfare against Third World peoples, we discover that White feminism isn’t simply White feminism, it’s also imperialist feminism. Feminism such as Mihesuah, despite its ‘Indigenous’ wrapping, legitimizes both the US settler-imperialist claim over the land, resources and captive, Native peoples of North America and its similar claim to the land, resources and labor over much of the world.
What really makes things like ‘white feminism’ and First Worldist ‘Marxism’ dangerous is their hijacking of the term ‘Marxism’ and ‘feminism’ and at face value the ideas. Both Marxism and feminism are truthful at core and both are quite necessary to the struggle of oppressed and exploited peoples. Yet today, the terms ‘Marxism’ and ‘feminism’ can easily be associated with imperialism and First World chauvinism. This comes at huge expense to the struggle of the captive, oppressed nations and Third World peoples. And, if a co-opted ‘Marxism’ and ‘feminism’ can become divorced from the interests of Indigenous people, as Mihesuah clearly demonstrates, the possible certainly exists that ‘Indigenous liberation’ can as well.
It is along this terrain in which essays such as Andrea Smith’s become important. Jaimes decades ago rejected the term ‘feminism’ in favor of ‘tribalism’ for the very reasons Mihesuah would come to typify. Smith, in turn, sought to reclaim both feminism and Native identity from Native women writers like Mihesuah with little interest in Native national liberation. Smith’s writing is both a challenge to Jaimes’s and Mihesuah’s.
Yet the ideas of Smith face their own challenge. As writers such J. Sakai (1985), E. Tani and Kae Sera (1985), Butch Lee and Red Rover (1993) and Shubel Morgan (2010) have illustrated, the disorientating effects of imperialist bribery is one mainly directed at the oppressed and exploited, not necessarily those getting directly bought-off. (6) It is with this dynamic that larger questions around Smith essays ‘Indigenous feminism’ emerge. While Smith’s pan-Native outlook and women of color feminism is a positive few steps from both the ideas of Jamies’s and even moreso Mihesuah’s, it still remains to be said in clear, practical terms what ‘Natives’ and which ‘women of color’ Smith’s framework applies to. That’s not to say Smith essay’s are not with merit, but these terms must be clarified to include the vast majority of women, primarily imprisoned behind imperialist borders in the Third World. Only in this manner can the ‘revolutionary’ content of Indigenous feminism be carried forward.
(1) This whole essay is predicated on the unpopular notion that your average Amerikan (a spelling of differentiation) and First Worlders consume more in terms of labor than they expend, themselves being petty-exploiters of a Third World-based proletariat via their relationship to imperialism. Implications aside, much of the discussion may be lost on the reader without understanding such predication.
(2) For example, in my experience two out of three history professors I’ve encountered claim what happened to Native Americans could perhaps be describes as an “unintentional genocide,” but not an actual “genocide.” One of the offending professors claimed to teach Native American history.
(3) Consider the following change Mihesuah makes to this quote by Lorelei DeCora, co-founder of the Women’s of All Red Nations:
“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 on the agenda, the whole agenda, and until it is accomplished, it is the only agenda that counts for American Indians…”
“”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…. Decolonization is on the agenda, the whole agenda, and until it is accomplished, it is the only agenda that counts for American Indians.”
(4) Smith elsewhere in her essays states she doesn’t think everything will ‘go back as before.’ Instead, her ‘universal Indigenism’ (not to be confused with ‘Fourth Worldism’ as espoused by Native authors like Ward Churchill), reminds me of Marx, whom it seems quite purposefully used the term ‘primitive communism’ to describe pre-feudal societies.
(5) Or are so chauvinist they only many mention Natives in ethnocentric tertiary comments. For a good example of this on the part of Barbara Ehrenreich, see Jaimes p. 315.
(6) For early discussion on imperialist bribery, see DuBois: 1915 and Lenin: 1916
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Lee, B., & Rover, R. (1993). Night-vision: illuminating war & class on the neo-colonial terrain. New York: Vagabond.
Lee, B. (2003). The military strategy of women and children . Chicago, Ill: Beguine Press.
Lenin, V. I. (1916, October). Imperialism and the Split in Socialism. Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm
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Morgan, S. (2010.). Reflections on, ‘On the Theory of the Productive Forces.’. People’s War Press. Retrieved April 1, 2011, from http://peopleswarpress.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/reflectiontopf.pdf
Sakai, J. (1989). Settlers: the mythology of the white proletariat (3rd ed.). Chicago: Morningstar Press.
Smith, A. (2005). Native American Feminism, Sovereignty, and Social Change. Feminist Studies, 31(1), 116-132 . Retrieved April 1, 2011, from http://www.jstor.org/pss/20459010
Smith, A. (2006). Indigenous feminism without apology – Decentering white feminism. AWID. Retrieved April 1, 2011, from http://secure1.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Indigenous-feminism-without-apology-Decentering-white-feminism
Tani, E., & Sera, K. (1985). False nationalism, false internationalism: class contradictions in the armed struggle. S.l.: Seeds Beneath the Snow Publication.