17 Disrupting Systems of Oppression by Re-centering Indigenous Feminisms

By Luhui Whitebear, Oregon State University

Illustration of author Luhui Whitebear in red shirt, long white and black necklace, and one earring showing
Luhui Whitebear by Nicole Carter

In the context of the Americas and Pacific Islands, settler colonialism has continued to have devastating impacts on Indigenous women and LGBTQ2S people’s lives.[1] By settler colonialism, I am referring to the systems, mindsets, and violences that are embedded in our everyday lives in ways that continue to center and prioritize Euro-centric ideals as superior to Indigenous based ways of knowing and living. Haunani-Kay Trask directly reminds us of the layered ways these systems are built:

Genocide: European conquest of the Americas.

Colonialism: The historical process of conquest and exploitation.

The United State of America: a country created out of genocide and colonialism.

Today, the United States is the most powerful country in the world, a violent country created out of the bloody extermination of Native peoples, the enslavement of forcibly transported peoples, and the continuing oppression of dark-skinned peoples.

The color of violence, then, is the color of white over black, white over brown, white over red, white over yellow. It is the violence of the north over south, of continents over archipelagoes, of settlers over natives and slaves (2004, 9).

Indigenous feminisms asks us to recognize the afore described systems to think about how they impact us both historically and in the present while also imagining futures in which we are liberated from these violences.

While this essay does not focus on sovereignty specifically, I ask the reader to keep in mind that it is Indigenous people’s rights to govern our lands, our bodies, and our communities. In the context of the United States and Canada, there are treaty obligations that come with this conversation that both allow and limit Tribal Nations to fully operate in ways that are truly sovereign from the settler state. Indigenous feminisms understand this complexity and asserts that Indigenous people have the inherent right to sovereignty in a complete sense; one free from the constraints settler states impose via legal restrictions.

Settler colonialism has impacted our ability, as Indigenous people, to assert our voices, knowledges, and scholarship in the academy. For example, Indigenous feminisms are often framed as an accessory to GWSS rather than central to the field. This is not enough. I am in agreement with Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill in their assertion that, “unmasking the forces that have hidden Indigenous women and Native feminist theories within gender and women’s studies therefore requires critical reflection and a commitment towards structural change” (2013, 14). In this essay I will discuss what it means to re-center Indigenous feminisms in GWSS as well as in feminist work and activism more broadly. It is important to note that when I discuss Indigenous women in this essay, it always includes Indigenous trans women.

As Luana Ross reminds us, “in academia, terminology can be used to exclude and disempower groups. Obviously, this is damaging to indigenous people who struggle to maintain their sovereign powers” (2009, 47). Therefore, to begin this conversation, we need to understand what is meant by Indigenous feminisms. I use the term “Indigenous feminisms” as a plural in order to recognize that there is no single definition of either feminism or Indigeneity. Additionally, this recognition of multiple definitions offers that it is possible for many paradigms to exist at the same time (Wilson 2008, 7). It is also important to understand that we are operating and existing on Indigenous lands no matter where we are moving. With that comes a responsibility to honor and center the people’s knowledges from those lands. Otherwise, we are participating in settler colonial modes of existence and domination. We must understand what Indigenous connections to lands means: It is not about ownership but rather a relationship. This relationality to land and each other is based on respect, which is counter to settler colonialism’s ownership approach. The ownership over lands and bodies is interconnected in violent ways, particularly towards Indigenous women’s bodies (Smith 2005, 55). It is a form of gendered violence that is enacted by the settler state and carried forward as part of the settler colonial process. For Indigenous women, this started with European contact and is still felt today.

The violences towards Indigenous bodies and lands are intertwined and part of the settler colonial paradigm. At its root, Indigenous feminism is about these connections as well as the ways in which settler colonialism has inflicted gendered violence on our bodies and spirits because of who we are as Indigenous people. For example, Andrea Smith explains that Indigenous women birthing children is a threat to the colonial project’s ultimate goal of genocide: “Native women, whose ability to reproduce continues to stand in the way of the continuing conquest of Native lands, endangering the continued success of colonization” (2005, 79). The focus here is cis-women’s bodies but this is not to suggest that colonial violence towards Indigenous women spared Indigenous trans women and Two-Spirit people. Qwo-Li Driskill discusses the ways in which Two-Spirit people have been stolen from their bodies as well as their lands and that, “as Native people, our erotic lives and identities have been colonized along with our homelands” (2004, 52). Cis-heteropatriarchy is a basis from which these settler systems are built. Colonizers thus view(ed) Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people as threats to their settler colonial systems. Indigenous feminisms teaches us that understanding these interconnections and addressing misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia as simultaneous and inseparable are critical for interrupting settler colonial systems.

Indigenous feminisms allows us to focus on gendered violences from both within and outside our communities. Hilary Weaver offers that:

to eradicate violence against indigenous women, we must (a) recognize the societal context as a factor that perpetuates violence, (b) decolonize American society, (c) eradicate stereotypes, (d) recognize and address the global context of violence, (e) move toward activism and advocacy, and (f) cultivate the will to change (2009, 1558).

In recognizing the structures that exist that make these violences possible, we can work towards dismantling these structures and creating changes that impact all people. Further, Ross asserts that feminist circles allowed space for Indigenous women who “yearned to speak of violence and sexism in their respective communities” (2009, 45). Eradicating gendered violence in Indigenous communities has often been framed as secondary to efforts against settler colonial control, rather than integral to these efforts. Likewise, gendered violence towards Indigenous people is often lost in GWSS and in conversations about transnational feminism. Indigenous feminisms offers a lens that helps us understand the role settler colonialism plays in cis-heteropatriarchal systems of oppression, including violence, that draws on Indigenous knowledge and experiences.

As Paula Gunn Allen reminds us, “we as feminists must be aware of our history on this continent” (1986, 214). We must recognize the “deep roots” Indigenous feminisms have in these lands. Since contact with European colonizers, Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people have been defending our bodies and connections to lands as well as reclaiming our identities and knowledges. Our identities are tied to these lands. The violences towards both have been fueled by settler colonialism. As such, the healing both require is based in our Indigenous knowledge systems and practices. It is through the efforts of our ancestors that we are here today to continue this work, and to help work towards the liberation of all people from the exploitation of settler colonialism. Driskill writes:

We were stolen from our bodies, but now we are taking ourselves back. First Nations Two-Spirits are blooming like dandelions in the landscape of a racist, homophobic, and transphobic culture’s ordered garden. Through over 500 years of colonization’s efforts to kill our startling beauty, our roots have proven too deep and complicated to pull out of the soil of our origin, the soil where we are nurtured by the sacrifices that were made by our ancestors’ commitment to love us (2004, 61).

Indigenous feminisms have been a means to do this work within and outside our communities. It is built off that ancestral love Driskill writes about and is centered on the generations to come.

As Indigenous activists, we bring these same types of teachings grounded by our ancestors’ love. We strive for liberation for our bodies, lands, and spirits. We push back on the notion that settler colonialism is superior or good. We understand that settler constructs were not made for us or other communities of color, and that they are built upon the ideology and practice of white supremacy.

It is the gendered violence towards Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people upon which these same systems are built. In order to push back against systems of oppression, both inside and outside of academia, GWSS must center Indigenous feminisms. As a field, GWSS has a responsibility to honor these truths by centering Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people’s voices in the curriculum offered. It is when we begin to unpack and unravel the complex histories that we begin to fully understand the issues we face today. We are able to seek alliances and build solidarities across communities. It is then that we can address the issues perpetuated by the systems of oppression in which we all live; collectively we can find ways to challenge them. This can happen in so many ways. I urge my Indigenous colleagues and non-Indigenous allies to include more courses that focus on Indigenous Feminisms, Indigenous Queer and Two-Spirit people, and settler colonialism’s impact, and where possible, taught by Indigenous people. I also urge folks to bring in as many Indigenous feminist guest speakers, documentaries, and readings as possible to both courses and community spaces. This essay seeks to open a door to understanding the necessity of Indigenous feminisms and is not intended to leave the reader satisfied. It is a doorway and invitation to continue to learn more.

Works cited and recommended readings:

Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. 2013. “Decolonizing feminism: Challenging connections between settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy,” in Feminist Formations. 25(1), 8-34.

Driskill, Qwo-Li. 2004. “Stolen from our bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/queers and the journey to a sovereign erotic,” in Studies in American Indian Literatures. 16(2): 50-64.

—–. 2016. Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Gunn Allen, Paula. 1986. The Scared Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Maracle, Lee. 1996, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism. BC, Canada: Press Gang Publishers.

Miranda, Deborah. 2013. Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir. Berkeley, CA: Heyday.

Ross, Luana. 2009. “From the ‘F’ word to Indigenous/feminisms,” in Wicazo Sa Review. 24(2): 39-52.

Simpson, Leann Betasamosake. 2017. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Trask, Haunani Kay. 2004. “The color of violence: Genocide and colonialism in California,” in Social Justice. 31(4): 8–16.

Weaver, Hillary. 2009. “The Colonial Context of Violence Reflections on Violence in the Lives of Native American Women,” in Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 24(9): 1552-1563.

Wilson, Shawn. 2008. Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. NS, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

  1. Special thanks to the OSU Indigenous Graduate Student Writing Group members (Andrés Lopez, LK Mae, Valerie Goodness) who helped review this essay as well as Adam Haley from the OSU Graduate Writing Center.

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