Colonialism, Genocide, and Gender Violence: Indigenous Women

Colonialism, Genocide, and Gender Violence: Indigenous Women

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December 15, 2006

I found this a couple days ago. It is a very important and revealing essay about the reality of Indigenous People, particularly Indigenous Women – have faced and continue to face in Colonial North America.

Before reading any further, I feel obligated to warn you that this essay describes historical acts of torture, murder, rape, and other cruel and abhorrent acts perpetrated against indigenous Women.

Please tread lightly when reading this.

Colonizers have long tried to crush the spirit of the Indian peoples and blunt their will to resist colonization. One of the most devastating weapons of conquest has been sexual violence.

In the eyes of colonizers, Indian bodies are inherently “dirty.” White Californians of the 1860s called Native people “the dirtiest lot of human beings on earth.” They described Indians as dressed in “filthy rags, with their persons unwashed, hair uncombed and swarming with vermin.” In 1885, a Proctor & Gamble ad used this image to advertize Ivory Soap:

We were once factious, 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, where’er we go
This cake of IVORY SOAP to show
What civilized my squaw and me
And made us clean and fair to see.

In the colonial worldview, only “clean” and “pure” bodies deserve to be protected from violence. Violence done to “dirty” or “impure” bodies simply does not count. For example, prostitutes are seldom believed when they are raped because the dominant society considers the prostitute’s body violable at all times. Because Indian bodies are also seen as “dirty,” they too are considered “rapable.” The practice of mutilating Indian bodies, both living and dead, makes it clear that colonizers do not think Indian people deserve bodily integrity. This attitude dates back to the earliest periods of westward conquest:

I saw the body of White Antelope with the privates cut off, and I heard a soldier say he was going to make a tobacco-pouch out of them.

At night Dr. Rufus Choate, [and] Lieutenant Wentz C. Miller . . . went up the ravine, decapitated the dead Qua-ha-das, and placing the heads in some gunny sacks, brought them back to be boiled out for future scientific knowledge.

Each of the braves was shot down and scalped by the wild volunteers, who out with their knives and cutting two parallel gashes down their backs, would strip the skin from the quivering flesh to make razor straps of.

One more dexterous than the rest, proceeded to flay the chief’s [Tecumseh’s] body; then, cutting the skin in narrow strips . . . at once, a supply of razor-straps for the more “ferocious” of his brethren.

Andrew Jackson . . . supervised the mutilation of 800 or so Creek Indian corpses — the bodies of men, women and children that he and his men massacred — cutting off their noses to count and preserve a record of the dead, slicing long strips of flesh from their bodies to tan and turn into bridle reins.

This history of violence has taught many Indian people to hate their bodies and, because body image is related to self-esteem, to hate themselves. Thus, it is not a surprise that Indian people who have survived sexual abuse often say that they no longer wish to be Indian. The Menominee poet Chrystos writes in such a voice in her poem “Old Indian Granny:”

You told me about all the Indian women you counsel
who say they don’t want to be Indian anymore
because a white man or an Indian one raped them
or killed their brother
or somebody tried to run them over in the street
or insulted them or all of it
our daily bread of hate
Sometimes I don’t want to be an Indian either
but I’ve never said so out loud before
Since I’m so proud & political
I have to deny it now
Far more than being hungry
having no place to live or dance
no decent job no home to offer a Granny
It’s knowing with each invisible breath
that if you don’t make something pretty
they can hang on their walls or wear around their necks
you might as well be dead.

Although Native men have also been scarred by abuse, Native women have often been the primary focus of sexual violence because of their capacity to give birth. Control over reproduction is essential in destroying a people; if the women of a nation are not disproportionately killed, the nation’s population can always rebound. For instance, despite the mass destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the population of Japan actually increased by 14 percent between 1940 and 1950 because a disproportionate number of men rather than women were killed. This is why colonizers such as Andrew Jackson recommended that, after massacres, troops complete the extermination by systematically killing Indian women and children. Similarly, Methodist minister Colonel John Chivington’s policy was to “kill and scalp all little and big” because “nits make lice.”

Native women have been targeted for abuse for another reason as well. Prior to colonization, Indian societies tended not to be male-dominated. In fact, many societies were matrilineal and matrilocal,

and Indian women often served as spiritual, political, and military leaders. When work was divided by gender, both men’s and women’s labors were accorded similar status. Violence against women and children was rare — in many tribes, unheard of.

The egalitarian nature of Native societies did not escape the notice of the colonizers. It was a scandal in the colonies that a number of white people chose to live among Indian people while virtually no Indians voluntarily chose to live among the colonists. According to J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no example of even one of these Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!”

Native societies were also a dangerous example to white women who wished to live free of patriarchy. Richard Hill has argued that the equal status accorded to women in Native societies “fueled some [white] men’s hatred towards Indians. After all, they now had to worry about their prized possession being happier with savage Indians than with them.” Women were seldom accorded high status in European societies, and were often severely persecuted. Europe’s hatred for women was most fully manifest in the witchhunts. As many as nine million people were killed during the witchhunts; over 90 percent of them women. It was not possible for these violent, women-hating societies, transplanted to the Americas, to exist side-by-side with egalitarian Native societies. As the letters above demonstrate, European men could not easily have kept their own women subjugated without subjugating the women of indigenous nations as well. White women would have had little incentive to stay in their communities when they could live among the Natives and receive better treatment.

Nevertheless, the constant depiction of Native men as savages prevented white women from seeing that the real enemy was not Native people, but the patriarchy of their own culture. Even in war, European women were often surprised to find that they went unmolested by their Indian captors. Mary Rowlandson said of her own captivity: “I have been in the midst of roaring Lions, and Savage Bears, that feared neither God, nor Man, nor the Devil . . . and yet not one of them ever offered the least abuse of unchastity to me in word or action.” William Apess (Pequot) asked in the 1800s, “Where, in the records of Indian barbarity, can we point to a violated female”? Even Brigadier General James Clinton of the Continental Army said to his soldiers in 1779, as he sent them off to destroy the Iroquois nation, “Bad as the savages are, they never violate the chastity of any women, their prisoners.”

The same could not be said of white men, who raped Native women at epidemic rates. Between 1851 and 1852, California spent over one million dollars hiring soldiers to exterminate Natives. In one typical expedition, a group of invading soldiers demanded that all the young women be given to them for sexual service. When they discovered that the young women had already managed to escape, the soldiers raped the old women instead. Other accounts of colonial sexual abuse include the following:

When I was in the boat I captured a beautiful Carib woman. . .I conceived desire to take pleasure. . . .I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement in such a manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots.

Two of the best looking of the squaws were lying in such a position, and from the appearance of the genital organs and of their wounds, there can be no doubt that they were first ravished and then shot dead. Nearly all of the dead were mutilated.

One woman, big with child, rushed into the church, clasping the alter and crying for mercy for herself and unborn babe. She was followed, and fell pierced with a dozen lances. . . [T]he child was torn alive from the yet palpitating body of its mother, first plunged into the holy water to be baptized, and immediately its brains were dashed out against a wall.

The Christians attacked them with buffets and beatings. . . . Then they behaved with such temerity and shamelessness that the most powerful ruler of the island had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer.

I heard one man say that he had cut a woman’s private parts out, and had them for exhibition on a stick. . . . I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females, and stretched them over their saddle-bows and some of them over their hats.

The attitudes on display in the examples above have changed very little over the centuries. In 1982, a white man named Stuart Kasten marketed a video game called Custer’s Revenge, in which players score points each time they, as Custer, rape an Indian woman. The game’s slogan is, “When you score, you score.” Kasten has deceptively described the game as “a fun sequence where the woman is enjoying a sexual act willingly.”

In the Indian boarding schools of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, founded by the US government to prevent Indian women from passing on their language and culture to their children, physical and sexual abuse was rampant. Irene Mack Pyawasit recalls her days as a boarding school resident from the Menominee reservation:

The government employees that they put into the schools had families but still there were an awful lot of Indian girls turning up pregnant. Because the employees were having a lot of fun, and they would force a girl into a situation, and the girl wouldn’t always be believed. Then, because she came up pregnant, she would be sent home in disgrace. Some boy would be blamed for it, never the government employee. He was always scot-free. And no matter what the girl said, she was never believed.

The high rates of alcoholism, violence, and suicide in Indian communities today can, in large part, be traced to the brutality of Indian boarding schools. Although the boarding schools have been a positive experience for some, they have also introduced violent, self-destructive behaviors into Native society. Recently, the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities has issued a report which documents the involvement of mainline churches and the federal government in the murder of over 50,000 Native children through the Canadian residential school system. The list of offenses committed by church officials include murder by beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, and medical experimentation. Torture was used to punish children for speaking Aboriginal languages. Children were involuntarily sterilized. In addition, the report found that church clergy, police, and business and government officials were involved in maintaining pedophile rings using children from residential schools. The grounds of several schools are also charged with containing unmarked graveyards of children who were murdered, particular children killed after being born as a result of rapes of Native girls by priests and other church officials in the school. The United Church of Canada is currently threatened with bankruptcy in light of the class action suits it currently faces for its role in residential school abuse. While some churches in Canada have taken some minimal steps towards addressing its involvement in this genocidal policy, churches in the U.S. have not. And it is largely through boarding schools that Native communities have internalized the process of genocide so that we destroy ourselves.

As a spiritual leader once said, “The number one issue we have to deal with is violence against women and children, because as long as we destroy ourselves from within, we don’t have to worry about anyone else.” Sexual violence is difficult to address, however, because it causes so much shame for survivors and communities. Shame is, in fact, the intended effect of sexual violence. Nevertheless, because sexual violence has been one of the most successful avenues of colonization, Native communities cannot prosper until we find a way to eradicate sexual violence and heal from the shame and self-hatred it has instilled in us We no longer have to carry this shame. Our communities can heal from sexual violence.

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