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Indigenous feminism is an intersectional theory and practice of feminism that focuses on decolonization and indigenous sovereignty. The focus is upon empowering indigenous women in the context of indigenous cultural values and priorities, rather than mainstream, white, patriarchal ones. In this cultural perspective, it can be compared to womanism in the African-American communities.
Indigenous feminism developed out of a need to prioritize the issues indigenous women face due to race, ethnicity, and cultural differences, in addition to sex and gender. The ongoing attempted genocide of indigenous women, is of utmost priority in indigenous feminism, while in mainstream feminism this femicide is rarely prioritized, unless it is non-indigenous women being murdered. Indigenous feminism has grown from postcolonial feminism as it acknowledges the devastating consequences of colonization on Indigenous peoples and the lands they inhabit, and the importance of decolonization in dismantling oppressive systems that were introduced as a result of colonization. The central role of the ancestral landbase, and current land rights and environmental struggles, connects Indigenous feminism to some aspects of ecofeminism. Differentiating indigenous feminism from mainstream white feminism and its related forms of feminism (including liberal feminism and Orientalist feminism) is important because "indigenous women will have different concrete experiences that shape our relation to core themes" than those of non-indigenous women.
Indigenous feminism is also known by other, geographically specific, names such as: Native American feminism in the United States and Canada, or Aboriginal feminism in Australia. Despite the use of the more globally-applicable word “indigenous”, the majority of text that refers to “Indigenous feminism” tends to focus on North American indigenous populations (Native American, First Nations, Inuit and Métis).
Effects of colonization
Before colonization, many Indigenous communities experienced a type of equality between the sexes that was not practiced by European colonizers. In many Indigenous societies, women played a crucial role in community life and they often, although not always, were afforded "religious, political, and economic power- not more than men but at least equal to men." Indigenous feminism attributes modern-day gendering of indigenous issues to colonization through naming, claiming, and exploiting native people. Sandy Grande further explains how colonizing and decolonizing need to be understood simultaneously in her piece titled "Whitestream Feminism and the Colonialist Project: A Review of Contemporary Feminist Pedagogy and Praxis". She says, "the project of decolonization begins with the understanding that the collective oppression of indigenous women results primarily from colonialism- a multidimensional force underwritten by Western Christianity, defined by white supremacy, and fueled by global capitalism."
Winona LaDuke (Anishinabeg), the author of Reclaiming the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming has argued that "Papal law was the foundation of colonialism" and "Centuries of papal bulls posited the supremacy of Christendom over all other beliefs, sanctified manifest destiny, and authorized even the most brutal practices of colonialism." Through colonization, Indigenous people became subject to a racist patriarchal system that significantly shifted the social, economic, and cultural practices of pre-contact Indigenous societies. The economic, political, and spiritual power granted to women in Indigenous communities was threatening to the arriving Europeans who used "Xenophobia and a deep fear of Native spiritual practices" to justify genocide as a means of domination. Kim Anderson writes in her book A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood that "the Europeans who first arrived in Canada were shocked by the position of Aboriginal women in their respective societies. It was not long before they realized that, in order to dominate the land and the people that were occupying it, they needed to disempower the women. Indigenous systems that allocated power to women were incompatible with the kind of colonial power dynamics that would be necessary to maintain colonial power." Additionally, "while women's traditional roles in Indigenous communities vary widely, colonization has reordered gender relations to subordinate women, regardless of their pre-contact status." Colonization worked to restructure Indigenous social systems to fit within the white settler ideal.
The negative realities of Indigenous people today can be attributed to the actions taken by settlers to assert dominance through colonization. White settlers often brought a new type of economic system from their European nation that included the idea of private property, ownership, and gendered labor, which was forced onto Indigenous communities. In A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood, Anderson notes, "the split between public and private labour and the introduction of the capitalist economies disrupted the traditional economic authorities of Native women." Poverty is a problem for many Indigenous people, and can be traced back to the artificially enforced economic ideals of the colonizer onto Indigenous groups. In order to strip women of political power, colonizers forced regulatory systems onto Indigenous people, the Indian Act of Canada is one example of this. The political and spiritual power of women are often connected, as the spiritual or theoretical role for women can inform a real political role. As a result, "heteropatriarchal religious traditions have excluded women and two-spirited peoples from leadership roles." The combination of loss of power from the economic, political, and spiritual leadership places Indigenous people at a heightened risk of violence. The overall argument about the effects of colonialism "isn't just that we are being colonized, but [also] that we are assuming that nation-state form of governance is the best way to govern the world."
Theory and scholarship
The development of Indigenous feminism came out of a counterinsurgency against the attempt to apply western feminism equally and effectively to all women regardless of their experiences. Such attempts are seen as fruitless because it homogenized the very diverse experiences of women and Indigenous people. Building off of the theory of intersectionality from Kimberle Crenshaw, Indigenous feminist theory seeks to reverse the ways that White feminism "conflates or ignores intragroup differences."
The roots of Indigenous feminism are in those of the mainstream feminist movement; however, Indigenous feminism also seeks to incorporate specifically Indigenous perspectives into both of these feminist frameworks. Indigenous feminism diverges from postcolonial feminism, as some have argued that postcolonial theory in general has largely ignored the histories of colonialism as it exists for Indigenous populations. Some other Indigenous scholars (such as Robert Warrior, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Craig S. Womack) have expressed concern over the limits of postcolonial theory and its application to Indigenous studies. There is often distrust of Western theoretical paradigms which can marginalize Indigenous perspectives. In "Who Stole Native American Studies?" Elizabeth Cook-Lynn discusses the significant debate about what constitutes post-colonial, and who gets the privilege of naming when a society becomes post-colonial. As a result, many have moved to Indigenous feminism as a way to redress these issues with postcolonial feminism.
Cheryl Suzack and Shari M. Huhndorf argue in Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism and Culture that: "Although Indigenous feminism is a nascent field of scholarly inquiry, it has arisen from histories of women's activism and culture that have aimed to combat gender discrimination, secure social justice for Indigenous women, and counter their social erasure and marginalization -- endeavors that fall arguably under the rubric of feminism, despite Indigenous women's fraught relationship with the term and with mainstream feminist movements." It is important to note that the urgent issues to address Indigenous feminism cross the boundary between what is considered feminist and what is considered indigenous.
Much of Indigenous feminism has taken shape around issues that resulted from colonial practices. Indigenous feminism is a direct result of, and a direct answer to the colonization and continued oppression of Indigenous peoples around the world. The need to question cultural practices from within allows Indigenous women to actively shape their own communities and helps encourage self-determination and cultural ownership. Differentiating Indigenous feminism from white feminism illuminates the ways that white feminism does not fully account for Indigenous experiences.
Similarly, Indigenous feminism is set apart from other Indigenous rights movements, such as Indigenous liberation theory, because those theories have "not been attentive to the gendered ways in which colonial oppression and racism function for men and women, or to the inherent and adopted sexisms that some communities manifest." There are some within Indigenous communities who choose not to identify as feminist and therefore distance themselves from the mainstream feminism. There are many reasons for this choice, however, Kim Anderson argues that if
Western feminism is unpalatable because it is about rights rather than responsibilities, then we should all take responsibility seriously and ask if we are being responsible to all members of our societies. If we are to reject equality in favour of difference, then we need to make sure those differences are embedded in systems that empower all members. If we see feminism as being too invested in Western liberalism and individual autonomy, then we need to ensure that our collectivist approaches serve everyone in the collective. And if we want to embrace essential elements of womanhood that have been problematic for Western feminists […] then we have to ensure that these concepts don't get stuck in literal or patriarchal interpretations.
Many scholars and activists identify Indigenous feminism as relating to radical feminism since it often advocates for an upheaval of all systems of power that organize the subjugation of Indigenous women based on both male supremacy and racial difference. Indigenous Feminism encourages participation in decolonization needed from both men and women. Myrna Cunningham (Miskita) has stated that: "The struggle of Indigenous Peoples is not a threat to our struggles as Indigenous women. On the contrary, we see these struggles as reciprocal." Decolonization is seen as the ultimate tool to combat subordination of Indigenous people.
Critique of white feminism
There has been significant resistance to adopting a westernized, mainstream feminist approach to Indigenous rights and self-determination. The most significant criticism of mainstream feminism has been its marginalization of minorities and lack of racial diversity. White feminists "are extraordinarily reluctant to see themselves in the situation of being oppressors, as they feel that this will be at the expense of concentrating upon being oppressed." The priority of white women's needs before those of Indigenous women have a historical root, and therefore make Indigenous feminists weary of homogenizing the rights of "women". While Indigenous women may acknowledge that there is overlap in the goals of Indigenous feminists and mainstream feminists, many, like Celeste Liddle (Arrernte) "strongly believe that as Aboriginal women, whilst our fights are related to ongoing feminist struggles within other racially marginalised groups, they are not the same." An argument made by Minnie Grey in her essay, From the Tundra to the Boardroom to Everywhere in Between, about feminism is how it often fails to look beyond female oppression at other issues, such as class, education, and the effects of oppression has on men.
"We, as Inuit women, have been striving for such things as equal pay for equal work, equal share of roles for the good of the family, equal rights to participate in the decision-making processes of our governments, equal rights for the hiring of women at all levels of commerce and science, equal rights in education, and most importantly, equal rights to raise our children in safe, healthy, and positive conditions. This means, among other things, above the poverty line. I look at these aspirations not as women's liberation, but as people's liberation. In fact, we need and love our men, and similarly, we need to liberate them from the concepts that bind them to unbreakable traditional roles that, in turn, keep the status quo intact in many regions of the world."
One such example of the need to incorporate uniquely Indigenous perspectives is in the second wave's struggle for wage parity with their male counterparts. Celeste Liddle argues that "for example, whilst equal pay is important for all of us, for many years Aboriginal people were historically not paid for their labour at all." Therefore, the second wave's fight for wage equality (among other issues), was perceived to push the rights of Indigenous women to the periphery.
Another such example is in the length of time taken to achieve certain rights. For example, while white women deemed to be citizens of Canada were granted the right to vote in 1918, many other women were not allowed the right to vote until much later. Aboriginal women in Canada were not allowed to vote until the 1960s, at which time the second wave of feminism had moved away from such issues. It can also be argued that the mere fact that Aboriginal women had to fight for the right to vote, which is a colonialist concept, is problematic in itself.
Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami) has argued for a specifically Indigenous paradigm, as opposed to a feminist one because while "some feminist theories and practices also aim at social and political changes in a society...their approaches often exclude notions of collectivity as well as land rights which are central elements for Indigenous peoples."
The criticism against mainstream feminism is synthesized by Cunningham who argues:
"They see that the dominant feminist paradigm is based on an unacknowledged model of centre and periphery. In this model, Indigenous, African-descendent, and poor women occupy the periphery and must accept the ideas and conceptualization of feminism as defined by those at the centre. In other words, we Indigenous women are expected to accept the dominant picture of what constitutes women's oppression and women's liberation. The trouble is, this picture is only a partial match with our own experiences. Elements of our experience that do not match this picture are denied or marginalized. This dominant model tries to homogenize the women's movement, claiming that all women have the same demands and the same access to the enjoyment of their rights. This flawed assumption denies the diverse cultural, linguistic and social needs and visions of distinct groups of women."
Indigenous Feminist scholars have resisted the cooptation and exploitation of their scholarship as another result of colonialism. As a collective, various Indigenous feminist scholars have called for "the profound need for transparency and responsibility in light of the traumatic histories of colonization, slavery, and genocide that shape the present" in order to ensure Indigenous feminism is informed by decolonization.
Survival has been a significant issue for all Indigenous peoples, and many have suggested that feminist discourse should take second place to the goal of survival (of people, culture, language, etc...). White feminist priorities most often have more to do with the discretion of privileged women, than the survival of one's culture and people.
Limitations of Indigenous feminism
A major limitation of Indigenous feminism is the division between indigenous bodies and feminist theories, in the realm of academia and in the realm of activism. Many indigenous populations choose to distance themselves from feminism as feminism is viewed as "colonial discourses relevant to western women only". Feminism as a whole has been generalized as an American phenomenon, with a multitude of scholarly texts describing how Western feminism is not applicable to non-Western bodies. Some Indigenous women believe they are not affected by the same forms of oppression of white women, but many Indigenous feminist scholars and activists argue otherwise. In Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, Indigenous feminist scholars argue the various ways "in which gendered power relations work on the inside and outside of Indigenous communities to devalue and subordinate women". Aileen Moreton-Robinson argues that all Indigenous women experience living in a society that casts them aside, which ought to be challenged through the practice of Indigenous feminism. This is not to say that feminism as a whole is incapable of identifying universal structures of power that are applicable to indigenous women. A key theme in feminism is the identification of power relations and how it is used as a form of oppression, however, it is not always at the forefront of discussion and can become neglected.
A majority of the text that is labeled as "Indigenous feminism" refers to the indigenous populations of the United States of America and Canada. When discussing indigenous feminist scholars and activists who belong to indigenous populations, said scholars are often affiliated with a Native American tribe (such as Leanne Simpson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.) There are several forms of feminism that address indigenous populations and may follow similar theories, themes, and/or scholarships of Indigenous feminism, but do not directly identify as "Indigenous feminism". These forms of feminism can include Intersectional feminism, Transnational feminism, Postcolonial feminism, Black feminism, Native Hawaiian feminism, New Zealand feminism, Indian feminism, and Asian feminism. These forms of feminism are often separated from one another, in both scholarship and activism, due to the slight differences in beliefs and focuses. This has created conflict in the realm of theory and practice as what should fall under the category of "Indigenous feminism". There has been a call for how "indigenous critiques and feminism could in the end find common ground and enrich each other" by "testing and stretching the spaces of both indigenous feminism and feminist discussions of difference". Shauna Shiels argues that Making Space for Indigenous Feminism provides a strong example of what Indigenous feminism should look like. The text states that Indigenous feminism is in need of global perspectives, that it needs to be a inclusive feminist discourse that respects the differences in beliefs, customs, and cultures among different bodies.
As feminism continues to develop, many scholars and activists share the belief that feminism needs to be inclusive to all factors of oppression and that feminism needs to develop an intersectional lens if progress is to be made. When placed into categories, feminism becomes non-inclusive and promotes the colonial "us vs. them" practice. As stated by Jarune Uwujaren and Jamie Utt, "a lack of intersectionality leads to an erasure of people and their identities", which in turn prohibits the creations of "solutions that dismantle the intersectional oppressions at play". As this is often what many forms of feminism strive for, it's almost counterintuitive to form categories within feminism itself. For progress to be made, feminism needs to be intersectional and inclusive, which in turn will encompass all the base themes of Indigenous feminism and all other people-of-color feminisms. If Indigenous feminism is to encapsulate the intersectional framework Making Space for Indigenous Feminism suggests, it must include such topics as indigenous people who are multiracial, LGBTQ+ indigenous bodies, indigenous violence committed by indigenous persons, and the active pursuit of inclusion of global indigenous populations and the issues that affect them as well.
Resistance to the dominant colonial powers comes in a number of different forms including legal or political protest, healing, and art activism. Idle No More represents an Indigenous feminist activist group that works to "shift the contemporary discourses of rights, sovereignty, and nationhood by arguing that it is Indigenous women who ought to hold the political power of Indigenous nations, or at the very least have an equal seat at the debate table." Their major themes of activism include sovereignty, the resurgence of nationhood, environmental protection, and resistance of violence against Indigenous women. This work is being done through making changes to The Indian Act of Canada, a piece of legislation that restricts Indigenous sovereignty, as well as advocating for environmental protection. Their activism asks people, regardless of Indigenous descent or not, to honor Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the environment. Another Canadian organization that focuses and promotes Indigenous feminist ideals is the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC). They work to empower women by developing and changing legislation which affects Indigenous people. On October 4th, they encourage the community to participate in vigils entitled “Sisters In Spirit Vigils” where they honor the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). These vigils have resulted in the Government of Canada launching a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in September 2016. This inquiry examines and reports on the violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada by looking at the patterns, underlying factors and ultimately, the systemic cause of the violence. In the United States, the National Resource Center to Enhance Safety of Native Women and their Children (NIWRC) was created “to enhance the capacity of American Indian and Alaska Native (Native) tribes, Native Hawaiians, and Tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations to respond to domestic violence.” This organization also shares in Indigenous feminist themes by their dedication sovereignty and the safety of Indigenous women and children.
Working to change the name of "Christopher Columbus Day" to "Indigenous People's Day" is an example of changing the narrative of Indigeneity in the United States. Advocates for this change believe that Columbus has been subject to “adoration”, despite many negative aspects to him, including “his arrogance, his poor administration of his colonial ventures and his blinkered conscience, which was untroubled by the enslavement of Native Peoples, even when doing so went against the wishes of his royal backers.” This day joins other days of celebration of Indigenous populations, including Native American Heritage Month in the United States, Dia del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity) in Argentina, Dia de la Hispanidad (Hispanicity Day) in Spain, Dia de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance) in Venezuela, and International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
In Queer Indigenous Studies Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgenson theorize about what direct political or legal action might look like. They suggest that Indigenous feminist activism must "challenge the authority of the nation-state and the internalized colonization of Indigenous nations, and push us to more radical possibilities for decolonial activism that can transform all of our lives." The type of direct action taken may vary drastically based on the issue at hand, a specific consideration of one's relationship to the nation-state is needed to be considered Indigenous feminism.
Because of the intergenerational trauma that is passed down from each generation to the next due to the violent colonization, healing is an important aspect of resistance. Healing practices include doing work that reverts to the pre-colonized cultural traditional Indigenous work such as weaving, sewing, music, or even active participation in Indigenous community. Along with this, reclaiming sovereignty through storytelling and writing are also forms of Indigenous activism. Writing is a particularly useful tool in healing and activism. It serves as both, "means of surviving oppression and a way to engage in the healing process." The book This Bridge Called My Back, Writings by Radical Women of Color makes this idea a reality, by publishing the honest and creative narratives about Native and Indigenous feminism, and contextualizing these pieces as academia. Chrystos, an Indigenous feminist writer and poet practices writing as resistance in Not Vanishing in which Chrystos theorizes about her experiences as an Indigenous woman in white feminist spaces.
Globally, Indigenous feminists have suggested reevaluating identity politics to work towards justice in a more comprehensive way. In addressing the United Nations, Winona LaDuke has explained how Indigenous feminism might work, "if we are to seek and struggle for common ground of all women, it is essential to struggle on this issue. It is not that the women of the dominant society in so-called first world countries should have equal pay and equal status, if that pay and status continues to be based on a consumption model which is not only unsustainable, but causes constant violation of the human rights of women and nations elsewhere in the world." Indigenous feminist activism includes a broad scope of actions, but center Indigenous women's experiences.
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