The colonisation of Indigenous women in the USA

28 February 2018

By Micaela Edelson

The colonization of Indigenous women has persisted even in the ‘post-colonial’ era. Specifically, colonialism promoted a shift from an egalitarian society to a patriarchal societal structure which resulted in a legacy of violence against Indigenous women, and specific colonial sterilization policies not only affected women’s role in Indigenous society, it severely limited the size and sovereignty of Native societies today.

Prior to colonization, the concept of balance, twinning, and equal gender roles was emphasized in the egalitarian community structure of Eastern Woodlands Cosmology. However, as Native Americans assimilated to Western culture, the matrilineal and matrifocal community structure that existed in Native American nations switched to a patriarchal structure (Sellers, Stephanie). The distinction between the colonists’ and Natives’ view of gender roles is illustrated through the Euro-American narrative of the Lenni Lenape society. The original ethnologists who reported on this tribe, clergies in the Jesuit Church, recorded the Lenni Lenape’s lifestyle with a particular emphasis on the value of women in society. Claims, such as “men and women played complementary roles in their daily lives and in their cultural matrix…the key dynamic was not domination and subordination between the sexes” (47), “A women could not be forced to marry; the choice was hers” (48), and “husbands did not make decisions for wives” (Caffrey, Margaret). Western culture not only rejected gender equality and the matrifocal and matrilineal structures, the paradigm surrounding women within Native society shifted to view women as inferior to men. In fact, the Cherokee Nation rewrote their constitution to exclude women and women’s positions in order to align with the colonists (Sellers, Stephanie).

The introduction of unequal gender roles has had inter-generational consequences as the legacy of colonial patriarchy continues today and is manifested through domestic and sexual violence experienced by Native American women. Over one in three Native American women will be raped over the course of their life; and most women do not report the incident, because they know there will be inaction or indifference towards handling the report. The denial of justice for survivors of sexual assault and violence has actually caused Native American women to be more targeted than women of any other ethnic group (Lobo et al. 184).

Additionally, young Indigenous girls were particularly targeted and coerced to attend Indian boarding and mission schools in the early 1900s as a means of committing cultural genocide: “[Mission school’s] goal was to alienate girls from the cultural values and practices of their mothers and turn them instead to Christianity and the Anglo-American work ethic and material culture” (Lobo et al. 290). Further, the sexual abuse present in the boarding schools also caused young girls to be accustomed to victimization. Thus, the legacy of victimization facilitates the transition from victims of sexual abuse in school to victims of domestic violence in the home for many women (Indian School: Stories of Survival). Thus, it can be seen how Native American women today are so undervalued, especially compared to their community standing pre-colonization.

Additionally, sterilization efforts in the 1970s by the U.S. government has had intergenerational effects to the extent that they completely eliminated the potential for future Indian generations. A 1975 General Accounting Office (GAO) report revealed that between 1973 and 1976, 3,406 sterilizations on Native American women were performed in Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities. The Native American population is already small, so this number has the same impact to if 452,000 non-Indian women had been sterilized. It is important to note that this number only accounts for four of the twelve IHS facilities and only covers the three years between 1973 and 1976; thus, it is likely that more Native American women had also undergone sterilization procedures. It is also unclear to what extent this statistic reflects informed and consensual sterilization procedures. There was no written record of consent for many of these procedures, and language barriers between Native women and IHS physicians could have also made it difficult for Native women to give informed verbal consent. Women interviewed later stated that public and private welfare agencies had threatened to put their children in the foster care system if the women did not comply with the sterilization procedure, and some women gave consent while they were in child labor and under the influence of pain medication (Lobo et al. 175-184). Sterilization has led to emotional trauma for Native American women as the primary role for women in the tribal community is to be a mother (Sellers, Stephanie).

Overall, the psychological and emotional damage caused by these colonialist policies and events has persisted through many generations and has led to a lack of emotional development, sexual and domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe economic distress. Thus, not only has the impacts of colonization persisted today, it has caused disproportionate emotional and physical trauma for Indigenous women today.

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