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Conquest | Excerpt


Women of color live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race. Within the mainstream antiviolence movement in the U.S., women of color who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselves against their communities, often portrayed stereotypically as violent, in order to begin the healing process. Communities of color, meanwhile, often advocate that women keep silent about sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a united front against racism. In addition, the remedies for addressing sexual and domestic violence utilized by the antiviolence movement have proven to be generally inadequate for addressing the problems of gender violence in general, but particularly for addressing violence against women of color. The problem is not simply an issue of providing multicultural services to survivors of violence. Rather, the analysis of and strategies for addressing gender violence have failed to address the manner in which gender violence is not simply a tool of patriarchal control, but also serves as a tool of racism and colonialism. That is, colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized.

This book comes out of my work in Native sovereignty, antiviolence, environmental justice, reproductive rights, and women of color organizing. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked with the Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations (WARN). At the same time, I worked with mainstream antiviolence and reproductive rights organizations such as the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (which no longer exists) and the National Abortion Rights Action League. I later became involved with the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment, which focuses on policies of population control in their various forms.

Frustrated with how mainstream groups were defining issues of violence and reproductive rights in ways that were inherently oppressive to indigenous women and women of color, I became involved in co-organizing INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. INCITE! is a national organization of feminists of color which builds coalitions around the intersections of state violence and interpersonal sexual and domestic violence from a grassroots-organizing, rather than a social service delivery, perspective. Much of my work in INCITE! was informed by my involvement in the first Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex conference held in Berkeley in 1999. Critical Resistance organizes against prisons from an abolitionist rather than a reformist perspective. Through INCITE! I then became involved in the American Indian Boarding School Healing Project, which seeks to document the abuses perpetrated in boarding schools, provide a space for healing from these abuses, and build a movement to demand reparations in conjunction with other reparations struggles. From these organizing efforts as well as numerous others, I have had the opportunity to learn from countless indigenous women and women of color who have helped shape my analysis about violence. Consequently, while I take responsibility for all the errors in the book, I cannot claim that the analysis is original—analysis is always a group effort that arises from the context of struggle.

This book will focus particularly on sexual violence as a tool of patriarchy and colonialism in Native communities, both historically and today. However, this analysis has broader implications for all women. An examination of how sexual violence serves the goals of colonialism forces us to reconsider how we define sexual violence, as well as the strategies we employ to eradicate gender violence.

Putting Native women at the center of analysis compels us to look at the role of the state in perpetrating both race-based and gender-based violence. We cannot limit our conception of sexual violence to individual acts of rape—rather it encompasses a wide range of strategies designed not only to destroy peoples, but to destroy their sense of being a people.

The first chapter outlines how colonizers have historically used sexual violence as a primary tool of genocide. It also provides my theoretical framework for the rest of the book. I argue that sexual violence is a tool by which certain peoples become marked as inherently “rapable.” These peoples then are violated, not only through direct or sexual assault, but through a wide variety of state policies, ranging from environmental racism to sterilization abuse.

Chapter 2 focuses on U.S. and Canadian American Indian boarding school policies, which are largely responsible for the epidemic rates of sexual violence in Native communities today. Boarding school policies demonstrate that violence in Native communities, and by extension, other communities of color, is not simply a symptom of dysfunctionality in these communities. Rather, violence is the continuing effect of human rights violations perpetrated by state policies. Consequently, these policies serve as a focal point for thinking about how we can center an antiviolence analysis in the movement for reparations, because gender violence is a harm for which the state needs to be held accountable.

Sexual violence against Native peoples takes many forms. In Chapter 3, I analyze how environmental racism can be seen as a form of sexual violence against indigenous peoples. Native lands are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and contamination in this country, since the majority of energy resources in the United States are on Indian lands. The effects of environmental contamination often severely impact women’s reproductive systems. In addition, I will explore how the environmental movement fails to organize from an intersectional race/gender analysis and how this failure contributes to its support of policies that are both racist and sexist.

One reason why Native women have been historically targeted for sexual violence arises from the colonial desire to stop them from reproducing. In Chapter 4, I look at contemporary manifestations of what I would call state-sponsored forms of sexual violence in racist reproductive policies. In particular, I look at sterilization abuse and the promotion of long-acting hormonal contraceptives in Native communities, and in other communities of color. I also argue that the current “pro-choice” framework that undergirds the mainstream reproductive rights movement is inadequate for addressing the attacks on the reproductive rights of indigenous women, women of color, poor women, and women with disabilities.

Chapter 5 is an exploratory essay on yet another form of sexual violence: medical experimentation in Native communities. Through my work with Chicago Women of All Red Nations and the Boarding School Healing Project, I have informally heard of numerous medical experimentation programs conducted on Native peoples, generally without their informed consent. When we have tried to investigate these cases, we find that those people who have medical and scientific backgrounds are often so committed to the essential goodness of the Western medical establishment that they are unwilling to explore the nature of these programs. Meanwhile, Native peoples on the grassroots level are organizing against these programs, but because they do not have the proper “credentials,” they are dismissed as alarmists.

Progressives often have no trouble seeing the inherent corruptness of institutions such as prisons or border control, and hence have no difficulty believing that those in power in these institutions may abuse power and not serve the interests of communities. However, they often have difficulty viewing the medical establishment with the same lens of suspicion, despite the fact that it is a multibillion-dollar industry. This chapter is a call for more investigation and organizing into the area of medical experimentation to bring more visibility to this form of violence and to provide clearer information as to what is going on in these programs.

Despite the more than 500 years of genocide that Native peoples have faced, they continue to survive and organize, not only on their behalf but on behalf of all peoples. Native spiritualities have always been a cornerstone of resistance struggles. These spiritualities affirm the goodness of Native communities when the larger society dehumanizes them. They affirm the interconnectedness of all things that provides the framework of re-creating communities that are based on mutual responsibility and respect rather than violence and domination. Hence, it should not be a surprise that colonialists also appropriate Native spirituality in another form of sexual violence. Chapter 6 suggests that we can see spiritual appropriation as a form of sexual violence and explores how colonial ideology attempts to transform Native spiritualities from a site of healing to a site of sexual exploitation.

Chapter 7 discusses what strategies for eradicating gender violence follow from the analysis set forth in this book. It is clear that the state has a prominent role in perpetrating violence against Native women in particular and women of color in general. However, most of the strategies developed by the mainstream antiviolence movement depend on the state as the solution for ending violence. In particular, the antiviolence movement has relied on a racist and colonial criminal legal system to stop domestic and sexual violence with insufficient attention to how this system oppresses communities of color. In this chapter I will focus on strategies for addressing interpersonal acts of gender violence that simultaneously address state violence. By putting Native women at the center of analysis, I will argue, we can develop more comprehensive strategies for ending gender violence that benefit not only indigenous women and women of color, but all people affected by gender violence.

Finally, in Chapter 8 I examine how an antiviolence strategy that addresses state violence requires antiviolence advocates to organize against U.S. empire. If we acknowledge the state as a perpetrator of violence against women (particularly indigenous women and women of color) and as a perpetrator of genocide against indigenous peoples, we are challenged to imagine alternative forms of governance that do not presume the continuing existence of the U.S. in particular and the nation-state in general. We must recognize, for example, that the consolidation of U.S. empire abroad through the never-ending “war on terror” is inextricably linked to U.S. attacks on Native sovereignty within U.S. borders. This chapter looks to alternative visions of governance articulated by Native women activists that do not depend on domination and force but rely on systems of kinship, respect, and reciprocity.

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