On December 27th, a 36-year-old First Nations woman was walking to the store in the Ontario city of Thunder Bay when two men pulled over, forced her into their truck, beat her, strangled her and raped her while telling her Indians didn’t deserve treaty rights and threatening to rape other First Nations women.
Because of the rapists’ references to treaty rights, many have seen the assault as a direct retaliation against the Idle No More movement. Idle No More began with four women educating the public about Canadian bill C-45, a budgetary bill that strips the protective status of tribal lands in order to make them more accessible to private corporations. Since it began as a social media campaign, Idle No More has spread into a global indigenous uprising that has seen round dances, protests and blockades pop up not just in Canada but all over the world. The movement was further galvanized when Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike with the demand to meet with both the Canadian government and a representative of the Crown under which the treaties in question had been made.
It has also apparently inspired an opposing campaign motivated by hate and led by men who seek to destroy the heart of the movement by attacking Native women. These acts of sexual violence are not only hate crimes but acts of terror, meant to keep Native women and their nations in a state of silence and fear.
In the panicked wake of the crime, women in Thunder Bay were told to travel in groups and First Nations students returning to school from the winter holiday were given personal alarms to carry with them. Unfortunately, the fear cast over Thunder Bay is an all too common shadow in Indigenous people’s lives.
In fact, the Thunder Bay assault of December 27th has become one dots of hundreds on a map of every sexual violence crime committed in Canada since 1975 to the present compiled by the group Anonymous as part of what they are calling Operation Thunderbird. The map also documents the large number of missing and murdered Native women cases many of which have gone unsolved. This operation is one of the ways the larger Idle No More movement is carrying on after the end of Chief Spence’s hunger strike. It is an important direction for the movement to take. One of the most inspiring aspects of the Idle No More movement has always been the central role of women leaders. While Chief Spence’s hunger strike was a motivating force for Idle No More and solidarity actions around it, perhaps it is time to place not just one woman but all the Native women who put themselves on the line for Indigenous nations at the center of the movement.
Sexual assaults like the one that took place in Thunder bay demonstrate how vulnerable Native women are when Native people as a whole raise their voices. However, Chief Spence and countless other women leaders in Native communities have also proven it is the women who can be the most powerful leaders. A Northern Cheyenne saying that has been repeated often since Idle No More began states that “A nation is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” It is acts of sexual violence that seek to destroy Native women’s hearts and the nations they empower. As a movement led by women, Idle No More has a real responsibility to incorporate the goal of ending violence against women into its demands for tribal sovereignty.
Though Idle No More began as a response to a Canadian bill, as an Indigenous Nationhood Movement it resonates deeply with Indigenous peoples across many borders who are resisting unceasing attempts to exploit their land. Exploitation of the land is often coupled with the exploitation of Indigenous bodies. Here in the United States, Congress’s failure last year to pass the Violence of Women Act is an insidious show of support for such violence. Although VAWA has been in place since 1994 and regularly renewed since, last year’s additions to the act were rejected by the GOP-majority House because it gave what they consider too many concessions to LGBTQ, immigrant and Native American populations. One of these concessions would give tribal courts the power to prosecute non-Natives who sexually assault tribal members on tribal lands. Up until now, these cases have been handled by the FBI which has a history of under-investigating and failing to convict non-Native sexual offenders.
Last week at the start of the new Congress, the Senate once again approved VAWA, though certain measures meant to afford undocumented immigrants more protection were taken out. With the tribal jurisdiction measures still intact, it remains unclear if the bill will pass in the House. The Heritage Foundation, an influential far-right think tank, has spearheaded a campaign of misinformation to make sure it does not. They claim that VAWA would give unconstitutional federal power to tribes thus violating the civil rights of alleged rapists and abusers. However, VAWA clearly states that any non-Indian prosecuted in tribal courts maintains all of their rights under the US constitution. With their bogus claims, The Heritage Foundation is tapping into the ever-present fears that allowing tribes to protect their communities is a menace to American individual’s freedom. But the only freedom VAWA actually threatens is the freedom to rape and abuse women without consequence.
These persistent oppositions to VAWA are indication that the conservative government has no interest in protecting Native women or giving them further means to protect themselves. Because the government will not protect them and tribal governments feel they are not able to, Native women know the brutal reality of being seen as easy targets for sexual predators. According to an Amnesty International report, Native women in America are more than twice as likely to be raped than the general population and eighty percent of the rapists in those cases are non-Native. These statistics are even more alarming when we consider the number of cases that do not get reported for fear of retaliation. VAWA would allow tribal nations to address this epidemic of sexual violence on reservations through the tribal courts. But for now it seems that as long as the US government passes legislation to take more natural resources from tribal land, the longer they will block legislation that gives tribes more control over that land.
So what does VAWA have to do with Idle No More? The question may more broadly be posed as what does sexual violence have to do with self-determination? The answer is simple. Everything. When people fight against the former, they are fighting for the latter.
In her very important, everybody-needs-to-read-it-right-now book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith states that “attacks on Native women’s status are themselves attacks on Native sovereignty.” Through her study of genocidal practices such as forced sterilization, environmental contamination and rape, Smith articulates the deep connection between interpersonal violence and state violence. When non-Natives sexually assault Native women, they do so with the understanding that those lives are inherently worth less in the eyes of the American government.
It is necessary they appear worth less if America is to make conscionable the genocide of millions of Native people on which this nation is founded. They must continued to be seen as worth less if non-Natives are going to continue to benefit from living on that stolen land and its many resources. Settlers perpetuate this image of worthlessness in acts such as the rape committed in Thunder Bay. Like the soldiers at Wounded Knee who stretched the uteruses of their female victims across their hat bands, non-Native men use sexual violence to intimidate Natives into subjugation. It has been a tool of colonialism as long as colonialism has existed. It is time to understand then that resistance to colonialism’s destructive reign over Native lands must also be resistance to sexual violence.
Recent remarks by Florida Senator Marco Rubio indicate just how ingrained the issues of sovereignty and sexual violence are. In justifying his opposition to VAWA, Rubio says he has concerns “regarding the conferring of criminal jurisdiction to some Indian tribal governments over all persons in Indian country, including non-Indians.” This quote reflects the problem most Americans have understanding tribes as sovereign nation. When an American citizen enters the borders of any other nation, it is generally understood that they must abide by the laws of that country. If they break one of those laws, they will be prosecuted according to the laws of that nation. Thus, it would hold that when entering the borders of an Indian nation, you are beholden to the laws of that particular Indian nation. Statements such as Rubio’s and those coming from The Heritage Foundation reveal the conservative’s view that tribal nations are not worthy of full nationhood.
If we put ourselves in the settler’s shoes, especially the shoes of the paranoid white Republican who constantly bemoans America’s fall from greatness, recognizing tribal nations as sovereign is a truly terrifying prospect. Self-sufficient tribal nations would operate on forms of governance the predate and challenge colonial power. These alternative forms of governance, often based on radically different precepts on human relationships to the land and each other, are a serious blow to the heart of American exceptionalism, the discourse that poses America as a country on a god-ordained mission to make the world in their image. Acknowledging alternatives to America’s liberal democracy is a dangerous concession for a nation intent on spreading that democracy around the world.
Laguna Pubelo scholar Paula Gunn Allen claims the genocide of Native people has always had at its root “a fear of gynocracy,” or societal rule by women which is widespread in tribal nations throughout North America. Allen’s claim illuminates why many in the government would have vested interest in maintaining the epidemic of violence against Native women. If America is invested in subjugating a society that recognizes the power of women, it must also be invested in subjugating individual women. Thus sexual violence becomes again a tool to attack the nation through the person. The very bodily presence of Native people is a constant political reminder of the ultimate failure of America, Canada, and every colonial government at total conquest. As long as Native people continue to exist and assert their right to live, the settler government will constantly have to argue the legitimacy of their claims to land and power that was not given to them.
The failure to renew VAWA in the US points to all the reasons for the government’s reluctance to give tribes more jurisdiction over their own land. However, it might also be motivation to seriously consider how to solve the problem of sexual violence against Native women in ways that do not reinforce government control over Native lives.
In a post entitled VAWA—A Black Feminist’s Dissent, blogger Computerblu takes a critical look at how VAWA as “law-and-order legislation” supports a criminal justice system with a long history of hurting as many survivors as it helps. Instead of supporting such a problematic system, Computerblu hopes “feminist advocates would promote a politics grounded in racial justice that address the profound structural conditions that help drive domestic and sexual violence for so many of us.” For Native peoples these structural conditions are inextricably tied up with the colonial government that seeks to control Native bodies.
By seriously investigating how internalized colonial notions of patriarchy and justice have allowed sexual violence to reign terror over women’s lives, tribes may find it is their communities and traditions that hold the real power to overcome this problem. In the words of one of Andrea Smith’s favorite maxims, it might motivate tribes to take power by making power. Many Native people have supported VAWA because it gives tribes power to prosecute sexual violence cases but what if Native people instead took that power by creating their own responses to crimes that do not rely on recognition from the US government.
These considerations are important when we consider that any power of jurisdiction given to tribes by Congress is only permissible in a framework that mirrors the American justice system. This fact not only reveals the absurdity of Conservative claims that non-Natives would lose their constitutional rights in tribal courts, but also raises questions about how sovereignty can be practiced when it is granted by the colonial government. Why should tribes lend legitimacy to a system that has historically supported the theft of their land? Why should tribal courts send more people into a prison system that incarcerates Natives at a rate 38% higher than the national rate? Is this the model tribes want to support in the name of self-determination? Can tribes really be said to have more sovereign power when their exercise of that power plays directly into the oppressive institutions of the settler nation-state?
More importantly, what if tribes stop seeing sovereignty as something that needs to be given back? Tribal nations have their own forms of governance, they simply need the courage and strength to enact them. The name Idle No More suggests this reversal from passively requesting tribal rights be respected to asserting those rights. This realization is the rumbling at the center of every round dance flash mob: that tribes will no longer be ignored. First Nations are no longer asking the Canadian government but demanding they meet them at the negotiation table as equals. And all around the world other Indigenous peoples are making the same claims to recognition and respect.
Idle No More speaks to people around the world because it is more broadly about Native peoples revolutionizing their relationship to colonial power. It speaks to Indigenous people around the world who know treaty violations are one among the many violations committed against Native people’s bodies and the lands they are so intimately connected to. It has begun a conversation about how Native people can begin to take control of their lands, resources and lives. It challenges tribes to consider how to solve the problem of settler violence instead of waiting for a government that has little interest in helping them. The lack of enforcement on reservations in America and the appalling number of missing women in Canada whose disappearances fade into bureaucratic obscurity are signs of the settler nation-state’s total dismissal of Native lives as equal to those of settler lives. We begin to fight back by refusing to see ourselves the way they see us. We begin to fight by testifying to the strength of our traditions, our relations, our mothers.
The case in Thunder Bay should be a wake-up call for those who would wait to address settler violence against women until after the revolution. There is simply no way for an Indigenous nationhood movement to succeed without its women. And by empowering tribal women, respecting their place at the forefront of the battle for nationhood, Native communities will already deliver a blow to the colonial notion that a Native woman is insignificant.
As the movement moves forward, we must never forget the women who brought us to this historical moment and the history of sexual violence that has worked to stop them. In remembering them, we remember what makes us not only survivors but fighters as well.