Weaving through downtown streets during the Tucson Women’s March, an organized group of 200 people held homemade signs and shouted, “We are still here!”
The group on Jan. 21 represented more than 15 indigenous nations ranging from Canada and Alaska to Mexico, although most were Tohono O’odham women from Southern Arizona.
“It sounds like this really peachy experience — that we had a very visible group,” said Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, a Tohono O’odham woman and community organizer. “(But) even though we were ‘200 strong,’ we were still shafted.”
About 15,000 women marched, yet O’odham women were still left in the shadows, she said. They had no part in organizing presentations, prayers, songs or speakers.
“Afterward, I saw the agenda and my heart fell when I saw that there was no native presence in it whatsoever,” Cázares-Kelly said.
But this isn’t anything new. According to Cázares-Kelly, it’s not just that Native American people, particularly Native women, are treated unfairly — they’re treated as if they don’t exist. And the lack of intersectional feminism does nothing to help remedy this issue, she said.
“We brought together a group of indigenous women in this region who are all seriously concerned about issues facing Indian Country, but who are still feeling excluded from the feminist movement,” Cázares-Kelly said.
One of the most pressing matters concerning indigenous women centers on water rights. Although the pipeline fight at Standing Rock in North Dakota started with the youth, it has been upheld by the women, according to Cázares-Kelly.
“Really strong native women are leading camps,” Cázares-Kelly said. “They’ve got a baby on their hip while they’re organizing thousands of people.”
The battle over clean water isn’t exclusive to Standing Rock.
A toxic mine spill contaminated the Navajo Nation’s water supply two years ago. Until April 2013, the North Komelik community of Tohono O’odham Nation drank water that contained high levels of arsenic left over from a nearby mine site. Short-term, these toxins can cause nausea and skin changes. Skin, bladder and lung cancers can result from long-term exposure to this contaminant, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
“Water has been on the forefront of every issue that native women are facing because we depend on it to survive,” Cázares-Kelly said. “All of us women consider ourselves water protectors.”
Jennifer Stern, an American Indian Studies doctoral student at the University of Arizona, mentioned how most cosmologies view Mother Earth, and everything that stems from it, as female.
“Water is the bloodstream that helps nourish people,” Stern said. “Of course women are going to have a very strong feeling toward that.”
According to Stern, native organizers at Standing Rock recognized that women still needed to give birth and receive access to ob-gyn care. Organizers made sure there was a local birthing center so that women could still be present to represent their communities.
Sometimes, however, native women disappear altogether. Native American women are more likely to be abused, raped, murdered or go missing than the general female population in the U.S. In fact, one in three native women will be raped in their lifetime, according to the National Violence Survey Against Women.
“The last person you want to be in America is an American Indian woman in terms of safety,” Stern said. “Seeking justice for wrongdoing against yourself is a sticky situation that has a lot to do with jurisdiction.”
Most of this violence is committed by non-native men and until recently, native women could not prosecute a noncitizen of their tribe if assault occurred on tribal land. The Violence Against Women Act now allows Native Americans to bring suit against mainstream Americans.
Concerns are raised about the way native women are portrayed in film, TV shows and even children’s cartoons, according to Stern. Pocahontas, for example, is presented as a “bodacious, half-naked Indian princess.”
“Of course that comes from and maybe even exacerbates a certain mindset that say these women aren’t humans, they’re things,” Stern said.
In addition to images, it’s important to consider the historical origins of degrading terminology used toward native women. The word “squaw” comes from the widespread mythology that native women were oppressed, lowly beings, according to Arizona State University professor Tsianina Lomawaima, whose heritage is Creek.
In reality though, Native American women, depending on their tribe, have historically had the right to vote people in and out of power, initiate divorce and retain control over children, property and possessions passed down from the mother’s side of the family.
“Although it varied from community to community, there is a pattern of women holding important positions in ceremonial organizations,” Lomawaima said. “Women very often had quite a bit of autonomy in decision-making and economic life.”
In some tribes, women also held political power. For instance, Iroquois women were responsible for selecting the tribe’s “chief.”
Women lost most of these rights when colonization introduced patriarchy and a new political authority, according to Lomawaima.
“A number of tribes in Oklahoma have internalized the idea that women should not run for political office,” Lomawaima said. “Two centuries ago that would have been laughable in Cherokee country.”
A 2012 Pew Research study found that one in four Native Americans live in poverty. In fact, some tribes face unemployment rates of over 80 percent on their reservations.
“The levels of poverty endemic to native societies really put some acute pressures on families, women and children in particular,” Lomawaima said.
Consequently, there are high rates of child placement outside of their homes, in either foster care of child protective services.
“As a woman myself, I would say that assaults the integrity of the family,” Lomawaima said.
Several other factors have historically affected Native American women, according to Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, a Tohono O’odham member and UA American Indian Studies Ph.D. student.
During the 1960s and ’70s, thousands of native women were sterilized by Indian Health Services during routine doctor visits.
“This was another way for the U.S. government to make it so we couldn’t reproduce and we’d eventually die off,” Ramon-Sauberan said.
In addition, when native children were taken from their families and placed in Anglo homes and boarding schools, young girls were forced to cut their hair and follow proper Victorian etiquette.
Ramon-Sauberan said many who left home still maintained their tribal traditions. They then passed down those customs to future generations.
“They had the strength, willpower and unity to say, ‘You can’t tell me how to think,’ ” Ramon-Sauberan said. “We are still here, and will continue to be here.”
Hailey Freeman is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at email@example.com.
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