Indigenous feminism

Indigenous Feminism is a theory and practice of feminism that seeks sovereignty for Indigenous people. This branch of feminism explains the oppression of Indigenous people as the result of a racist patriarchal colonization.[1] It is a type of feminist theory that developed out of a need to define the complexities that arise for Indigenous women as a result of the intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender. Indigenous feminism has grown from Postcolonial Feminism as it acknowledges the devastating consequences of colonization on Indigenous peoples, and the importance of decolonization in dismantling oppressive systems.[2] Indigenous feminism may go by other (geographically specific) names such as: Native American Feminism and Tribal feminism in North America and Canada, or Aboriginal feminism in Australia, but each of these regionally-adapted terms fall under the rubric of Indigenous feminism. Differentiating between mainstream white feminism, or liberal feminism and indigenous feminism is important because "white feminist tend to focus on gender oppression, and overlook racial issues."[3] The term Indigenous Feminism can refer to either to the academic, or activism aspect of this practice "that both address sexism and promotes indigenous sovereignty."[4]

Effects of colonization

Before colonization, Native women held more power than today, "Indian women did indeed have religious, political, and economic power- not more than men but at least equal to men."[3] Indigenous feminism attributes gendering of indigenous issues to colonization through naming, claiming, and exploiting native people. Andrea Smith (Cherokee) has noted that many Indigenous women argue "that feminism is actually an indigenous concept that has been co-opted by white women"[5] which exemplifies how colonizing practices are still alive. 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."[6]

Winona LaDuke (Anishinabeg), the author of Reclaiming the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming writes about how and why colonialism justified genocide as means for domination, "xenophobia and a deep fear of Native spiritual practices came to the America's with the first Europeans. Papal law was the foundation of colonialism; the Church served as handmaiden to the military, economic, and spiritual genocide."[7] Through colonization, Indigenous people became subject to a racist patriarchal system, which significantly shifted the norms of traditional indigenous societies. The economic, political, and spiritual power granted to women in Indigenous communities was threatening to the patriarchal colonizers. Kim Anderson writes in her novel titled 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."[8] 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."[9] 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."[8] 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."[8] The combination of loss of power from the economic, political, and spiritual leadership places Indigenous people at a heightened risk of violence.

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."[10]

As a result of the failure of white feminism to meet the needs of Indigenous women, Indigenous feminism draws from Postcolonial feminism. That is to say, 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, however, because some have argued that postcolonial theory in general has largely ignored the histories of colonialism as it exists for Indigenous populations.[11] 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 get's the privilege of naming when a society becomes post-colonial.[12] 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."[9] 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.[13]

Much of Indigenous feminism has taken shape around issues that resulted from colonial practices.[9] 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."[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] 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."[17] Decolonization is seen as the ultimate tool to combat subordination of Indigenous people.[2]

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 it's marginalization of minorities and lack of racial diversity.[18] 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."[16]

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."[16] 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.[8]

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."[19]

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."[17]

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"[20] 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...). Andrea Smith, as well as many others, have argued that "since Native women are the women most likely to be killed by domestic violence, they are clearly not surviving. So when we talk about survival of our nations, who are we including?"[5] White feminist priorities most often have more to do with the discretion of privileged women, than the survival of one's culture and people.


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."[21] 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. 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.[22] 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."[23] 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.[24] Healing practices include doing work that reverts back to the pre-colonized cultural traditional Indigenous work such as weaving, sewing, music, or even active participation in Indigenous community.[8] 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."[8] 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 peices as academia.[25] 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.[26]

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 explaied 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."[27] Indigenous feminist activism includes a broad scope of actions, but center Indigenous women's experiences.


  1. "Intersectionality and Indigenous Feminism: An Aboriginal Woman's Perspective - The Postcolonialist". Retrieved 2016-10-10.
  2. 1 2 Smith, Andrea. "Decolonizing Anti-Rape Law and Strategizing Accountability in Native American Communities". EBSCOhost.
  3. 1 2 Mihesua, Devon. "Commonalty of Difference: American Indian Women and History". American Indian Quarterly. 20. |first2= missing |last2= in Authors list (help)
  4. Smith, Andrea. "Native American Feminism, Sovereignty, and Social Change". Feminist Studies.
  5. 1 2 Smith, Andrea. "Indigenous feminism without apology". Unsettling America Decolonization in Theory & Practice. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  6. Grande, Sandy. "Whitestream Feminism and the Colonialist Project: A Review of Contemporary Feminist Pedagogy and Praxis". Educational Theory.
  7. LaDuke, Winona (2005). Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. South End Press via Google Scholar.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Anderson, Kim (2001). A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach Press. p. 58. ISBN 1-894549-12-0.
  9. 1 2 3 Suzack, Cheryl; Huhndorf, Shari M.; Perreault, Jeanne; Barman, Jean (2010). Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-7748-1809-3.
  10. Crenshaw, Kimberle. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color". Stanford Law Review. 43.
  11. Byrd, Jodi (2011). The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. xxxii. ISBN 1-4529-3317-0.
  12. Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. "Who Stole Native American Studies?". Wicazo Sa Review. 12.
  13. Trask, Haunani-Kay. "Feminism and Indigenous Hawaiian Nationalism". Signs. 21.
  14. Green, Joyce A. (2007). Making Space for Indigenous Feminism. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing. p. 23. ISBN 1-55266-220-9.
  15. Anderson, Kim (2010). Suzack, Cheryl, ed. Affirmations of an Indigenous Feminist. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 88.
  16. 1 2 3 Liddle, Celeste (25 June 2014). "Intersectionality and Indigenous Feminism: An Aboriginal Woman's Perspective". The Postcolonialist.
  17. 1 2 Cunningham, Myrna (2006). "Indigenous Women's Visions of an Inclusive Feminism". Development. 49 (1): 55–59. doi:10.1057/palgrave.development.1100227.
  18. Briggs, Kelly. "Australian feminists need to talk about race". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  19. Kuokkanen, Rauna (2000). "Towards an 'Indigenous Paradigm' from a Sami Perspective.". Canadian Journal of Native Studies. 20 (2): 415.
  20. mazecyrus (2015-07-07). "Open Letter From Indigenous Women Scholars Regarding Discussions of Andrea Smith". Indian Country Today Media Retrieved 2016-10-10.
  21. Morris, Amanda. "Twenty-First Debt Collectors: Idle No More Combats a Five-Hundred-Year-Old Debt". Women Studies Quarterly. 42.
  22. CNN, Marilia Brocchetto and Emanuella Grinberg. "On Columbus Day, support grows for the indigenous". CNN. Retrieved 2016-10-10.
  23. Driskill, Qwo-Li (2011). Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. The University of Arizona Press. pp. 211–221.
  24. "Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Lifelong Consequences of Trauma" (PDF). American Academy of Pediatrics.
  25. Moraga, Cherrie; Anzaldua, Gloria (2015). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color Fourth Edition. State University of New York Press, Albany.
  26. Chrystos (1988). Not Vanishing. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers.
  27. "The Indigenous Women's Network, Our Future, Our Responsibility, Winona LaDuke, 8/31/95". Retrieved 2016-10-10.

Further reading

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