Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

The Blog offers information about Indigenous women spanning topics from current events in Indian Country to book reviews to discussion of Indigenous women’s cultural histories and ritual cycles relating to the Earth. Above all, there are the voices of Indigenous women as they present themselves.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

America Before Rape Culture

Posted by on in SageWoman Blogs

With awareness growing in America about the widespread occurrence of sexual harassment, assault, and rape impacting so many women's lives, I think often about the conversations I hear Americans having about this crisis and the pervasive absence of even superficially referring to cultures that do not historically have a culture of rape. The idea, and reality, is rarely (ever?) mentioned on social media, on radio/television outlets, in college textbooks, or in print media. Only if Americans read Indian Country Today or the individual blogs of Native American activists are they going to read about America Before Rape Culture.

No national dialogue about the time when America had no Rape Culture? Let's change that!

Tragically, discussion about sexual violation in the national dialogue is often expressed as if rape is just a natural part of human life. As if men verbally denigrating, groping, grabbing, and assaulting women is just a natural human-man behavior that many men reject (the "good guys") and some men act out (the "bad guys"). As many Americans dismissively said when our current president was caught on audio tape lauding his own history of sexually assaulting women, "Boys will be boys." In America, rape is understood as just something men do; they are all, in this line of reasoning, born with the capacity to rape, but "good guys" control the urge. Women who sexually assault people are just "bad girls" acting like "bad men."

b2ap3_thumbnail_Adam_And_Eve_Become_Evicted.jpgWhen it comes to rape, the national conversation tends to be geared more toward individual choices men make in an over-arching environment where women's bodies are understood to be inherently violable and expected to be available at all times to meet the needs of others, especially men. In other words, it is just natural, normal, and organically-human that women are meant to meet the needs of everyone: sexual, social, biological. Indeed, in the Creation Story of western culture, Eve was created by God to be Adam's "helpmeet," he was created to rule over her, and Eve is commanded "thy will shall be unto thy husband." In this story, Eve/all women are blamed for the fall of humanity.

To begin with, the history of America did not begin with the Pilgrims, the religions they brought with them, or the oppressive laws about women they practiced. This is not the first story of America that set up the very Rape Culture we are struggling with today. The belief that men's needs are primary and women were created to meet those needs by sublimating our own was the original and first imported product to America and today, survivors of assault (of all sexes, genders, and ages) are still paying the price. Before the Pilgrims, there was no such story or laws that disenfranchised women. No widespread concepts or practices of wholesale denigration of women existed on Turtle Island.

Yes, that is correct. There was no Rape Culture among Native Americans before colonization.

Long before the story of Adam and Eve and the cultural practices of women's subjugation were brought to all the Americas (north, central, and south) by the European conquerors, most Native American nations had a Female Deity or women and lesbian and gay people were included in their Creation Stories. In the Eastern Woodlands nations, Sky Woman created Mother Earth and Iroquoian women were/still are Clan Mothers. All people were raised to believe, and saw modeled for them daily, widespread respect for women: Women's centrality in the nations; Women's bodies as sacred and belonging to them; Women as judges; Women as national leaders; Women owning their own property; Women who appoint, and depose of incompetent, chiefs; Women with complete control over their own lives, children, economics, and reproduction.

b2ap3_thumbnail_skywoman.jpgThis is not a fantasy, though some scholars openly refute these cultural practices, carefully ignoring the towering body of historic knowledge along with the reality that Iroquois women are still Clan Mothers, still leaders, still appointing chiefs, still the embodiment of Sky Woman, their Creator. You can read more about this by going to the website of, or visiting in person, the Ska-nonh Great Law of Peace Center in Liverpool, New York, U.S.A. Above is a painting by the renowned Oneida artist, Bruce King. You can find more of his work at:

Before America was colonized, there was no Rape Culture because many Native American nations were Mother-Right cultures. Those that were not Mother-Right cultures still respected women overall, though some nations varied in their levels of gender equity. Nevertheless, widespread violence against women as we have in American culture today was simply unheard of before colonization. Women, Men, and Two-Spirited/Queer peoples typically functioned from a belief in communal ethics where all human beings and animal/plant lives were sacred. To modern Americans, this is truly unbelievable--they really struggle to accept this even when they strongly desire to believe in such a society. Go ahead and believe it--it is America's path to freedom to accept the Indigenous reality about the sanctity of women before colonization. Indigenous peoples are America's First Teachers. We need to listen to them.

b2ap3_thumbnail_George_Clinton_by_Ezra_Ames_full_portrait.jpgHere's a letter from General George Clinton (picture at your right), dated April 1779, to Colonel Van Schaick whose army was at the time attempting to annihilate the Iroquois people (women, men, children and all):

"Bad as these savages are, they never violate the chastity of any woman, their prisoner. It would be well to take measures to prevent a stain upon our army."

In other words, Colonel Van Schaick was supposed to tell his troops to stop raping women because the Native American men would never rape women, not even their women prisoners, and Schaick's troops were making the Europeans look bad. They were making EuroAmerican men look like the savages when the whole so-called justification for killing Native Americans was that they were the savages. This letter is not an anomaly in the historic record, but is representative of what was common knowledge in the earliest colonial days. General Clinton (1739--1812) is considered a Founding Father of the United States and was the 4th U.S. Vice President who served under President Thomas Jefferson.

b2ap3_thumbnail_1840sGreeley.jpgHere's more: EuroAmerican (white) women teachers working in upstate New York in the 1800s often wrote about their experiences with Native American people in the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. At your left is Horace Greeley, the editor and publisher of the NY Tribune, which he launched in 1841. What so many of these women teachers wrote about was the amazing freedom and safety they experienced walking in the open countryside, day or night, knowing they would never be assaulted by a Native man. A Reverend M.F. Trippe, a white missionary, told a New York City reporter:

"Tell the readers of the Herald that...they have a sincere respect for women--their own women as well as those of the whites. I have seen young white women going unprotected about parts of the reservations in search of botanical specimens best found there and Indian men helping them. Where else in the land can a girl be safe from insult from rude men whom she does not know?"

Where, indeed?!

Rape Culture comes from a people's cultural values, and Native American nations did not have cultures of rape. A culture of rape is a widespread practice of a people that is historically and intergenerationally prevalent, and stems from core values and beliefs in domination and power and control that commodifies and eroticizes women and children of all genders. Native Americans did not have such cultures, though incidences of male-on-female violence did occur before colonization, just as incidences of treachery, deceit, and other human ills occurred in Native nations despite being founded on a culture that is grounded in communal ethics. This tells us that even when there is an egalitarian social structure with gender equity, human ills of all types still can occur, but as anomalies, not as widespread pariahs like rape is practiced in America.

Jeanne Shenandoah of the Onondaga Nation writes in 2001 "When we met these white women so long ago, I am sure that our women were probably shocked at the lack of human equality that these other women had to live under...and we...couldn't understand how not only women, but women and children, were living under this totally oppressive situation."

Modern Americans do not have to imagine or hypothesize about gender equity in a free society, write utopian novels about egalitarian social structures, craft from scratch what social safety looks like, or dream their way into a new world order. Women living without oppression, sexual harassment and rape is old news to Indigenous people. Turning with respect to their traditional stories and centralizing in all media outlets Indigenous women living today who practice the original cultures is a major way America can move forward as a country.

Rape Culture is one of the poisons of western culture. It is human made and promulgated; it is not organically human at all because humans are born from Earth and Sky that already know how to co-exist with respect for one another. Rape Culture is sub-human and inhumane, a perversion of power and a tool of domination. The practice of American culture I am working for and nourishing begins with respect for women in all expressions of life: in our literatures, films, daily speech, school curricula, families, religious practices, businesses, and governments.  The naysayers among us can keep espousing doom, but, like my Elders and the women-men-queer folks before me, I will not stop until Rape Culture has been exposed for the sham it is and utterly dissolved from American culture allowing us to return to the way it was before the settlers arrived--Indian people leading the way, like the Clan Mother pictured here.

b2ap3_thumbnail_clan_mother_home_7_600_315_c1_left_bottom.jpgFor more information about Native American cultures without rape, read Sally Roesch Wagner's very accessible book titled Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists from where some quotes in this blog came. For a deep-dive into the primary historic records, I recommend Barbara Alice Mann's definitive work Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. By the way, the word "gantowisas" means "indispensable woman" in the Seneca language--what word in English means "indispensable woman"? I hope one of you invents such a word in English because America certainly needs it.


Last modified on
Tagged in: rape rape culture
Dr. Mays is a professional writer with a doctoral degree in Native American Studies who has taught at the college level for nearly two decades. She is committed to educating about Indigenous cultures, especially about practices that specifically relate to women, in order to raise awareness about current issues in Indian Country, dissolve stereotypes, and create healing among all communities.


Additional information