Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

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Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

Posted by on in SageWoman Blogs

Native women of the Indigenous nations on Turtle Island (what is now called the contiguous United States)—along with their sisters around the world—may not often make it onto the front page of the New York Times, but they are nevertheless the center of their nations. Although the stereotype of “Pocahontas-type” Indian women still prevails in mainstream American culture, Indigenous women today hold their nations, traditions, and peoples together, as they have always done. From starting international networks to foundations and collectives to engaging in social activism and political movements to organizing classes and language schools, Indigenous women are active in their communities. They act, petition, march, and pray to protect the Earth Mother from further destruction, and perpetuate their ancient values, practices, and ceremonies through the time-honored traditions of their nations. They write books, music, and produce films. They teach at colleges and work in factories. Native women are everywhere in America—every walk of life, every state in the union, of every political persuasion and religion. Indigenous women may be a relatively hidden demographic in America, but that could not be farther from the reality of Indigenous nations.

Indigenous Women Chiefs in Film

There were two excellent films in 2013 that focus on the lives of Indigenous women. The first is Young Lakota, which is about Chief Cecelia Fire Thunder (Oglala) fighting for women’s reproductive rights in South Dakota. After South Dakota banned abortion in 2008, Fire Thunder opened a women’s clinic on her nation’s land. Fire Thunder states in an interview after she was impeached “I stood by what my belief is. Lakota women, way before Columbus came, made choices about our lives. In our teachings, women are sacred, that is our Lakota way. I have the gift of thought, the gift of spirit, the gift of heart…” The film features twins Sunny and Serena Clifford (Oglala) and was filmed on location at Pine Ridge reservation. The impeachment of Fire Thunder, the first woman chief of the Oglala, demonstrates the variance of beliefs among the people of her nation and most certainly how colonization has impacted those beliefs. Since colonization, these are complex issues that Indigenous communities struggle with. Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Jessica Danforth (Mohawk), was on the discussion panel after the debut screening of the film demonstrating that these are important, international issues.

The second film about an Indigenous woman chief is The Cherokee Word for Water, which is about the first woman chief of the Cherokee, the late Wilma Mankiller. Kimberly Norris Guerrero played Mankiller in the film and won the Best Actress award at the Indigenous film festival called Red Nation. The film takes viewers through the struggles Chief Mankiller experienced while bringing a water pipeline through Cherokee land and wrangling with long-held political and gender struggles among her people that stem from colonization. Those struggles are discussed in greater detail in her book Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (St. Martin’s Press 1993). For example, when running for office, Mankiller received death threats and was openly confronted by a Cherokee man who claimed “If you’re elected chief, the Cherokee will be the laughing stock of the nations!” Sadly, what occasionally poses as “Indigenous tradition” today is really the brainwashing of the colonizers. The highest political office in the Cherokee nation before the Europeans arrived, that carried with it the right of last and final word on all matters, was the office of Beloved Woman. The Cherokee nation was grounded in twinned, gender complementary structures, as all nations east of the Mississippi were (and many still are). But after Cherokee young men were shipped to England in the 1800s to be “re-conditioned”, i.e. brainwashed to reject their culture, and the work of the Indian Boarding schools began, anti-women beliefs are, unfortunately, the understandable outcome.

I hope some of you will take time to see these two fabulous films that are not only about the featured Native women, but show a slice of life in contemporary Indigenous communities that will be eye-opening.

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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.


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