What we can learn from Native Americans about feminism and rape culture

What we can learn from Native Americans about feminism and rape culture

The White Woman’s Envy

History is written by the victors…and victors don’t like to laud the praises of the people they’ve crushed. As descendants of Western colonizers, we tend to think of early Native people as uncivilized, savage, half-naked, backward — these harmful and pejorative words still permeate some mindsets. But November is Native American History Month, and if you’ve learned your American history primarily from a colonizer-centric perspective, it might surprise you to know that Native people were incredibly advanced regarding gender roles and were actually a key influence on early feminism.

Cherokee leader Attakullakulla, later the First Beloved Man of the tribe, came to South Carolina in February 1757 to negotiate trade agreements with the colonial governor, William Henry Lyttelton, and was shocked when he saw that no white women were present at the table.

“Since the white man as well as the red was born of woman, did not the white man admit women to their council?” Attakullakulla asked the governor.

Three days later, the governor finally came up with a response and completely evaded the question: “The white men do place confidence in their women and share their councils with them when they know their hearts are good.”

Carolyn Johnston, professor at Eckerd College and author of Cherokee Women in Crisis; Trail of Tears, Civil War, and Allotment, 1838-1907, writes that Europeans were astonished to see that Cherokee women were socially, politically, and economically equal to men.

“Women had autonomy and sexual freedom, could obtain divorce easily, rarely experienced rape or domestic violence, worked as producers/farmers, owned their own homes and fields, possessed a cosmology that contains female supernatural figures, and had significant political and economic power,” she writes. “Cherokee women’s close association with nature, as mothers and producers, served as a basis of their power within the tribe, not as a basis of oppression. Their position as ‘the other’ led to gender equivalence, not hierarchy.”

Among the Haudenosaunee (a confederacy of northeast nations: the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora commonly known as the Iroquois), women held and still hold considerable power.  It is the clan mothers who elect and remove male leaders and the society is matrilineal.

For the early women’s rights movement and activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Seneca Falls, NY, they looked to the Haudenosaunee women with envy and admiration, because women ruled the home, controlled property, and were seen as equals within the tribe.  Meanwhile, for the world of Stanton and her fellow women, married women were legally dead. They owned no property, had no rights over their bodies or children, no finances of their own. There was no law in church or state that condemned marital rape. Stanton summarized that a married woman was “nameless, purseless and childless” despite being “a woman, heiress and mother.”  For Native women, the things that their white counterparts longed for weren’t “rights,” they were simply a way of life.  

Respect and rape among Native tribes

Native tribes did not rape enemy women like their European counterparts.  Early American settlers thought that this was probably because the natives had no sexual interest in white women, but the answer more likely lies in the two cultures’ completely different approach to respect for life.

Many Native tribes had very strict rules about life-giving acts and death-giving acts, and strong prohibitions against incest, including adopted members. People who belonged to one clan were considered relatives and it was forbidden to marry a member of the same clan.  Captives were often adopted into a family, therefore, rarely sexually assaulted. The punishment for those who did rape was death.

A missionary to the Seneca, the Reverend M.F. Trippe, told a New York City reporter that the Haudenosaunee had “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 else in the land, indeed.

Today, Native people are the demographic at greatest risk of sexual violence according to RAINN:

  • On average, Natives ages 12 and older experience 5,900 sexual assaults per year.
  • Natives are twice as likely to experience a sexual violence compared to all races.
  • 41% of sexual assaults against Natives are committed by a stranger; 34% by an acquaintance; and 25% by an intimate or family member.

This month is Native American History Month. Do not dishonor the memory of those who lived here before us, or the culture of the marginalized people who still remain, by not understanding their history or by ignoring the plight of Native people today.  

They are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind.” -Tuscarora Proverb


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