Standard educational fare now that we have Women's History Month is the discussion of "first wave feminism" and the fight for women's suffrage. Though many historians and scholars these days acknowledge the contributions of men from the Iroquois Confederacy in shaping the U.S. Constitution, it has been only recently that contemporary scholars are exploring how women of the confederacy inspired and helped shape the ideas of suffragists.
Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, author of Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists, lectures here about the relationship between early women's suffrage activists and Native American women, women like Matilda Josyln Gage.
During the 1870's, Gage wrote a series of controversial articles decrying the brutal and unjust treatment American Indians had received. Having already broken numerous treaties, the government was trying to force citizenship upon Native Americans, she argued, thus destroying their independent nation status, and further opening "wide the door to the grasping avarice of the white man." Gage, who was adopted into the wolf clan of the Mohawk nation and given the name Ka-ron-ien-ha-wi (Sky Carrier), wrote of the superior form of government practiced by the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy, in which "the power between the sexes was nearly equal." This indigenous practice of woman's rights became her vision.
Sarah Winnemucca was profiled here
In 1879, Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute from Nevada and the daughter of Chief Winnemucca, gave a series of lectures in San Francisco and Sacramento on the treatment of Indians by the Indian Service. Five years later her autobiography, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, was published. Winnemucca then traveled throughout the country giving lectures on the conditions in Indian country, often charging the government with mismanagement of Indian affairs. Sara Winnemucca became the most recognized Indian woman of the late nineteenth century.
You can read her book online here
Reading her description of day-to-day life with her people and the joy of young women is a gift. But the gift is laced with terrible pain.
Many years ago, when my people were happier than they are now, they used to celebrate the Festival of Flowers in the spring. I have been to three of them only in the course of my life. Oh, with what eagerness we girls used to watch every spring for the time when we could meet with our hearts' delight, the young men, whom in civilized life you call beaux. We would all go in company to see if the flowers we were named for were yet in bloom, for almost all the girls are named for flowers. We talked about them in our wigwams, as if we were the flowers, saying, "Oh, I saw myself to-day in full bloom!" We would talk all the evening in this way in our families with such delight, and such beautiful thoughts of the happy day when we should meet with those who admired us and would help us to sing our flower-songs which we made up as we sang. But we were always sorry for those that were not named after some flower, because we knew they could not join in the flower-songs like ourselves, who were named for flowers of all kinds.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
At last one evening came a beautiful voice, which made every girl's heart throb with happiness. It was the chief, and every one hushed to hear what he said to-day.
"My dear daughters, we are told that you have seen yourselves in the hills and in the valleys, in full bloom. Five days from to-day your festival day will come. I know every young man's heart stops beating while I am talking. I know how it was with me many years ago. I used to wish the Flower Festival would come every day. Dear young men and young women, you are saying, 'Why put it off five days?' But you all know that is our rule. It gives you time to think, and to show your sweetheart your flower." All the girls who have flower-names dance along together, and those who have not go together also. Our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers make a place for us where we can dance. Each one gathers the flower she is named for, and then all weave them into wreaths and crowns and scarfs, and dress up in them...
I will repeat what we say of ourselves. "I, Sarah Winnemucca, am a shell-flower, such as I wear on my dress. My name is Thocmetony. I am so beautiful! Who will come and dance with me while I am so beautiful? Oh, come and be happy with me! I shall be beautiful while the earth lasts. Somebody will always admire me; and who will come and be happy with me in the Spirit-land? I shall be beautiful forever there. Yes, I shall be more beautiful than my shell-flower, my Thocmetony! Then, come, oh come, and dance and be happy with me!" The young men sing with us as they dance beside us. Our parents are waiting for us somewhere to welcome us home. And then we praise the sage-brush and the rye-grass that have no flower, and the pretty rocks that some are named for; and then we present our beautiful flowers to these companions who could carry none. And so all are happy; and that closes the beautiful day. My people have been so unhappy for a long time they wish now to disincrease, instead of multiply. The mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother's presence.
Susan La Flesche Picotte was born June 17, 1865. She was the daughter of Joseph La Flesche (Insta Maza, or "Iron Eye"), who was half Omaha and half white and had become a chief of the Omahas in 1853. Her mother was Mary Gale (Hinnungsnun, or "One Woman"). Her half-brother, Francis La Flesche, was a noted ethnologist and interpreter.
She was also the sister of Susette "Bright Eyes" La Flesche Tibbles
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, first Native American woman
in the United States to receive a medical degree.
Few people realize that some Native Americans attended historically black colleges
In 1884 La Flesche Picotte enrolled at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Hampton had been founded with the goal of educating black freedmen but was experimenting at the time with Indian education as well. During her tenure at Hampton, La Flesche Picotte came into contact with the Connecticut Indian Association, which had been founded in Hartford in 1881 and was a branch of the nationwide Women's National Indian Association (founded in Philadelphia in 1879). This group was one of many Protestant women's organizations of the late nineteenth century dedicated to improving the welfare and morality of Native Americans according to the standards and values of middle-class Protestants.
La Flesche's story was fraught with contradictions, and for much of her life she spent time trying to negotiate between two worlds, the health needs of her people, the balancing act being accepted by white society, hostility invoked by her crusade to see alcohol sale abolished on the reservation, and her own personal trials with her marriage. Her husband died in 1905 and her life took on a new direction
One of her activities was to improve public health by pressing for modern hygienic and preventative standards among the Omaha. In 1913 she realized a lifelong goal and saw the opening of a hospital for the Omaha at her new home in Walthill, Nebraska. But she served her tribespeople in other ways as well. In 1910 she headed a tribal delegation to Washington, D.C., to discuss issues of citizenship and competency - a fuzzy and often abused legal prerequisite for Indian citizenship - with the Secretary of the Interior.
In the years after her husband's death she began to distrust the role of the government in supervising tribal life, a role which she had heretofore always encouraged. Part of her change in attitude resulted from the difficulty she had in assuming control of the inheritance left by her husband for their two sons. Government officials insisted that care of the inheritance should be given to a hard-drinking distant relative who had only visited the children once and lived in another state. Only after submitting references from white friends was she granted the right to supervise the monies. This encounter with government bureaucracy angered her and fueled a major turnaround in the way she viewed the relationship between Indians and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She had once likened her tribe to "little children, without father or mother." Now she said, as quoted in Relations of Rescue, "this condition of being treated as children we want to have nothing to do with … the majority of the Omahas are as competent as the same number of white people." Shortly before her death in 1915, La Flesche Picotte demonstrated her newfound distance from former white mentors (women like Sara Kinney and anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher) by expressing her support for a new Native American religious movement that worried Protestant missionaries: the Peyote Religion, a pro-temperance Christian denomination that later became known as the American Indian or Native American Church.
La Flesche Picotte became a great deal more than the first Native American woman physician. She was a symbol for many marginalized groups who sought empowerment in the nineteenth century. She was a shining light not only for the Indian rights movement, but for the women's movement as well. She was ahead of her time as a Native American activist because she was among the earliest Indian leaders to look beyond the interests of her own tribe and address the broad issues facing Native Americans in general. She never failed to speak her mind in the face of castigation either from fellow tribespeople or from white supporters. Her courage, in concert with a rare physician's compassion, made her a unique and effective leader for her people.
Some of the history I want to talk about here isn't long buried in dusty tomes and museums. It is a history that so many women and men who are Native Americans suffer with today, and still find roadblocks in their paths to get redress. That is the sexual abuse in "Indian Boarding Schools
," written about frequently here
One woman currently leading the fight for justice and healing is Barbara K. Charbonneau-Dahlen, PhD, RN, who is a member of the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians located in Belcourt, North Dakota.
Giving voice to historical trauma through storytelling: The impact of boarding school experience on American Indians
Dahlen is herself a survivor, and is one of the plaintiffs fighting to bring pedophile priests to justice. A national outcry took place after abuses by priests in other areas of our nation were uncovered, as there was for abuse of football players at Penn State. We need to give the same support to Native peoples.
Are Pedophiles Getting Free Pass in South Dakota? (Warning: linked article may contain triggers for some people.)
A bill in the South Dakota legislature that appears intended to give several dozen Native American childhood-sexual-abuse plaintiffs their day in court may do just the opposite. According to several legislators, Senate Bill 130 is supposed to fix problems caused by a 2010 law that retroactively blocked the Native lawsuits against the Catholic Church, which ran the boarding schools where the abuse allegedly took place.
However, others claim the new proposal makes matters worse by reinstating the statute of limitations in effect “on the date the abuse occurred,” according to the bill’s language. For the plaintiffs in question, that was the mid-20th century, when the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse shut the courthouse door three years after the abuse, or one year after the victim turned 18—a birthday that’s long past for them.
SB 130’s final sentence slams the door and locks it, according to attorney Michael Shubeck, of the Law Offices of Gregory Yates, in Rapid City; he and Yates have Native clients whose cases were terminated under the 2010 law. Shubeck noted that in a kind of circular logic, this part of the bill says that if a legislative action (like the 2010 law) killed valid cases, SB 130 would revive them. But, said Shubeck, the short mid-20th-century statute of limitations that SB 130 puts into play means the lawsuits can never be valid. End of story. Dr. Barbara Charbonneau-Dahlen read SB 130’s draft language and was also concerned. Charbonneau-Dahlen is Chippewa and filed a suit alleging abuse at St. Paul’s Indian Mission School, in Marty, South Dakota. She e-mailed the South Dakota Legislative Research Council, which had written the bill, saying, “If SB 130 stays as is, we would go back to the 1960 rule, and we would again be denied our day in court.”
I'd like to suggest you add this book to your reading list.
Choctaw scholar Dr. Devon Abbott Mihesuah, PhD. in American History,
Mihesuah offers a frank and absorbing look at the complex, evolving identities of American Indigenous women today, their ongoing struggles against a centuries-old legacy of colonial disempowerment, and how they are seen and portrayed by themselves and others.
Mihesuah first examines how American Indigenous women have been perceived and depicted by non-Natives, including scholars, and by themselves. She then illuminates the pervasive impact of colonialism and patriarchal thought on Native women’s traditional tribal roles and on their participation in academia. Mihesuah considers how relations between Indigenous women and men across North America continue to be altered by Christianity and Euro-American ideologies. Sexism and violence against Indigenous women has escalated; economic disparities and intratribal factionalism and “culturalism” threaten connections among women and with men; and many women suffer from psychological stress because their economic, religious, political, and social positions are devalued.
In the last section, Mihesuah explores how modern American Indigenous women have empowered themselves tribally, nationally, or academically. Additionally, she examines the overlooked role that Native women played in the Red Power movement as well as some key differences between Native women "feminists" and "activists."
Lest you relegate all our native female scholars simply to the classroom, many are also engaged in activism, and even what they teach in colleges and universities can bring them under the scrutiny of the government. Such has been the case with Waziyatawin
Waziyatawin is a Dakota writer, teacher, and activist from the Pezihutazizi Otunwe (Yellow Medicine Village) in southwestern Minnesota. She is committed to the pursuit of Indigenous liberation and the protection and reclamation of Indigenous homelands and ways of being. She earned her PhD in American history from Cornell University and has held tenured positions at Arizona State University and the University of Victoria where she also held the Indigenous Peoples Research Chair in the Indigenous Governance Program. Waziyatawin is the author or co/editor of six volumes, including the recently co-edited volume with Michael Yellow Bird entitled For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook(SAR Press, 2012).
In 2011, Minnesota Public Radio broadcast this story: FBI asks about Dakota activist's controversial speech
A Minnesota American Indian scholar's remarks that the Dakota people might have to reclaim lost tribal lands "by any means necessary" has drawn the scrutiny of federal authorities. The Dakota historian who goes by the name Waziyatawin said she received a call this week from the FBI to discuss remarks she made in November at Winona State University.
Waziyatawin, a professor of indigenous history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who used to go by the name Angela Cavender Wilson, told students that it's time for American Indians to abandon symbolic demonstrations. Truth-telling efforts haven't achieved anything, she said, according to a recording of the speech obtained by the Winona Post. "We're going to need to take a different kind of action," said Waziyatawin, who grew up on the Upper Sioux Reservation in southwestern Minnesota. "All of you are going to have to figure out your role. For Dakota people, I know we're going to need to recover our land base, by any means necessary."
Having used that phrase often in my own life as an activist, I found it interesting that it apparently "shocked" some of the students who were attending her lecture.
Waziyatawin was unapologetic, and said her words are being distorted. She said the world is heading toward an economic and environmental collapse, as industrialized nations become more dependent on a limited supply of fossil fuels. As this way of life comes to an end, she said, native people must recover their homelands for food and survival.
"Never have I said that Dakota people should go out and kill people, or kill white settlers, or kill all white people because we hate them," Waziyatawin said. "That is definitely not my message, and I think that's the way my words get construed."
She said the audience misunderstood a crucial part of her address. "When I'm talking about there will undoubtedly be violence, I'm talking about violence against the Dakota people by the state, if we work toward justice," she said.
Here she is speaking to Occupy Oakland in November of 2011 asking for a change to the use of the term "occupy."
The violence of poverty, of rape and abuse perpetrated against Native women, the loss of sovereignty, the damage to the environment from climate change is truly something to be viewed from Waziyatawin's perspective, and that of her brother and sister activists.
Food for thought and discussion.
I would like to thank my colleague at SUNY New Paltz, Meg Devlin O'Sullivan, historian and Native American Studies scholar for her assistance, and her work ensuring that students learn about the history and current activism of our Ndn sisters. Her dissertation was "We Worry about Survival: American Indian Women, Sovereignty, and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s." She examined:
[T]he political activism of American Indian women during the 1970s. Confronted with racism from the dominant society and sexism from both within and outside of their communities, these women constructed a feminist agenda that addressed their concerns as Indians and women. In particular, they worked to end coerced sterilization and the rampant removal of Indian children from their communities and homes.
I encourage you to join Native American Netroots
here at Daily Kos, for a continuing education of the history, lives and contemporary struggles of our sisters and brothers.