“I don’t accept colonizers propaganda about what constitutes a ‘successful’ Indian. In my opinion, any Indian still alive is a success.”
For as long as the United States has existed as a settler-colonial nation — a good 500 years at least — Indigenous people have resisted state violence and worked tirelessly to survive and thrive. Yet despite this long history of protest and community-building, Indigenous voices and issues are predominantly invisible in conversations on social justice.
What does this continued erasure — even by those who claim to be anti-racist — mean for Indigenous people, our tribal nations, and the nation as a whole? How are Indigenous activists, creators, and scholars building resilient and healthy communities?
I recently spoke with four prominent Indigenous people about feminism, resistance, and tribal sovereignty:
Leanne Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg activist, scholar, and poet who was heavily involved with the Idle No More movement that called attention to treaty violations and environmental degradation.
Chrystos, a Menominee two-spirit poet and activist, has published several books of poetry and was featured in the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua.
Sarah Deer is a lawyer and advocate from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who was deeply involved with the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that expanded tribal ability to prosecute sexual predators and abusers on reservations.
Dr. Brenda Child is an Ojibwe history professor who has written books on the emotional toll of boarding schools on youth and their families and how American Indian women empower their communities.
Here’s our conversation.
In what ways do you think tribal sovereignty and feminism intersect?
Leanne Simpson: Within Nishnaabeg thought, diversity, consent, empathy, and non-interference are important, and to me they are the building blocks of nationhood and our political system. We need all genders and sexual orientations, all Indigenous bodies as political orders operating at their very best, to have healthy individuals, clans, families, and international diplomacy.
Sarah Deer: Both tribal sovereignty and feminist theory broadly intend for people/entities to be empowered. Tribal sovereignty is a rather generic phrase that references the ability for tribal nations to make their own laws and be governed by them. Many feminist theories also seek to empower women and sexual minorities to change society for the better.
Chrystos: The term “tribal sovereignty” is not a part of public feminist theory as far as I’ve seen. Numerous printed agendas rarely mention Native women and haven’t championed our issues — indeed, even mentioned them. I’ve given about 50 years of my life attempting to bring an Indigenous vision to the largely Black/white feminist movement—I’ve experienced too much disrespect, overt and covert racism, as well as weird power structures to feel that there is any interaction.
The term ‘tribal sovereignty’ is not a part of public feminist theory as far as I’ve seen.
Brenda Child: Ojibwe women, along with other American Indian women, were historically at the center of organized community life due to their significant roles in Indigenous economies. When I look back at Ojibwe society, I can see that large collectives of women organized much of the labor, which tended to leave political roles to men. So much has changed in Ojibwe society, yet men still often dominate in politics. This needs to change.
With the new administration in the United States, it’s unclear how much positive legal change Indian Country will achieve in the coming years. How can we create change from a community or individual level?
Simpson: I work in the area of Indigenous resurgence that is rebuilding our nations based on our political practices, our ethical systems. I am interested in building Indigenous worlds and then living in them. I am interested in building the Indigenous alternative to capitalism, heteropatriarchy and white supremacy based on our own practices and ethics and I’m interested in connecting to other communities of resistance who are doing the same.
C: The difficulty for us, in creating change, is that we aren’t any more of a state of unity than dominant society. We’re a rag tag group of saviors, and we all fight internalized racism and despair and poverty. (Which is not necessarily financial). I don’t accept colonizers propaganda about what constitutes a ‘successful’ Indian. In my opinion, any Indian still alive is a success.
SD: I agree that this administration is not Indian-friendly. The most we can probably do in the next four years is damage control. It will be hard to go on the offensive because much of our work is going to be trying to prevent harms to tribal nations.
Any Indian still alive is a ‘success.’
BC: My priorities have not changed despite the recent discouraging politics in the United States, which, by the way, American Indians have always faced. We still need to educate our children and coming generations. We need to work now to preserve and revitalize our languages, spiritual traditions, family structures, and our community life.
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How can we center Indigenous epistemologies in social movements and empower tribal self-determination?
LS: I think about this a lot. Every day I get up and ask myself, how will my ancestors recognize me today? In Michi Saagiig Nishnaabe thought, the world is made by the processes and relationships we have with the land and with each other. I try to create decolonizing spaces for my family and my relations to escape the violence of colonialism and feel freedom and joy. I think the first step is living as Nishnaabeg, and that will necessarily mean different things for different people. The second step is to collectivize this in our meetings and visitings with each other.
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When will those supposedly committed to equality started caring about and listening to Native Women?
SD: Many tribal nations seek to have strong internal systems that enhance the lives of their citizens. For some tribal nations, this means developing strong contemporary criminal justice systems to address high crime rates. For other tribal nations, it may be more important to revitalize more traditional forms of justice, such as peacemaking systems or traditional dispute resolution. Culture and language must always be considered when seeking to improve or restore effective systems.
BC: Even if we are not experts in every area, we can still be supportive of those in our community who take on important roles. We may not be spiritual leaders, but we can attend ceremonies. We may not be language teachers or even speakers, but we can support that work and be language advocates. We may not be lawyers or judges, but we can attend meetings in our communities and encourage justice.
What societal barriers face Indigenous feminist movements?
LS: Heteropatriarchy provides a never-ending series of violent barriers and misconceptions for Indigenous peoples to wade through. I notice Indigenous women and Two Spirit/Queer folks don’t let these barriers and misconceptions stop us. We lovingly detonate these with every breath.
C: The barriers and misconceptions in our way remain the old tired and true racism/sexism (they actually don’t exist separately), these tools of the ongoing project called “Vanishing Americans” we’ll be fighting all our lives.
BC: People misunderstand the historical significance of women’s roles and significant place in society. Sometimes this misunderstanding exists among our own people.
Culture and language must always be considered when seeking to improve or restore effective systems.
SD: Mainstream feminism (white feminism) has not and does speak to many Native women. I consider myself a Native feminist, but that identity is relatively uncommon. I believe that Native people have been subjected to violence as a result of colonialism and patriarchy. If we are to be liberated as tribal nations, it will happen because patriarchy as a form of social control has been destroyed.
What gives you hope?
LS: Visiting with Indigenous peoples — laughing, singing, telling stories, listening — these tiny islands of joy and love give me hope.
SD: Native women who are studying, working, singing, dancing, raising children, and taking care of each other.
C: “Hope” is a funny word, like “justice.” I feel hope when I’m working to grow plants. But mostly, I wouldn’t say I have “hope.” I definitely have stubbornness which keeps me alive. I have joy for those fighting the pipeline, for Idle No More, and all the beautiful resistance I see everywhere. My spirit has a home in reality — I’m not sure that “hope” isn’t just another English con-game. If we are told to have hope, we may not be as angry about our situations as we need to be.
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BC: My students give me hope, as well as my 16-year-old daughter. This past weekend she wrote and directed a short play in a Minneapolis theater about the history of American Indian incarceration called “Their Crime was Being Indian.” She is a jingle dress dancer, studies the Ojibwe language, and attends the Midiwiwin Lodge — these are things her grandmothers did in their lifetimes.
What do you do for self care?
LS: I make maple sugar, rice, fish, hunt, and lose myself in the warmth of ceremony, story, and song.
SD: I would love to say that I do yoga or light scented candles, but the reality is that I watch trashy television. With the harsh nature of my work, I enjoy brain candy.
BC: I work!
C: The most important decision I’ve made is to work with my pal Sunny for the last 13 years. Loving and living with another Native woman warrior has brought me a deep and sacred peace. We can’t fix a broken system or heal the people who are attached to racism/sexism…but we can love and honor Indians and work hard to be good to ourselves and others.