[EDITORS’ NOTE: This piece was provided by the class of EGST 302: Seminar in Indigenous Studies. The contributors include the following: Bal James Bhujel; Amanda Canale; Taylor Channell; Thomas Fernandes; Sean Jones; Victoria Krouse; Delaney Norris; Hannah Panteleakis; David Tauscher; and Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal]
“The Earth is our mother. From her we get our life, and our ability to live. It is our responsibility to care for our Mother, and in caring for our Mother, we care for ourselves. Women, all females, are the manifestation of Mother Earth in human form…we are her daughters,” says Winona LaDuke, Co-Chair of the Indigenous Women’s Network, & two-time Vice Presidential Candidate for the Green Party in 1996 and 2000.
This quote is from a speech given by LaDuke at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995; however, things are no better today. If anything, they are even worse. Catastrophic global climate change is now a reality, and yet only one political candidate for the United States presidency has made it one of the central planks of his platform.
All around the world, women are taking up leadership roles in hopes of addressing climate change. Recently, a ceremony was conducted by indigenous people across the Americas where they released a Declaration in “Ms. Magazine” that stated, “As indigenous women…we understand that violations of the Laws of Mother Earth are also violations against women…we are inseparable.” This declaration directly echoes the speech made by LaDuke twenty-one years ago. Taking care of Mother Earth is inherent to indigenous cultures and is one of their fundamental values.
We celebrate Earth Day on April 22, and it is no coincidence that April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Furthermore, we, as a class, feel that our campus needs to be educated on this topic, as the two issues are closely linked. Awareness is not just knowing what is happening right now, but also taking a step back into history to understand what our ancestors went through. Only through this process can we learn how to work together to prevent assaults on all beings, as well as on the planet as a whole.
One finds that the words used to illustrate the assault on the Earth are also indicative of this predatory mindset: the plundering of its resources, the devastation of the environment, and the raping of the planet. Recently, a series of earthquakes have rocked the world: from Nepal to Japan, Peru to Ecuador. Nearer to us, 585 earthquakes affected Oklahoma in 2014, a consequence of the disposal of waste water from the state’s boom in “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, which is a technique used to drill for oil and natural gas. Here we see the consequences of exploiting the world, as a sexual predator does a woman.
However, is this an issue important to politicians? No! Should we not be more concerned about this as we are the generation that stands to be most affected by catastrophic climate change? The rates of deforestation, massive dam projects, uranium mining, and so on have reached crisis levels all over the world. For example, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is one acre every nine seconds LaDuke reported over two decades ago in 1995. One shudders to imagine what it is today.
This issue is closely connected to the problems affecting indigenous women worldwide. Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that Native American and Alaskan Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the U.S. in general. According to the statistics in “Futures Without Violence,” at least 70 percent of the violent victimizations experienced by American Indians are committed by persons not of the same race—a substantially higher rate of inter-racial violence than experienced by victims of other races.
“Over the years what happened is that white men, non-Native men, would go onto a Native American reservation, and go hunting – rape, abuse, and even murder a Native woman, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone could do to them,” a Cherokee tribal advocate explains in a Feb. 2014 Washington Post article. This goes to show the lack of power the Native communities have had even over their own sovereign territories for years.
Thankfully, in recent times, some important steps have been taken to address this gross injustice. For the first time in the history of the United States, Congress has allowed Indian tribes to prosecute crimes of violence committed in Indian country by non-Indians through the passage of a new law promoted by the Obama administration. The Australian and Canadian governments have gone even further, and have publicly apologized for their role in the cultural genocide of their indigenous communities. Canada has even gone so far as to initiate a Truth and Reconciliation Commission towards this end.
Native communities themselves have also perpetuated acts of violence against women and queer communities, which goes against their own ancient traditional values. Famous Native American theorists such as Andrea Smith and Paula Gunn Allen, however, have described that violence against women was never tolerated in their communities in former times, but came about as a direct result of colonization. This is where the American Indian boarding school experience is key.
The systematic abuse of Native children in the name of civilizing them has affected generations of Native peoples, resulting in enormous levels of domestic violence. Substance abuse, alcoholism, and rising levels of mental illness can all be traced to the Christian Boarding School experience. During their formative years, Native children were forcibly separated from their parents and clans and forced to live in Christian Boarding Schools where they were banned from speaking their language, practicing their faith, and talking about their culture. The children grew up experiencing severe abuse from their teachers, and then developed abusive patterns themselves.
As to the position of women, once the Native communities were colonized by European settlers, many of the formerly matriarchal tribes changed to patriarchal tribes, following the colonizer’s model. Women lost the power and rights they had been accustomed to, and as a result, became victims of domestic abuse.
“They took our land. They took our ways. They took our men. We want them back,” a Lakota woman stated in “The Crooked Braid” from “The Vagina Monologues.”
Winona LaDuke ended her powerful speech with an invocation to the great leader, Chief Seattle, who uttered this dire warning: “What befalls the Earth, befalls the People of the Earth.”
That is the reality of today with regard to Mother Earth and her children. We are all related to each other, and only that awareness can help us save our planet.