Indigenous Women: Nations, Cultures, Voices

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Women are Sacred Conference, June 1-3

From June 1-3 in Rapid City, South Dakota, the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center will be hosting the Women are Sacred Conference! Their website states "In honor of the sacredness of Native women, our poster for our upcoming Women are Sacred conference features historic Native women who inspire us in our movement to bring healing, positive change, and sovereignty to Native Nations. At the conference, we will share this collection of stories in a wall collage, in hopes of honoring their legacies, inspiring others, and celebrating their leadership."



Indigenous women leaders from organizations like the First Nations Women's Alliance, Native Women's Society of the Great Plains, Tribal Law and Policy Institute, the Native Wellness Institute, among others, and current and former Chiefs of Indigenous nations, like former Chief Cecelia Fire Thunder (Lakota), will be speakers at the conference. Panel sessions about Indigenous women's rights to safety, the importance of Native American nations' tribal sovereignty (the right to prosecute non-Native American perpetrators of sexual assault and violence against Native women), and restorative justice practices are included on the schedule of this three-day conference. Professionals from the violence against women's movement, academics, advocates, and tribal leaders will all come together to address this pernicious problem in Indian Country today. 

Since Native American women historically come from nations where they were valued and lived free of violence against them before European settlers arrived, why would Native American nations need to have such a conference and fight for women's rights today? Yes, that's right, rape was a rarity before the settlers arrived! Women European settlers wrote in their journals about how surprised they were to be able to walk about any time day or night without fearing violence against them--from Native American men, that is. Hence, readers might rightly wonder how Native women have become such a key focal point for violence.

Something most people do not know about or understand because of its absence in mainstream news sources is that Native American women are targets for sexual violence greater than any other demographic of women in the United States and Canada. The leaders across Indian Country and the U.S. Department of Justice have been addressing these concerns for decades. The reasons for this include the targeting of Native women by non-Native men because non-Native American men can easily avoid prosecution by tribal governments that do not have sovereignty. Also, the Violence Against Women Act that was recently renewed does NOT protect some Native American women, particularly in Alaska, because the American government does not recognize these nations as legitimate.

For Native American women, protection from violence is an especially challenging problem. An extremely informational book to read about this is Andrea Smith's work Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. This book is not for the faint of heart, as readers will be confronted with historic and contemporary sources of on-going colonization of Native people, especially women. Dr. Smith notes that people who pretend to be Native American make it particularly painful for Indigenous people today, because these non-Natives may be having fun tossing around corn meal and engaging in so-called "Indian" ceremonies, but they will never experience some of what it truly means to be a Native woman today: unrelenting discrimination, targeting for violence, and professional exclusion that creates real psychological suffering that can't be forgotten after the weekend retreat of playing Indian is over. It's better that we all honor our own ancestors who had sacred ceremonies and have compassion for Native women who are still deeply struggling with the effects of colonization.


Another important message of the Women are Sacred Conference is to see the international network of Indigenous-led organizations that are shaping their communities for the better. Native women leaders, healers, professional counselors and lawmakers are making a difference. For the non-Native community, there is much to emulate in their restorative justice programs and worldview: honoring women as holy, as deities, and recognizing the sanctity of lesbian, transgender, and gender queer individuals is part of the ancient cultures of the First Nations here on Turtle Island. They are an inspiration to our whole country and a beacon of hope for all women, especially those who have experienced violence.

Whether we can travel to South Dakota for the conference this year or not, let us all remember to yield our voices about Native American women's rights and their cultural prerogatives to their own and support their nations to govern themselves. This is an important way to honor Native women and show that we really do believe that Women are Sacred!



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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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