Being a Native feminist today often means resisting the dominant culture’s influence. Traditional women may know their value within their community and family, but when those same women go outside the tribe for work, professional support or services, they have to deal with a patriarchal society.
ICTMN has gathered the thoughts of six powerful women for whom tradition and feminism come naturally. All share their thoughts, for better and worse, about feminism in Indian country.
“My feeling is why should we, as part of the Manifest Destiny, accept that women are inferior,” asked Elizabeth Parent, Athabascan/Yupik, who instituted the Native Studies Department at San Francisco State. “Feminism is very relevant to Native women,” she said, adding, “The women in politics today are the women that men approve of.”
Nicole Bowman-Farrell, Mohican/Lunaape, president of award-winning business Bowman Performance Consulting, agrees. “I believe Denise Juneau in Montana is the only Native female elected official in the United States. There are a lot of traditional women who are tribal council presidents and directors, but on the national level, not so much.”
Bowman Performance Consulting
Nicole R. Bowman-Farrell, Mohican/Munsee, is a Ph.D. candidate and the founder and president of Bowman Performance Consulting, LLC. Seen here with her mother, Kathy Bowman, and nephew Evan Bowman-Bacon.
Business and Economic Development
Bowman-Farrell believes that in business and economic development, “the networks are male dominated, and I think many women have applied. Education, health, and human services: those are the organizations that Native women run. There is still a gap in the opportunities for women’s businesses versus male businesses,” she said.
Arigon Starr, Kickapoo, an award-winning musician and comic book creator, agreed, adding that the patriarchal society dominates all of the businesses she is involved in. “My mother always used to say, ‘You gotta be better than the dominant culture. When somebody sees you as a Native, you already have so many stereotypes and prejudices against you. That’s why we have to keep on this and why feminism is even more relevant now.”
Traditionally, Bowman-Farrell said, intergenerational mentoring of women played a big part in the progress of women, but some of that has suffered through colonization. “I think there needs to be a lot more female-to-female mentoring across the generations. Mentoring is a way of keeping the old ways alive in contemporary work. For indigenous people, being highly competive in business and academia, that’s not traditional at all.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee, president of Morningstar Institute and famed activist, said feminism should start with women supporting other women. “I think it’s high time that Native women stop trying to fight each other for the small pieces of the pie. When we support each other it is so powerful—we are so powerful. When we don’t support each other, we are literally our own worst enemies.”
The White House/YouTube
President Barack Obama places the Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor, around the neck of Suzan Shown Harjo on November 24, 2014. Harjo has been a lifelong activist in a wide variety of issues.
“Mentors are incredibly important in this day and age,” Starr added, noting that mentors, including women in her family, have played a huge part in her life.
Feminism as Empowerment
“As time has gone by, people have forgotten how it used to be,” Starr said. “Feminism needs to be stronger, but for some reason, feminism has a negative connotation. It is about empowerment and has always been about empowerment for women.”
Being traditional and being a feminist are related, Starr said. “Maybe some people think feminism is about burning your bras or acting like a man, but that was an early part of the movement. Now it’s trying to find ways into a business. When I go to comic book conventions, everyone who is in charge is a white male. I still have the problem of, ‘Oh, you draw? Isn’t that nice, isn’t that sweet.’ There are a lot of enlightened people out there, but by and large, I get counted out a lot because of how I look, because I am a woman, and because I am a Native American.
“Being strong in your culture, being strong and respecting your traditions, those things have to come with you wherever you go. You have to travel strong, and that is the message about feminism that has gotten lost; that you have to be true to yourself and you have to carry these things with you,” Starr said.
Arigon Starr, Kickapoo, is an award-winning musician and comic book creator.
Feminism and Overcoming Trauma
“One of the most horrendous things that is holding us down as a people is the abuse of women. One of the most dangerous things to be in this society is an Indian woman,” Parent said.
Robin Poor Bear, Oglala Lakota, who was featured in the PBS series, “Kind Hearted Woman,” noted that childhood trauma, alcohol, and drugs can play a part in undermining a woman’s sense of empowerment. When Poor Bear was a youth, sexual abuse left her with a shaky sense of self. “I was always told what to say; that my thoughts were wrong and my body’s reactions were wrong. That continued into my adulthood, and I couldn’t make my own decisions at all. I was so afraid of doing what I wanted to do because everyone was telling me, ‘Shhh, don’t talk about that. If you talk about that, this or that is going to happen.’”
For Poor Bear, the decision to do the series “Kind Hearted Woman” came from a dream, a vision, that it was time to tell. “I gave everything up to God, to Takashina. I began to trust myself, I began to love myself. Now I know, if I am going to make a decision and if it turns out terribly, that’s okay. You just go on, you get your strength from that. If it turns out awesome, then you did it by yourself. It’s really building self-trust, self-love. And it is the things that do work out, you think, wow, I did it.”
Feminism through Sobriety
Much of Poor Bear’s personal strength came from her commitment to sobriety. “I had to remove myself from everybody who was holding me back. I was essentially killing myself by drinking and with bad relationships where there was domestic violence. I decided to fill my life with positive, healthy people and it made the difference. That’s what helps you resist domestic violence. You have to tell yourself you are not going to be treated like that.”
Poor Bear has been sober for seven years. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t made the decision to sober up. Now, whatever life throws at me, it is going to be okay.”
Feminism and Family Life
“Part of what the Europeans have distorted is the idea that women are inferior to men. The fact is, we give life; we nurture life, we deliver life. We carry male and female within our bodies for nine months,” Parent said.
Sunny Clifford, Oglala Lakota, and her baby are in California and her husband travels often with the Marines. She wonders why the dominant culture is so fond of the nuclear family structure. “It’s lonely, it’s difficult, and I wish I lived with or near my parents or my grandparents. The mainstream looks down on 10 people living in one house, but that’s how it’s always been, how it was in the tipis.”
Sunny Clifford, Oglala, is from Pine Ridge, South Dakota and was the featured character in the PBS presentation, “Young Lakota.”
As a mother and a wife, Clifford, who was featured in the PBS series “Young Lakota,” doesn’t see herself as any less of a feminist. “I see this as an opportunity to raise a feminist,” she said as laughter crept into her voice, “to create millions of feminists, to take over the world, one uterus at a time!” Getting serious again, she said, “We are the feminist mothers who are raising the children who will be the next generation of feminists. We are just as important to the feminist movement as the women who are working and have careers or choose not to have kids,” Clifford said.
RELATED: ‘Young Lakota’ Focuses on a Woman’s Right to Choose, Premieres on PBS
Putting The Mocs On The Other Foot
“They talk about equality in the workplace, that’s the male dominant structure, that’s what has been distorted. Put those men in high heels and corsets and wear their hair the way we like it for 300 or 400 years; say what we want to hear.” Laughing, Parent said, “That might calm them down some.”
This story was originally published March 4, 2015.