In New Hampshire Elizabeth Warren recently rallied support for Hillary Clinton. Her speech was empowering, delivering the no nonsense, truth-telling she’s known for.
“Nasty women have really had it with guys like you,” Warren said. “Get this Donald, nasty women are smart, nasty women are tough, and nasty women vote.”
She gave me pause. No, the whole event gave me pause. Why is it that it’s mostly white women taking on the word ‘nasty,’ as an act of subversion against the patriarchy? Also, Hillary is so calculated concerning who she’s seen with, so her appearance with Warren felt like a slight jab against Native women, who can’t get on board with Warren’s claim to Native heritage. I mean, Warren explicitly stated that high cheekbones were evidence of Native roots, and that family lore was enough to entitle her to a whole identity she uses and ignores at her convenience.
It’s interesting how most of the white women on my Facebook feed had no qualms in taking up the term ‘nasty’ with pride and defiance. For me, as a Native woman, I have to be cautious of taking up a term that makes it easier for men to justify their exploitation, violence, and ignorance.
A middle class white woman can say she’s ‘nasty,’ and the majority culture won’t believe her, and will ascribe better labels to her: educated, defiant, liberated, and subversive. When a middle class Native woman takes up ‘nasty,’ it’s a little different, a little more sexualized, and a little more dangerous. In short, when we say we’re ‘nasty,’ majority culture believes us.
It won’t stop me, because I risk things for the sake of progress, but what about Native women who can’t afford the risk? Women who can’t afford to play with language, and who still have trouble asserting they’re human in more oppressive communities and cultures.
I used to be younger, poorer, and more vulnerable. I used to have to walk into town to buy groceries. The trip from the rez was a three-mile journey along a highway in British Columbia. Native women go missing in Canada at alarming rates. Truck drivers used to pull over to offer me rides, and I knew the threat they posed. I knew they didn’t see me as human, and I knew if I went missing the police wouldn’t look for me. I’d be labeled a runaway or a prostitute, or worse. I feel lucky that I survived and moved away to receive an education.
Long ago, when I was a single mother in community college, I wrote editorials for the school paper on sexual violence, women’s rights, and disparity. My editorials eventually got me into trouble with a man who didn’t like me openly discussing sex, risk, and misogyny. He told me to “watch out,” and called me a “slut.” I was not silenced, but I understood that even in an academic setting Native women were vulnerable to threat and violence. He messaged me while I was in my office once and said that he was outside, watching me. I called the campus police and filed a report. Nothing ever came of that, instead I was asked if I had flirted with the man, or provoked him. The onus fell on me.
In a nutshell, that’s how it is for Native women. We have to account for everything we do, and when we rally for women’s rights it puts us in direct threat. When we say there should be inquiry concerning murdered and missing Indigenous women, we expose ourselves to men who face no consequences when they hurt us.
In some ways it shows we’re powerful. Our language is more potent. Maybe it’s why so many are trying to suppress voices at Standing Rock. Maybe there is nothing more dangerous to the powers that be than a Native woman who can wield her own power, and who is unafraid to take a stand.
When Hillary said she wanted to celebrate diversity in the final speech of this election, I wondered if Native people would get an invitation to that party. After seeing her appearance with Warren, it became clear that her appearance with Warren was the extent in which she wanted to include ‘Native’ women. Warren and Hillary can be ‘nasty,’ but I can’t afford the label right now. I’m too busy trying to identify myself as human.
I’m not saying that Hillary and Warren aren’t contributing to women’s rights and progress, but I’m saying that eventually they’re going to have to reconcile with Native women and our concerns for women’s health and women’s rights. We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not going to be silent.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band. She’s the Saturday Editor at The Rumpus. Her work has been featured at The Offing, Carve Magazine, and Yellow Medicine Review.