Last Sunday, a group of indigenous women and children chalked statistics, quotes, and hashtags on the downtown sidewalks of Durango, Colorado. I was one of them. We wanted to start a dialogue about why indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada, the smallest demographic, have the highest rates of violent and sexual assaults.
We shared statistics like one out of every three American Indian women are raped in their lifetime, higher than any other ethnic group in the U.S. This problem isn't one that exists only within the reservation boundaries. Per "the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, and Office of Justice Programs at least 70 percent of the violent victimizations experienced by American Indians are committed by persons not of the same race."
This brings me to what happened the other night. Within one minute of writing my first statistic on the sidewalk, a young man walked up and began asking me questions. I expected this. I expected curiosity, indifference, support, or even annoyance all to be displayed by the passing residents of this small tourist town. However, what I didn't expect was to be asked, "What would you do if I raped you?"
I was shocked and confused. I couldn't give him an answer. I felt so uncomfortable I turned away and moved closer to my friends who were nearby. This young man continued to ask disturbing and explicit questions to my friends. We didn't engage him and left the area.
I decided he was on drugs. The far-away look in his eyes, and his questions about committing violence to us had thoroughly creeped me out. I felt angry that he said such explicit things to us. We decided the law enforcement probably wouldn't care if we felt threatened. They'd probably be more concerned with our social justice project. We would be blamed for bringing this intrusion onto ourselves. As indigenous women, our previous experiences taught us so.
This brings me to the race component. At one point, an older white man approached us and inquired about one of our writings, which was "Honor and respect indigenous women." He said, "Shouldn't we honor and respect all women?" and "When I read that, I saw a different form of racism." I assumed he was referring to racism against white people. Being half white and understanding how white privilege works, I knew that he couldn't fully understand oppression until he had spent time in the shoes of a voiceless, invisible body. People often forget that racism doesn't operate without systems of power; we live in a society where every structure from government to media to education are dominated by a Eurocentric world view.
I explained to the man, who was respectful and genuine in his inquiry, that to bring attention to a specific demographic that is underserved, underrepresented, and misrepresented (e.g. Pocahontas and sexy savage costumes) does not diminish or insult other races of women. I explained that his perspective, similar to the "All lives matter" versus "Black lives matter" or the lesser known "Native lives matter" is a very limiting way of understanding people of color and our experiences.
If all races experienced rape at the same rate as indigenous women, we would not feel the need to bring public attention to our demographic. I indeed wish all lives mattered. The sad reality is that when a Native woman is beaten and raped in a nearby reservation border town, as in the case of one of my relatives, the police dismiss her as a wild girl whose promiscuity caused her to be assaulted. She is in no way viewed as a victim. While the sexism of our society supports victim-blaming, there is something ultra-dehumanizing about systematically under-prioritizing the crimes committed against indigenous women.
There was also a lot of support that night. We were commended and encouraged. One man gave me a sincere hug and wished me good luck. A couple of Native men thanked us for what we're doing, which means a lot as an indigenous woman who sometimes looks to my brothers, uncles, father, and grandfathers to protect me. That protection is not solely physical. It can also be achieved by making a commitment not to abuse women and not remaining silent when violence occurs. Our Native brothers have a responsibility to decolonize their own minds when relating to their Native sisters.
After all, the overwhelming majority of people who consistently react negatively to my work as an indigenous woman are men.
Many women are on the front line of this movement to bring justice to hundreds of thousands of indigenous women across North America experiencing assault and its leftover trauma. It feels like we are lacking warrior men in our society. That's not to say that there are not dedicated men on the front line. There are -- and I respect you for your work.
Sadly, without a more accurate representation in society, our movement will remain subdued. Our voices are not being heard by mainstream America. We are more likely to see a scantily-clad model wearing a headdress than to see the portrayal of a strong indigenous woman carrying the scars of generations of rape and violence. We need a revolution of how America views indigenous women. From the textbooks, to the fashion industry, to the Hollywood writers, and yes, to the mascots, we need to demand that our representations are respectful, and humanizing. No longer should we accept our Native women to be portrayed as fetishes, readily available for America’s exploitations.
Comedian Adrianne Chalepah is an American Indian (Kiowa/Apache) entertainer from Anadarko, Oklahoma. A member of 49 Laughs Comedy and Ladies of Native Comedy, Chalepah is a mother of three, wife, and businesswoman.