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Native Women Must Vote Now

If Native Americans are the “invisible” race, subject to systematic marginalization and institutional racism, then the women that belong to this population are on the fringe of the margins, in terms of social rights and politic power. Time and time again, my social media newsfeed has been flooded with unresolved stories of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S. and Canada. And before we make a distinction of nationality, let’s remember that indigenous people on both sides of that imaginary line in the snow, belong to the same linguistic families and many speak the same languages. Women, our daughters, granddaughters, sisters, mothers, and aunties, have been thrown away with little or no law enforcement resolve, let alone media attention. And as I write this, I am reminded of the memory of the brutal murder of a young girl in one of our native communities, not so long ago and suddenly I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me.

Our collective reality, as Native women, is that violence lives alongside many of us. We are all too familiar with the effects of internalized hatred and racism and the familial dysfunction that resulted from generations of forced separation of children from loving families and homes. The pain lives inside all of us. Multi-generational trauma affects us all in various ways. Our very history is repeated violence, and I am not talking about the violence that resulted from the encroachment of European immigrants against our Native men (our warriors) in times of war. Historically, Native American women also experienced extreme violence. Certainly sexual violence is physical, but this particular type of assault is a violation against the human spirit and complete disregard of women as human beings. It is still a very open wound in the history of American colonialism. And no we haven’t “gotten over it”.

In my work as a college professor, I spent one summer researching topics while developing a course entitled, Native American Women. I remember contemplating the inclusion of the documented (but lesser-known) practice of U.S. soldiers mutilating Native American corpses and other perverse acts. It occurs to me that the side-profiled image on the helmet of any team called the “savages” should look a lot differently…but that’s another topic for another day.

What is at stake for Native women when a presidential candidate reduces talk about sexual assault to “locker-room banter”? Ask yourself this difficult question. How many women in our communities have been subjected to unwelcomed vulgar remarks or physical advances or even more egregious abuses? The staggering statistics on violence and crimes committed against Native American women are easily accessible through public resources made available by the Department of Justice, but how are these data being used? We cannot possibly live and feel safe in a household, a community, or society where this kind of thinking and conduct is permissible.

For Indian Country, when it pertains to mainstream political elections, we often weigh our options, try to make an informed decision based on general rhetoric (if any mention at all) addressing our issues, vote, and hope for the best. This time around things are a little different. Our current situation is that, at least with one candidate, we know exactly where we stand in terms of [dis]respect of the government-to-government relationship and how little is understood about our individual and collective histories. In addition, how can we expect the provisions of the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to be upheld and strengthened from a president capable of such vile speech about women? How can leadership at the highest level understand and address our most harmful social challenges when women are so poorly regarded? People that are cognizant of the history of violence against Native women recognize the imminent threat and danger that we face. It is alarming that citizens would even consider leadership that normalizes thoughts, words, and actions that reduce women to sexual objects and minimizes sexual assault to “locker room banter”. We remain in dire need of leadership that understands our unique and difficult histories and the contemporary social issues that have developed as a result.

Dr. Toni Tsatoke-Mule (Kiowa) is a Lecturer in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She sits on the Oklahoma Council for Indian Education Board of Directors.