Indigenous feminism

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Indigenous Feminism is a political, social, and cultural movement and theory that seeks equality and sovereignty for Indigenous people globally. It is a branch of feminist theory and practice that advocates not just equally with men, but with the decolonization of Indigenous men and women. Indigenous feminism developed out of a need to define the complexities that arise for Indigenous women (and men) as a result of the intersections of race, ethnicity, and gender[original research?]. For example, Indigenous feminism acknowledges the devastating consequences of colonization on Indigenous peoples. The need to define an Indigenous feminism resulted from the need to address various forms of structural oppression experienced by Indigenous people around the world. Indigenous feminism may go by other (geographically specific) names such as: Native American Feminism and Tribal feminism in North America or Aboriginal Feminism in Australia, but each of these regionally-adapted terms fall under the rubric of Indigenous feminism. Indigenous feminism in practice can be seen in such protest movements as Idle No More, for example.

Effects of colonization

Before colonization, American Indian women shared a significant role within their communities. Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo) argues that "for millennia American Indians have based their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centred, woman-focused world-views."[1] Andrea Smith has noted that many Indigenous women argue "that feminism is actually an indigenous concept that has been co-opted by white women."[2] This sentiment is echoed elsewhere. Kim Anderson argues that "what we now call feminism – which the Merriam Webster's online dictionary defines as 'the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes' – was simply a way of life to our ancestors" (Anderson, 2010, 82). Paula Gunn Allen's "Who Is Your Mother? Red Roots of White Feminism," also that Native peoples are traditionally feminist and that reclaiming those roots would be empowering and participate in Indigenous decolonization.

However, after colonization, many Indigenous communities were drastically changed. The introduction of patriarchal systems of oppression forced a significant shift in Indigenous women's rights. Kim Anderson writes that "the Europeans who first arrived in Canada were shocked by the position of Aboriginal women in their respective societies. It was not long before they realized that, in order to dominate the land and the people that were occupying it, they needed to disempower the women. Indigenous systems that allocated power to women were incompatible with the kind of colonial power dynamics that would be necessary to maintain colonial power."[3] Additionally, "while women's traditional roles in Indigenous communities vary widely, colonization has reordered gender relations to subordinate women, regardless of their pre-contact status."[4]

Indigenous women continue to face poverty and violence. While both issues are of significant importance to mainstream feminists, Indigenous feminists argue that the effects of colonization make these often very urgent issues for Indigenous women. For example, while varied among North and South American Indigenous communities, concepts of property ownership extended to both men and women. Indigenous women were often property owners, or at least shared in the economic and property ownership opportunities in their communities. After colonization, however, many of these domains were taken away from Indigenous women and given to (Indigenous) men. This, in turn, often placed Indigenous women in precarious positions that ran the risk of poverty, and behind that a heightened risk of violence, for example.


The development of Indigenous feminism came out of a counterinsurgency against the attempt to apply western feminism equally and effectively to all women regardless of their experiences. Such attempts are seen as fruitless because it homogenized the very diverse experiences of women. As many argue, Indigenous women's experiences with gender are often closely linked to their experiences with race and vice versa, so that an Indigenous woman must address both gender and racial oppressions. Andrea Smith has argued that "all oppressions are related and reinforce each other."[5]

As a result, Indigenous feminism, is connected to Postcolonial feminism. That is to say, the roots of Indigenous feminism are in those of the mainstream feminist movement; however, it also seeks to incorporate specifically Indigenous perspectives into that feminist framework, for example, by contesting the homogeneity of the category "woman" in order to disrupt the "image of the white middle-class woman as the universal woman."[6]

Indigenous feminism diverges from postcolonial feminism, however, because some have argued that postcolonial theory in general has largely ignored the histories of colonialism as it exists for Indigenous populations.[7] Some other Indigenous scholars (such as Robert Warrior, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Craig S. Womack) have expressed concern over the limits of postcolonial theory and its application to Indigenous studies. There is often distrust of Western theoretical paradigms which can marginalize Indigenous perspectives. There is also significant debate about what constitutes post-colonial.[7] As a result, many have moved to Indigenous feminism as a way to redress these issues with postcolonial feminism.

Cheryl Suzack and Shari M. Huhndorf have argued that: "Although Indigenous feminism is a nascent field of scholarly inquiry, it has arisen from histories of women's activism and culture that have aimed to combat gender discrimination, secure social justice for Indigenous women, and counter their social erasure and marginalization -- endeavours that fall arguably under the rubric of feminism, despite Indigenous women's fraught relationship with the term and with mainstream feminist movements."[4]

Much of Indigenous feminism has taken shape around issues that resulted from colonial practices.[4] It is a direct result of and a direct answer to the colonization and continued oppression of Indigenous peoples around the world. The need to question cultural practices from within allows Indigenous women to actively shape their own communities and helps encourage self-determination and cultural ownership.

Similarly, Indigenous feminism is set apart from other Indigenous rights movements, such as Indigenous liberation theory, because those theories have "not been attentive to the gendered ways in which colonial oppression and racism function for men and women, or to the inherent and adopted sexisms that some communities manifest."[8]

There are some within Indigenous communities who choose not to identify as feminist and therefore distance themselves from the mainstream feminism. There are many reasons for this choice, however, Kim Anderson argues that if

Western feminism is unpalatable because it is about rights rather than responsibilities, then we should all take responsibility seriously and ask if we are being responsible to all members of our societies. If we are to reject equality in favour of difference, then we need to make sure those differences are embedded in systems that empower all members. If we see feminism as being too invested in Western liberalism and individual autonomy, then we need to ensure that our collectivist approaches serve everyone in the collective. And if we want to embrace essential elements of womanhood that have been problematic for Western feminists […] then we have to ensure that these concepts don't get stuck in literal or patriarchal interpretations.[9]

Many scholars and activists identify Indigenous feminism as occupying the more "radical" side of the feminist spectrum since it often advocates for an upheaval of all systems of power that organize the subjugation of Indigenous women based on both male supremacy and racial difference.[10] Unlike the more extreme radical feminists, however, Indigenous feminism encourages male participation in the abolition of the 'isms' that result in the logic of domination (see Andrea Smith). Others also speak about the benefits of Indigenous feminism for all Indigenous people. Myrna Cunningham (Miskita) has stated that: "The struggle of Indigenous Peoples is not a threat to our struggles as Indigenous women. On the contrary, we see these struggles as reciprocal."[11]

Criticism of mainstream feminism

There has been significant resistance to adopting a westernized, mainstream feminist approach to Indigenous rights and self-determination. The most significant criticism of mainstream feminism has been its marginalization of minorities and lack of racial diversity.[12]

While Indigenous women may acknowledge that there is overlap in the goals of Indigenous feminists and mainstream feminists, many, like Celeste Liddle (Arrernte) "strongly believe that as Aboriginal women, whilst our fights are related to ongoing feminist struggles within other racially marginalised groups, they are not the same."[10]

One such example of the need to incorporate uniquely Indigenous perspectives is in the second wave's struggle for wage parity with their male counterparts. Celeste Liddle argues that "For example, whilst equal pay is important for all of us, for many years Aboriginal people were historically not paid for their labour at all." Therefore, the second wave's fight for wage equality (among other issues), was perceived to push the rights of Indigenous women (for example) to the periphery.

Another such example is in the length of time to achieve certain rights. For example, while white women deemed to be citizens of Canada were granted the right to vote in 1918, many other women were not allowed the right to vote until much later. Aboriginal women in Canada were not allowed to vote until the 1960s, at which time the second wave of feminism had moved away from such issues.

Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami) has argued for an Indigenous paradigm, because while "some feminist theories and practices also aim at social and political changes in a society, […] their approaches often exclude notions of collectivity as well as land rights which are central elements for Indigenous peoples."[13]

The criticism against mainstream feminism is synthesized by Cunningham who argues:

"They see that the dominant feminist paradigm is based on an unacknowledged model of centre and periphery. In this model, Indigenous, African-descendent, and poor women occupy the periphery and must accept the ideas and conceptualization of feminism as defined by those at the centre. In other words, we Indigenous women are expected to accept the dominant picture of what constitutes women's oppression and women's liberation. The trouble is, this picture is only a partial match with our own experiences. Elements of our experience that do not match this picture are denied or marginalized. This dominant model tries to homogenize the women's movement, claiming that all women have the same demands and the same access to the enjoyment of their rights. This flawed assumption denies the diverse cultural, linguistic and social needs and visions of distinct groups of women."[11]

Survival has been a significant issue for all Indigenous peoples, and many have suggested that feminist discourse should take second place to the goal of survival (of people, culture, language, etc...). Andrea Smith, as well as many others, have argued that "since Native women are the women most likely to be killed by domestic violence, they are clearly not surviving. So when we talk about survival of our nations, who are we including?"[2]


  1. Gunn Allen, Paula (1986). The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. ISBN 1-4976-8436-6. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Smith, Andrea. "Indigenous feminism without apology". Unsettling America Decolonization in Theory & Practice. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  3. Anderson, Kim (2001). A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach Press. p. 58. ISBN 1-894549-12-0. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Suzack, Cheryl; Huhndorf, Shari M.; Perreault, Jeanne; Barman, Jean (2010). Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-7748-1809-3. 
  5. Smith, Andrea (1997). Warren, Karen J.; Nisvan, Erkal, eds. Ecofeminism: Women, culture, Nature. Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 21. 
  6. Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2007). Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous sovereignty matters. Allen & Unwin. p. xviii. ISBN 1-74115-701-3. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Byrd, Jodi (2011). The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. xxxii. ISBN 1-4529-3317-0. 
  8. Green, Joyce A. (2007). Making Space for Indigenous Feminism. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing. p. 23. ISBN 1-55266-220-9. 
  9. Anderson, Kim (2010). Suzack, Cheryl, ed. Affirmations of an Indigenous Feminist. Vancouver: UBC Press. p. 88. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Liddle, Celeste (25 June 2014). "Intersectionality and Indigenous Feminism: An Aboriginal Woman's Perspective". The Postcolonialist. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Cunningham, Myrna (2006). "Indigenous Women's Visions of an Inclusive Feminism". Development. 49 (1): 55–59. doi:10.1057/palgrave.development.1100227. 
  12. Briggs, Kelly. "Australian feminists need to talk about race". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  13. Kuokkanen, Rauna (2000). "Towards an 'Indigenous Paradigm' from a Sami Perspective.". Canadian Journal of Native Studies. 20 (2): 415. 

Further reading

  • Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
  • Anderson, Kim. "Affirmations of an Indigenous Feminist." Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Ed. Cheryl Suzack. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. 81.
  • A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2001.
  • Episkenew, Jo-Ann. Taking Back our Spirits: Indigenous Literature, Public Policy, and Healing. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009. Print.
  • Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. [New ed.] London: Routledge, 2009.
  • Suzack, Cheryl, Shari M. Huhndorf, Jeanne Perreault, and Jean Barman, eds. Indigenous Women and Feminism: Politics, Activism, Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
  • Mihesuah, Devon A., and Angela Cavender Wilson, eds. Indigenizing the Academy: Transforming Scholarship and Empowering Communities. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  • Green, Joyce A. Ed. Making Space for Indigenous Feminism Black Point, N.S.: Fernwood Pub., 2007.
  • Maracle, Lee. I Am Woman : A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism. Vancouver, B.C.: Press Gang, 1996.
  • Anderson, Kim & Bonita Lawrence, eds. Strong Women Stories: Native Vision and Community Survival. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2006.
  • Mihesuah, Devon A. Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
  • Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. London: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Razack, Sherene. Ed. Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002.
  • Smith, Andrea (2008). "American Studies without America: Native Feminisms and the Nation-State". American Quarterly. 60 (2): 309–15. doi:10.1353/aq.0.0014. 
  • Smith, Andrea (2005). "Native Feminism, Sovereignty, and Social Change". Feminist Studies. 31 (1): 116. doi:10.2307/20459010.