Native women who are survivors of violence often find themselves forced into silence around sexual and domestic violence by their communities because their communities desire to maintain a united front against racism and colonialism. At the same time, the white-dominated antiviolence movement often pits Native women against their communities, arguing that they should leave the communities in which their abusers reside. The reason Native women are constantly marginalized in male-dominated discourses about racism and colonialism and white-dominated discourses about sexism is the inability of both discourses to address the inextricable relationship between gender violence and colonialism. That is, the issue is not simply that violence against women happens during colonization, but that the colonial process is itself structured by sexual violence. Native nations cannot decolonize themselves until they address gender violence, because colonization has succeeded through this kind of violence. In part, this is because the history of colonization of Native people is interrelated with colonizers’ assaults upon Indian bodies. It is through the constant assaults upon our bodies that colonizers have attempted to eradicate our sense of Indian identity. Consequently, violence against Native women is inextricably linked to the state. As Andrea Smith has argued elsewhere (Smith, 1999), Indian bodies have become marked as inherently “dirty” through the colonial process. They are then considered sexually violable and “rapeable,” and by extension, Native lands become marked as inherently invadeable. That is, in patriarchal thinking, only a body that is “pure” can be violated. The rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty does not count. For instance, prostitutes have an almost impossible time being believed if they are raped because the dominant society considers the prostitute’s body to be undeserving of integrity and violable at all times. Similarly, the history of mutilation of Indian bodies, both living and dead, makes it clear to Indian people that they are not entitled to bodily integrity (Ibid.).
In the history of massacres against Indian people, colonizers attempt not only to defeat Indian people, but also to eradicate their very identity and humanity. They attempt to transform Indian people from human beings into tobacco pouches, bridle reins, or souvenirs — an object for the consumption of white people. However, as Haunani Kay Trask’s essay in this issue demonstrates, this colonized violence continues to manifests itself today in a variety of forms. Trask articulates the relationship between colonization and violence as “a quiet violence.” That is, the violence of colonization is evidenced not merely in the most obvious forms of the history of massacres against indigenous peoples in the Americas, but in the continuing institutionalized forms of racism, discrimination, and housing that manifest themselves on a daily basis in the lives of Native peoples. Through this colonization and abuse of their bodies, Indian people learn to internalize self-hatred. Body image is integrally related to self-esteem. When one’s body is not respected, one begins to hate oneself. Thus, it is not a surprise that Indian people who have survived sexual abuse say they do not want to be Indian (Smith, 1999).
It is clear that the struggle for sovereignty and the struggle against sexual violence cannot be separated. Thus, conceptualizing sexual violence as a tool of genocide and colonialism fundamentally alters the strategies for combating it. Since the first domestic violence shelter in the U.S. opened in 1974 and the first rape crisis center opened in 1972, the mainstream antiviolence movement has been critical to breaking the silence concerning violence against women and providing critically needed services to survivors of sexual/domestic violence.
The antiviolence movement first prioritized a response to male violence based on grass-roots political mobilization. However, as the antiviolence movement has gained greater public prominence, domestic violence and rape crisis centers have also become increasingly professionalized, and consequently are often reluctant to address sexual and domestic violence within the larger context of institutionalized violence. As a case in point, many state coalitions on domestic/sexual violence have refused to take stands against the anti-immigration backlash, arguing that this issue is not a sexual/domestic violence issue. However, as the immigration backlash intensifies, many immigrant women do not report abuse for fear of deportation. This narrow approach toward working against violence is problematic because it is impossible to seriously address sexual/domestic violence within communities of color without addressing the larger structures of violence, such as militarism, attacks on immigrants’ rights and Indian treaty rights, the proliferation of prisons, economic neocolonialism, and institutional racism.