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Indigenous Women’s Leadership and Self-Determination Essay

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Updated: May 19th, 2021


The feminist movement has a basis in challenging societal norms of gender inequality and establishing women’s rights. Indigenous feminism is a unique approach that connects common issues for women to the decolonization movement of the Native tribes. The focus shifts from the traditional feminist direction of defying gender-based oppression to explore issues of race discrimination, a consequence of Western imperialism. With decades of defining leadership, this branch of feminism has achieved extraordinary progress through educational and activist campaigns that give socio-political strength to establishing indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.


Indigenous Feminisms

Indigenous or Native feminism is a branch of the socio-political feminism movement stemming from the theory, which suggests that the tribal community was historically, and to this day continues to be, oppressed. This subjugation essentially destroyed the Indigenous communities, not only in their way of life but their very right to life. The destructive force of imperialism swept across the continents, resulting in more than just mass eradication of the Native population. Their culture, tradition, language, and identity were stripped down with imperialistic ideals pushed upon ancient civilizations. History was written so that to this very day, many do not conceptualize the horror of their ancestors. The truth must be made known and accepted as part of the continued process of decolonization (Arvin et al. 9-10).

Meanwhile, Indigenous communities live in designated tribal lands, many of which are in poverty and suffer from socio-economic issues. Politically, the tribes often have no voice in the US government regarding their fate or perseverance of the culture they may value. Indigenous feminism, while embracing the empowerment of women of the tribal community, also seeks the right to self-determination for the community. A wide range of problems regarding individuals, such as overt discrimination or work restrictions placed on Native Americans. Consequently, bigger issues are dealing with recognition and protection of tribal lands and culture as well as sovereignty. Centuries of oppressive colonialism have silenced or morphed the gender relations and status of women of Native America. One of the most powerful tools in Indigenous feminism is the power of personal narrative, disrupting the propaganda narratives about stability and equality within and towards the tribal communities (Goeman and Denetdale 10-11).

Native feminism is a layered concept, which seeks to push its agenda, but scholars understand that allying with the liberal-feminist school of thought is necessary. To achieve recognition, academics and activists instigate and initiate the most compelling experiences and concerns of Indigenous communities. However, the movement operates on two principles: every Indigenous life matters, and principles of feminism that have failed historically must not be included. The concept of Indigenous feminism in the quest for self-determination challenges a trio of historically dominating paradigms that have shaped intercultural relationships (Baker 1).

Heteropatriarchy, in simple words, is known as sexism or discrimination based on gender. Unfortunately, examples show that violence and sexual abuse towards Native women are common. Meanwhile, tribal governments are primarily patriarchal, leaving them with no voice. Pre-colonialism many Native families and communities were gender-egalitarian, and at times leaning towards matriarchy. Heteropatriarchy itself is an institution instilled by imperialism meant to disrupt the Indigenous sense of identity and forming “settler state citizens” (Arvin et al. 15).

Racism in Native feminism focuses on the presence of more women of color, including the Indigenous, in feminist movements. Native Americans, throughout the history of imperialistic oppression, have been looked upon as savages. Discrimination continues to the modern-day, stemming from ignorance. Also, challenges that tribal women face as Indigenous women are not given the opportunities that a white or even African-American woman might receive. There are many parallels between the historical eradication of Native Americans and the slave trade that occurred almost simultaneously. Except, the national identity of the USA has formed around undoing and condemning the horrible history surrounding slavery, while the literal genocide and continued oppression of Native Americans are ignored. The racist aspect of imperialist politics is not acknowledged fully, similarly like the Indigenous nations are often considered “dead and gone” (Baker 12).

Post-colonial imposition, demonstrating the consequences of US Imperialism in creating the chaos of social dysfunction in tribal communities. Elevated levels of poverty and crime, poor economic development, and education are all social issues created by the forced system of governance pushed by colonialism. The structures imposed eventually broke traditional gender roles and relationships; it acted as the essential stepping stone to assimilation. This drives Indigenous feminism’s primary design of advocating Indigenous sovereignty. The triad of issues faced by Native feminists reinforces the need for analytical and scholarly activism to drive the process of decolonization. A first step to achieving Indigenous sovereignty would be the radical move of “Remapping Indigenous peoples back onto the lands and into its histories” (Barker 13).

Indigenous Two-Spirit

Queer Native women use the term Two-Spirit as defining their sexual and gender expression. In addition to the struggles facing females in tribal societies, these women were faced with a denunciation of their identity by Christianization spread with colonialism. Historically, the Indigenous culture was inclusive and had a set of social guidelines that allowed for the fluidity of gender-based behaviors and sexuality. In the modern-day, Two-Spirit refers to the inclusion of aspects from both genders into one identity as well as rediscovering ancient tradition. It is a celebration of the Indigenous value system and spiritual view of the world. (Walters et al. 126-129).

As a cultural identity, Two-Spirit women seek to serve their community beyond ceremonial roles but engaging in political activism and legislation. Two-spirit thought suggests that gender and sexuality are interconnected with all aspects of Indigenous history, community, and culture. In fact, the term not only defines the Native GLBTQ community but people who use specific concepts or terms from specific traditions to develop their identity. For scholars, the term can serve as a critique of the restriction of understanding Native gender and identity constructs by imperialism. It is another way of how Native feminism challenges Eurocentric heterosexism and binary concepts, instead defiantly promoting “rhetorical” sovereignty (Driskill 72-73).


Tribal-based Education

It is through the process of education that female indigenous leadership can exemplify and efficiently spread cultural knowledge to both Native tribes and that outside. An educator fulfills the fundamental principles by respecting the cultural heritage, understanding, and acting on the responsibility to preserve and spread tribal-based education. Their reciprocity shows by giving back to the community and using established influence to spread cultural indigenous history and values further.

Shanadeen Begay, from the Navajo tribe, attended the North Arizona University, earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science and chemistry, eventually going on to receive a Ph. D. at Cambridge. Research became her passion, and she is now a respected scholar and educator. However, in her career path, she experienced many challenges because of her background. She experienced racism first hand, facing hostility and rudeness. According to her, it was not obvious at first as to the reasons behind people’s behavior, but with time Begay understood, seeing that people were afraid of her culture, like most Native American tribes are not well known to most people. She studied psychology to understand people better and learn the drive behind these emotions. While Indigenous natives seek harmony in their lives, letting go of negativity, the Eurocentric Caucasian culture is based on anger and judgment. Begay experienced discrimination in her path, admitting that Indigenous women face unique barriers that hinder success. Through perseverance and adjustment to various roles, she was able to power through. In her mind, she had no other choice, as do many Native Americans; they must fight for their survival.

Shanadeen Begay, in her personal and academic career, has few friends and admits it is hard being by herself often. There are few Indigenous educators, in particular on a scholarly level of her caliber. She helped found several student organizations in major colleges that focus on bringing Native Americans together as well as spreading diversity initiatives around campus. These groups allow for students to connect and have a support network so heavily required in education rather than experience isolation. Also, it gives her the opportunity to observe ethnic-gender-based politics in academic settings and provide the findings to appropriate administrations for increased awareness. (“Women Chemists of Color Luncheon”).

Begay also serves as an advisor to the American Chemical Society in challenges facing Native Americans attempting to receive undergraduate education in chemistry or any other STEM field. Kids coming from Native tribes face a myriad of difficulties before, during, and after their possible education. Poor academic preparation and lack of interest from students begin before college. Those few individuals who make it into the system experience lack of support, cultural ignorance, and sometimes blatant racial discrimination or pressure from institutions. At graduation, there are often no employment opportunities on the reservation, and companies may discriminate based on the racial profile.

From beginning to end, those who can potentially receive an education in a very demanded specialization are faced with so many challenges, overwhelming for someone so young. Begay works with the association and educational institutions to establish a support network. This stretches from engaging interest by connecting culturally with issues important to Native Americans, such as land and waterway conservation, to creating job openings, potentially on reservations, to boost community growth and economic return (American Chemical Society). Despite being a scholar rather than a political activist, Bejay is impacting many lives. These initiatives put forward by her have a monumental ripple effect on Indigenous social development through education. In turn, a better education leads to socio-economic growth, eventually influencing tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

Preservation of Core Cultural Values

On May 18th, 2015, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Federal Highway Administration signed a memorandum of understanding. It establishes careful communication and collaboration between the parties on future projects to protect the historical and cultural heritage of the Wampanoag ancestral lands. Soon after, on December 20th, 2016, the Native Land Conservancy signed a cultural respect agreement granting the organization access to land where tribal ancestors searched for food and practiced rituals. Now tribe members can use the land to explore and participate in cultural congregations to perform ceremonies. Both documents were advocated for and negotiated by Ramona Peters, founding director of the Native Land Conservancy. With her successes, there is finally some mass recognition of the original settlers that lived on this land for thousands of years before the arrival of colonists (Native Land Conservancy).

With the arrival of English settlers on the continent, the majority of the Wampanoag tribe population was eradicated, causing major cultural losses, including the oral language. A young mother, Jessie Little Doe Baird, following a premonition, decided to resurrect the oral language. With the support of the local Wampanoag and linguist scholars at MIT, she received an education while reconstructing and learning the ancient language. The language consisted not only of linguistic morphology but had tremendous banks of knowledge that have historical significance, comprised of Wampanoag understanding about natural science or cultural spirituality.

Now she practices and teaches the language with the goal to reintroduce it into the tribal culture (Baird 19-23). Ramona Peeters is fascinated with Jessie’s achievements and success, which everyone believes was achieved through tenacity and deep spirituality, common attributes of the Wampanoag tribe. As a scholar, she showed immense respect and dedication to the cultural value of the Native language, believing it was her responsibility, given to her by the ancestors, to reconstruct and spread the tongue spoken by the tribe centuries ago. She showed reciprocity by teaching the community and setting up a network that focused on spreading the language.

The Cultural Respect Agreements and the memorandum of understanding with the Native Land Conservancy seek to preserve natural landmark resources that have aesthetic, cultural value to the indigenous. It is a sign of respect towards the tribe’s history, simultaneously fulfilling an environmental mission of ecosystem preservation. There is tremendous educational value in the recognition, as the indigenous cultural history can be shared with the general public to raise awareness of issues facing Native Americans historically and today (Peters). Similar accords have already been made in other states, and Ramona Peters hopes this serves as an example for other tribes and organizations with similar missions. It is a tremendous example of leadership and edification from a woman of the Indigenous community progressing towards the goal of indigenous feminism to recognition and self-determination of the Native American tribes.


Indigenous feminism is a complex, mind-bending concept that has a tremendous impact on the 5.2 million individuals that are part or whole Native American in the United States. The movement seeks to not only empower women of these communities but is dedicated to establishing justice for indigeneity by seeking the right to self-determination on the socio-political and economic level. The challenges faced by this movement are daunting, considering the paradigm shift they are trying to achieve in the world of post-colonialism and heteropatriarchal racial domination. Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” (Spurr). Through tribal-based education and a focus on the preservation of core Indigenous cultural values, successful results can be seen. The outreach of Indigenous feminism allows for further activism and scholarly study.

Works Cited

American Chemical Society. “Workshop on Increasing Participation of Native American…” 2012, Web.

Arvin, Maile, et al. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations, vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8–34., Web.

Baird, Jessie Little Doe. “How Did This Happen to My Language.” Bringing Our Languages Home: Language Revitalization for Families, edited by Leanne Hinton, Heyday, 2013, pp. 19–30.

Barker, Joanne. “Indigenous Feminisms.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2015, Web.

Driskill, Qwo-Li. “DOUBLEWEAVING TWO-SPIRIT CRITIQUES: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 16, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 69–92., Web.

Goeman, Mishuana R., and Jennifer Nez Denetdale. “Native Feminisms: Legacies, Interventions, and Indigenous Sovereignties.” Wicazo Sa Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 2009, pp. 9–13., Web.

Native Land Conservancy. n.d., Web.

Peters, Ramona. “Cultural Respects Agreements.” Native Land Conservacy, 2015.

Spurr, Kim. UNC Chapel Hill. 2015, Web.

Walters, Karina L., et al. “My Spirit in My Heart.” Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 10, no. 1-2. 2006, pp. 125–149., Web.

American Chemical Society, n.d., Web.

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