Editor’s Note: We are republishing this story in honor of Indigenous People’s Day, which is September 22. Please click here to read more of our coverage about Native Americans.
This story was originally published on April 19, 2017.
“I think it’s in all of our best interests to take on gender violence as a core resurgence project, a core decolonization project, a core of any Indigenous mobilization…This begins for me by looking at how gender is conceptualized and actualized within Indigenous thought because it is colonialism that has imposed an artificial gender binary in my nation.” —Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Despite our profound contributions to our own communities and the nation as a whole, Native American stories and voices have been long ignored by mainstream social culture. Native Americans—and Native American women, trans, and nonbinary folks in particular—face a unique set of oppressions, including the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism works to erase Indigenous people, both literally and culturally: from physical war and violence, to removal from lands, to forced assimilation. These histories continue to render Native Americans and Native issues nearly invisible to the national eye. Even within intersectional feminist discussions and organizing, I find myself thinking, where are the radical Indigenous feminists? Why are our stories not valued and our voices not more amplified?
This erasure may lull us into believing that there simply aren’t Indigenous feminists who are as prolific as Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa. But this is far from the truth. From Sydney Freeland, a Navajo filmmaker who focuses on stories about trans communities, to Sarah Deer, a Muscogee (Creek) lawyer fighting violence against Native women, these activists, writers, creators, and scholars fight for justice for Indigenous people and for the voices of their communities.
1. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg)
Leanne Simpson is an activist, scholar, writer, and poet. She was heavily involved with the Idle No More movement that raised awareness of treaty betrayals and environmental injustices impacting First Nations people. Her book Islands of Decolonial Love, a mixture of poetry and short stories, includes a powerful spoken word collaboration with musicians that brings an interactive, multilayered perspective to her poems. She writes on critical topics such as decolonizing education by recognizing land as pedagogy, contemporary manifestations of colonial gender violence, and the connections between Black and Indigenous fights for justice. In addition to writing, she has worked as an independent scholar for over a decade and lectures at universities across Canada.
2. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Standing Rock Sioux)
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard is an activist and tribal historian who is a leader in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In April 2016, she founded the Sacred Stone Camp on her land, which was the first resistance camp of the #NoDAPL movement and some of the closest tribally owned land to the construction site. Since the founding of the Sacred Stone Camp, thousands of water protectors camped and organized to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Because of activists like LaDonna, the #NoDAPL movement grew to be one of the most powerful and widely supported Indigenous rights movements in recent decades.
3. Audra Simpson (Mohawk)
Audra Simpson is a scholar and professor whose research focuses on the politics of recognition—particularly, the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk struggles in asserting their legal and cultural rights across settler-imposed borders. Her book, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, explores how Kahnawà:ke Mohawks maintain their sovereignty through traditional governance and a rejection of both U.S. and Canadian citizenship. Her book was celebrated by Indigenous studies scholars as a critical addition to scholarship on tribal community and national identity. As an anthropologist, a field that is notorious for exploiting and thinking of Natives only in the past tense, Simpson pushes against these notions by centering on Native epistemologies.
4. Haunani Kay-Trask (Hawaiian)
Writer, educator, and activist Haunani Kay-Trask is a strong Hawaiian nationalist. She is an advocate for Indigenous Hawaiian rights and vocal against the U.S. military presence and the tourism industry in Hawaii. She is the author of several books of nonfiction and poetry. Her book, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii, explores the ongoing discrimination and denial of rights to Native Hawaiians. In the book, she analyzes Hawaiian activism against U.S. imperialism—from the advocacy of Ka Lahui Hawai’i, a Native Hawaiian self-governing organization, to on-campus organizing by Indigenous students at the University of Hawaii.
5. Beatrice Medicine (Standing Rock Sioux)
Beatrice Medicine was one of the most prominent Native American female anthropologists, whose writing has focused particularly on Native women. Her book, The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women (edited with Patricia Albers), was one of the first studies to center on the lives of Native American women specifically. In addition to working as a professor and scholar, she also served on the school board of her home reservation and taught classes at Native American Educational Services in Chicago, Illinois, a college dedicated to educating nontraditional students on community building. Because of her broad expertise and advocacy, she was often called as an expert witness in trials related to Native American issues, including the trial against activists who occupied Wounded Knee in 1973.
6. Chrystos (Menominee)
Chrystos is a two-spirit poet and activist. Their poetry explores issues of colonialism, genocide, violence against Native people, queerness, street life, and more. Their work has been featured in various anthologies, including the renowned This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. They are the author of five poetry anthologies. Chrystos’s book No Vanishing, published in 1998, was a best seller. Throughout their poetry, they often include cliches, plays on words, and rhymes as a refusal to separate spoken word and oral tradition from poetry.
7. Winona LaDuke (White Earth Ojibwe)
Environmental activist and author Winona LaDuke is perhaps the most well-known name on this list. Winona LaDuke has founded two prominent organizations: Honor the Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Honor the Earth, which she cofounded with the Indigo Girls, raises awareness of and provides financial support to environmental justice issues in Native communities. The White Earth Land Recovery Project buys land formerly owned by non-Natives on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation and repurposes it to restore traditional land ownership and stewardship. Much of the work of this organization focuses on food sovereignty, including the preservation of wild rice fields. LaDuke also ran as Vice President on a Green Party ticket alongside Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000.
8. Sarah Deer (Muscogee [Creek])
Sarah Deer is a lawyer, professor, and advocate who has worked for victims rights and sexual violence prevention for decades. She was an instrumental activist in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women’s Act, which expanded tribal jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence. Her book, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America, is a collection of critical essays on violence against Native women. She provides a historical overview of the intersecting violences that contribute to the high rates of sexual violence against Native Americans today, from the history of rape and sex trafficking of Indigenous people to the destruction of tribal legal systems to protect their own citizens.
9. Beth Brant (Mohawk)
Beth Brant is one of the first prominent Native American lesbian writers. First published as part of Sinister Wisdom in 1984, the anthology Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women, which she edited, was later published independently in 1988. This was the first anthology of Native American women’s writing edited by a Native American woman. She went on to publish several poetry and essay collections on topics such as Mohawk identity, queerness, and feminism. She also edited an oral-history anthology of Mohawk elders titled I’ll Sing ‘til the Day I Die: Conversations with Tyendinaga Elders.
10. Mishuana Goeman (Tonawanda Band of Seneca)
Mishuana Goeman is a scholar and professor whose work focuses on settler colonialism, gender violence, and Native women’s cultural production. Her work provides a feminist perspective to colonial spatial definitions of Native land (national or reservation borders) and bodies, analyzing how colonialism attempts to impose a new spatial reality on Indigenous people. In her book Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations, she uses literature written by Native women to argue that women’s writing centering on Indigenous knowledge is essential to help define our nations outside of settler standards and to support ongoing decolonization efforts.
11. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee)
Suzan Shown Harjo is a policy advocate and writer. She served as the congressional liaison on Indian Affairs for President Jimmy Carter and, in the late 1980s, as the president of the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy organization that unites tribal representatives from across the nation. She was involved with the passage of several important laws pertaining to Native American rights, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the National Museum of the American Indian Act (1989), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). She received the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Barack Obama in 2014.
12. Brenda Child (Red Lake Ojibwe)
Brenda Child is a scholar and professor who has studied histories of boarding schools, Ojibwe women’s activism, Indigenous education, and Ojibwe labor, among other topics. Her debut book, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900 to 1940, used letters between parents and their children in boarding schools to explore the deep emotional impact of these assimilationist institutions. In her 2012 book, Holding the World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community, she outlines the profound ways that Ojibwe women have contributed to strengthening their communities for centuries—from helping to mediate between tribes and European fur traders to organizing to ameliorate urban Indian poverty after World War II.
13. Sydney Freeland (Navajo)
Sydney Freeland is a transgender filmmaker who uses film to combat stereotypes about Native Americans and highlight the experiences of queer and trans people. Her debut feature length film, Drunktown’s Finest, follows the lives of three young people living on the Navajo Reservation: a young father-to-be, a transgender woman who dreams of being a model, and a woman who was adopted by a white Christian family. The film’s name is a riff off an offensive ABC news segment that labeled Gallup, New Mexico, as “Drunk Town, USA.” Freeland also directed web series Her Story, which revolves around queer and trans women, and was nominated for an Emmy.
14. Nicole Tanguay (Cree)
Nicole Tanguay is a two-spirit poet, playwright, musician, and advocate for Indigenous rights. Their poetry—which has been featured in anthologies such as Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women and The Colour of Resistance: A Contemporary Collection of Writing by Aboriginal Women—explores topics like racism, environmental destruction, and violence against Indigenous peoples. Their poetry is raw and in your face, often tangling visceral descriptions of trauma, grief, and pain with the everyday survivance of Indigenous people. In “Blood,” for example, they memorialize Indigenous women who died “lying in the streets/ and in gutters of hell/ waiting for the great God to remember them/ for who they are/ children of this land.” They view poetry as a form of resistance and education on critical social justice issues.
15. Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo)
Leslie Marmon Silko is a prolific novelist, poet, and essayist and a key figure in the First Wave of the Native American Renaissance. Her novels are rooted in a Laguna Pueblo landscape and history, with her characters often striving to maintain their traditional or tribal lifestyles despite Western cultural imperialism. Her debut novel, Ceremony, follows the struggles of a Native American World War II veteran returning to his civilian life and finding strength in revitalizing his tribal spirituality. Ceremony challenges the Western canon by weaving Laguna stories throughout the novel in a poetic, viva voce style.
From initial colonial wars, to forced boarding schools, to the Dakota Access Pipeline, tribal communities have survived because of the relentless strength and knowledge of our grandmothers, aunties, and ancestors. These contemporary scholars, poets, activists, and filmmakers continue this long legacy of Indigenous feminist resistance. For Indigenous people and settlers/allies alike, it is crucial that we listen to these voices, honor their wisdom, and empower their work.