Busting StereotypesNative American Women Are More Than Princesses and Squaws

A sign at the Standing Rock protest against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo by Joe Brusky (Creative Commons). 

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.

It is essential to acknowledge the diversity among Indigenous women in the United States. They are citizens of hundreds of distinctive Native nations that have particular cultural practices, languages, and precolonial histories, as well as experiences under US colonialism. Some live in reduced portions of their nations’ original territories on reservations, some live on reservations to which their ancestors were moved (most of the Indigenous peoples from east of the Mississippi were forcibly removed to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma), and many live in cities (about half of the Native population lives and works in urban areas). As Choctaw scholar Devon Abbott Mihesuah writes: “There is no one voice among Natives because there is no such thing as the culturally and racially monolithic Native woman.”  And there never has been.

That is exactly the problem. Although the stereotypes have changed over time, they are nearly always monolithic, as if Native Americans are a racial or ethnic group. Centuries of British and US domination of Native nations produced the binary of the “Indian princess” and the “squaw,” which purports to describe both Native women’s bodies and their status. The counterparts for male Natives are the romanticized “warrior” and the degraded “savage.”

The mythical “Indian princess” is a common stereotype. Sacajawea and other Native women scouts, albeit not categorized as “princess,” are portrayed as compliant and helpful to US government spies, such as Lewis and Clark, and to fur traders and explorers. Often Indian princesses are portrayed as daughters of tribal chiefs. Scholars have stated that the myth of Pocahontas helps to perpetuate white Eurocentric values because she leaves her tribe and becomes a Christian, and this insinuates that Christianity is better than traditional Indigenous religion. Thus, the myth of Pocahontas becomes a method of promoting Eurocentric values and norms and a tool of colonialism.

Of course, Pocahontas was the first “Indian princess,” and that mythologized figure persists in Disney films and other Hollywood movies. Conjured by many Euro-American women as an original ancestor, Pocahontas is always portrayed as beautiful and depicted as having lighter skin and being more European looking than other Native people and a having a petite but shapely body. This sometimes borders on child pornography, given that the historical Pocahontas was a child when she met John Smith.

On the other side of the binary, the usage of “squaw” has fallen into disrepute with the rise of multiculturalism, but it is still ubiquitous in Hollywood westerns as well as historical documents. There are also still around a thousand official place names in the United States in which the term is used. Further, it remains an active stereotype of traditional Native women even when the term itself is not used. In literature, movies, and histories we see images of a drudge, a sort of beast of burden, a very dark, silent figure who is doing all the heavy lifting in Indigenous settings, with the males either engaged in warfare or lazing around while women do the work or follow a distance behind the men.

Both the Indian princess and the squaw constitute racist stereotypes of Indigenous women meant to render whites superior and help perpetuate white patriarchal European values. The precolonial roles and status of women varied among the hundreds of societies of North America, depending on whether the particular nation was agriculturally based (the majority), reliant on seafaring and fishing, transhumant, or harvesters of wild rice, acorns, berries, nuts, and other wild foods. The roles of Haudenosaunee, Cherokee, and Muskogee women of the eastern half of North America into Canada, women of the Pueblo and Hopi city-states, and Navajo women in what is now the US Southwest have been much researched and found to be remarkable when compared with women’s roles in western Europe on the eve of Columbus’s infamous appearance in the Americas. In these agricultural societies, women were the creators of seeds and hybrids, and they planted the crops. Men participated in tending and harvesting. Each of these nations had divergent forms of governance, but their economic bases in food production (corn, beans, and squash of many varieties and colors) were similar, as were their communal social relations. Pueblo women were also the architects and builders, while men were stonecutters and weavers. These were matrilineal societies in which women controlled directly or ceremonially the equitable distribution of land use and food.

Women’s roles in governance varied but were probably strongest among the Haudenosaunee (the federation of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations). Certain female lineages controlled the choice of male representatives for their clans in governing councils. Men were the representatives, but the women who chose them had the right to speak in the council, and when the chosen male representative was too young or inexperienced to be effective, one of the women might participate in council on his behalf. Haudenosaunee clan mothers held the power to recall unsatisfactory representatives. Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, calls this governance structure “a feminist dream.”

That dream of freedom, solidarity, and equity that was the lodestone of precolonial North America was trampled on by Spanish, French, and British explorers, gold seekers, and oppressive colonial regimes, but only the British had developed the institutions of settler-colonialism before planting colonies in North America. They had developed these methods and practices in the conquest and subjugation of the Irish, pushing small farmers off their lands to be replaced by commercially oriented settlers, both Anglo and Scots. British fencing of the commons to develop capitalistic sheep production and textile mills deprived communities of the wood, streams, and wildlife they depended on. A large, disgruntled, landless, and jobless population was persuaded to take the arduous one-way journey to British outposts on the Atlantic Coast of North America. This then was the start of British colonialism in North America, then New Zealand and Australia: exporting their surplus people, including convicts, with promises of land and wealth if they could wrest it from the deeply rooted Indigenous civilizations already there. They brought with them the patriarchal culture developed under Roman and Christian laws and practices, a level of subordination of women unknown in North America but inherent to the culture of conquest and settlement, which was based on violence and violation of Native women.

Indigenous women have continued to bear the brunt of colonial violence, specifically sexual violence, both within families and by settler predators, and, increasingly, sex traffickers. Incidence of rape on reservations has long been astronomical. The colonialist US restrictions on Indigenous policing authority on reservations—yet another legacy of the doctrine of discovery and the impairment of Indigenous sovereignty—opens the door to perpetrators of sexual violence who know there will be no consequences for their actions.6 Under the US colonial system, jurisdiction for crimes committed on Native lands falls to federal authorities, because Native justice can be applied only to reservation residents, and then only for misdemeanors.

One in three Native American women has been raped or experienced attempted rape, and the rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national average. For five years after publication of a scathing 2007 report by Amnesty International, Native American and women’s organizations, including the National Organization for Women (NOW),lobbied Congress to add a new section to the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) addressing the special situation of Native American women living on reservations. The added provision would give Native nations’ courts the jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute non-Native men who enter reservations and commit rape. At the end of 2012, the Republican-dominated US Congress denied reauthorization of the VAWA because it included the provision. In March 2013, however, that opposition was overcome, and President Barack Obama signed the amended act back into law, although it has limited effect.

Another difficulty for Indigenous people in general in the United States, but especially for the women, Lenape scholar Joanne Barker points out, is the demand for demonstrable Native authenticity—which really means to appear and act in a particular prescribed manner. This demand on women within Indigenous communities is not only emotionally painful but also

creates social inequalities and injustices associated with the US patriarchal order of racism, sexism, homophobia, and fundamentalism. Barker sees that overcoming internal colonization is critical to achieving decolonization and self-determination. Native women scholars like Barker are in the forefront of exposing these issues and seeking resolutions.

In her book Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism, Devon Abbott Mihesuah describes and analyzes the various ways that many non-Indigenous and some Indigenous men and women, even sophisticated academics, view Native women. In so doing, she exposes the damages wrought by colonialism and male supremacy as they limit the full involvement of Native women in higher education and prevent them from realizing traditional Indigenous roles. Centuries of imposed colonialism and Christianity also manifest in patriarchal practices within Native communities, changing the relations between women and men, with the resulting sexual violence outlined above. Other results that Mihesuah points to are severe income gaps and internal factionalism, which fall heaviest on women and families, producing self-degradation when women are not able to carry out their traditional responsibilities. However, Mihesuah finds positive changes that Indigenous women are making in their lives, relationships, and professional advancement. This is in part rooted in the key role that Native women have played in the past forty years of resurgent Native resistance.

This resurgence arose after the 1953 congressional resolution to terminate the treaty-based legal existence of all Native nations, an attempt to carry out a bloodless genocide to complete the violent genocidal US Army and settler militia campaigns of the nineteenth century. Termination was to proceed accompanied by a vigorous relocation program. Younger Natives would voluntarily abandon reservations and relocate to designated urban areas, with some initial expenses paid. This, the US ruling class believed, would make forced dispersal unnecessary. Immediately Native people began to organize, and some looked into possible redress through the United Nations.

In 1961 young relocated Natives, along with some who had not left the reservations, formed themselves into the intertribal National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), based in Albuquerque, with Mohawk intellectual Shirley Hill Witt playing a central role in building the organization nationally and Navajo artist Gloria Emerson doing so in the Southwest.10 At the same time, workshops were organized that brought together equal numbers of young Native women and men. In 1964, NIYC organized support for the ongoing Native movement to protect treaty-guaranteed fishing rights of the Swinomish, Nisqually, Yakama, Puyallup, Stilaguamish, and other Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, in which the leadership included the extraordinary Ramona Bennett and Janet McCloud.

While local actions multiplied in Native communities and nations during the 1960s, the spectacular November 1969 seizure and following eighteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay grabbed wide media attention. Native American students and community members living in the Bay Area initiated an alliance known as Indians of All Tribes. They built a thriving village on the island that drew Native pilgrimages from all over the continent, radicalizing thousands, especially Native youth. Indigenous women leaders were particularly impressive, among them LaNada (Means) War Jack, Madonna (Gilbert) Thunderhawk, Reyna Ramirez, Aileen Cottier, and many others who have continued organizing and serving as role models into the twenty-first century.

Three years later, in 1973, hundreds of militarized FBI and other federal and state agencies surrounded Wounded Knee, a hamlet on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and so began a two-and-a-half-month siege against the American Indian Movement (AIM) protesters at the 1890 massacre site. Wounded Knee was made up of little more than a trading. 

post, a Catholic church, and the mass grave of the hundreds of Lakotas slaughtered by the US Seventh Cavalry in 1890. During the 1973 siege, armed personnel carriers, Huey helicopters, and military snipers surrounded the site, while supply teams of mostly Lakota women made their way through the military lines and back out again through dark of night. Again, as at Alcatraz, Lakota leader Madonna Thunderhawk was prominent, as were dozens of other women of all ages, both inside and outside the besieged compound, who organized support systems around the country.

As important as women organizers and activists to reconstructing Indigenous cultures and governance are the several generations of Native women scholars, writers, and poets (who themselves are also community activists). Seneca scholar Mishuana Goeman observes of them: “Rather than stand on the periphery, Native women are at the center of how our nations, both tribal and nontribal, have been imagined.”

This essay is an excerpt from All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon Press, 2016).

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. Her most recent book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014) was the 2015 Recipient of the American Book Award and the winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature.   She lives in San Francisco.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA.

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