February 29, 2012

Colonialism and Sexual Violence: Review of "Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide"

Sexual Violence as a Tool of Genocide

Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005) was written by Andrea Smith and covers a variety of topics of interest to Native American nations in the territory of the United States. The book examines the atrocities committed during the settlement of the continent by Europeans in the present-day territory of the United States and Canada. One of the key points in Smith's book is that sexual violence plays a very key role in this genocide.

Sexual violence such as rape, mutilation and other methods were tools used to destroy the Native peoples. While there are many who will attempt to deny the inherently racist agenda of the early American settlers, it is clear that the settlement of the continent have had a devastating effect on the Native peoples. The oppression of Native women in particular is one of the ways used to ensure the eventual extinction of Native peoples. It is the women in particular who were a threat to the more patriarchal society of the Europeans which sought to displace the Native nations.

While within many sections of the feminist and women's liberation movement the concept of rape, and by extension all other forms of sexual violence, are seen as a means by which patriarchy is maintained, once the issues of racism, colonialism and imperialism are combined with this analysis, the entire community, male and female, are victimized by it. While both males and females in Native nations are victimized sexually, males and females experience this sexualized terror in different ways. For the female, this violence not only attacks her identity as a woman, but also as a Native person. Indeed, racism and colonialism cannot be separated from the sexual components of the conquest and the attempt at genocide of Native peoples. Andrea Smith notes that in her experiences as a rape counselor that many Native victims have said, “I wish I were no longer Indian.”

The fact that the United States of America itself is a product of a colonial method of construction necessitates that Native peoples be viewed as an internal pollutant. Racism is not just a symptom of social alienation, not just a tactic of class control, but is also a long-term strategy to legitimize the conquest of a continent. In other words, the Native population which must be excised from the land to provide room for settlement is justified by making the Native populations the “other," and furthermore, making that "other" equated with all manner of social pollutants. Indeed, the equivocation of Native Peoples with a social pollutant in the national psyche of America was used as justification for not only Manifest Destiny and the European conquest of the continent, but also the two hundred and fifty year genocide of Natives.

Within American society, and in this case white society in particular, since the bodies of Native peoples are considered inherently “dirty,” they are also inherently exploitable. This was also the case for the black segments of the U.S. during slavery and today. The rape of those considered inherently “dirty” does not matter—such people(s) are considered by the colonizers to be incapable of being raped as such because they are not even human beings deserving of bodily integrity. Similarly, the history of mutilation of Native people's bodies is a history of demonstrating them, in the mind of the colonizers, of being undeserving of bodily integrity.

In the first chapter of Conquest, Andrea Smith provides many examples of mutilation being used not only as an intimidation tactic but as a demonstration of the view of Natives being undeserving of bodily integrity. In the eyes of the colonizer, since Native bodies are inherently violable, Native lands are also inherently violable. This is one of the main reasons that an overtly racist program of sexual violence is necessary for a patriarchal, imperialist society. In fact, one of the consequences of this violation, this rape and mutilation not only of the bodies of Native peoples but also of their land, is an internalization of self-hatred. This violence destroys and distorts the self-image of these peoples and causes self-hatred, in effect making genocide much easier through the internalization of the genocidal project and self-destruction.

According to Smith, the internalization of the genocidal project, manifesting itself in self-destructive behavior, is so great it’s even been recognized by some aboriginal peoples as “traditional.” Many cases of the argument that sexual violence is “traditional” can be seen in many nations in regards to court cases involving rape, mutilation and the zoning of women's shelters. The colonial relations are an enactment of the prevailing heterosexual relations. This underscores the extent to which it is in the interest in the white supremacist ruling class of the U.S. to subjugate Native women in order to successfully control the economies, territories and cultures of the peoples to be colonized.

The history of sexual violence against Native women, and also other women of color, is the history of the exploitation by the colonizers to extract land and surplus value, first from the Natives, later the imported slaves and finally the immigrant in the already colonized areas of the Americas.

What is even more interesting is that given the prevailing European model of heterosexual relations, it was not uncommon for white women in the period during which the conquest of North America was taking place to be stolen back when they ran off to the Native nations to escape patriarchy. The lack of patriarchy—or its more subtle form in those nations which practiced patriarchy—did not escape the notice of the European invaders. The destruction of the Native peoples was necessary not to Europeanize them, but to prevent the assimilation of the European invaders into their nations.

The demonization of Native women was a tool used by white men to maintain control over white women, as within Native societies women maintained political control for the most part, and women were largely left unmolested when war occurred. This is not to say, of course, that sexual violence was totally unknown, but the existing oral histories we have indicate that when it did occur the perpetrator was so shunned by the community it was as if a death sentence had been passed in response to it. In short, sexual violence against anyone was seen as so grave a crime as to require execution.

The use of sexual violence and propaganda against Native women was used by the white man to first subjugate the Native female and by extension the Native male, and also symbolically subjugate the white female. This can be seen in the many so-called “first hand” accounts of white women being abducted by Native peoples and brutalized in 18th and 19th century literature. The use of sexual violence to subjugate not only women of color, but also white women, by white men underscores one of the cultural ideas that is very prevalent among white supremacist propaganda. Namely, the idea of “X minority or nation is gonna come and rape our white women.” This chapter goes on to explain the various travesties that occurred during the conquest of the Americas and today.

Boarding School Abuses and the Case for Reparations

Not only did genocide of Native peoples take the form of killing, raping and mutilating the bodies of Natives, it also took the form of cultural destruction. The principle tool used in the past for this endeavor was the so-called “Indian boarding school.” Even though the schools largely closed by the late 1970’s, cultural genocide continues to this day under the Indian Child Welfare Act, which neither promotes welfare nor protects children, but rather makes it easier for the appropriation of Native children by whites, separating them from their parents, their nation and their culture.

The history of the institution of the “Indian boarding school” is replete with sexual abuses, from excessive physical punishments to outright child molestation. Added to this is an overt policy of destroying the culture and languages of the children. The “Indian boarding schools” were institutions which served to seize the children, take them away from their local regions and to sever the younger generations from the older generations, creating a culture gap.

Rape of the Land

As we have already indicated in the first section of this article, since in the minds of the colonizers, Native people's bodies are inherently violable, their territories are also inherently violable. Indeed, in the paternalistic culture of the U.S., one of the main excuses for the seizures of territory from Native peoples was that they were not “properly utilizing” their resources. Paternalistic cultures seek to control women and nature.

Indeed, one of the major problems with largely liberal environmental movements is that they ignore the problems with racism and exploitation faced by Native peoples. Furthermore, the original conquest of the Americas itself was based on the idea that the Native peoples were not properly exploiting their territory. Add to this that vast amounts of resources are located on Native lands, and that particularly in the West the white colonizing nation either seeks to use Native lands for waste storage, Yucca Mountain for example, or have used it directly for nuclear research and testing. This violation of territorial sovereignty is very grave.

What is more, those environmental groups that claim that the population is the main problem in economic disaster—rather than capitalism, and a dysfunctional society resulting from capitalism—have been arguing that greater birth controls should be used by Native peoples to curb their reproduction and “ease environmental impacts.” That such a position is racist should go without saying.

Better Dead than Pregnant

The idea that communities of color, including Native communities, pollute the body politic continues to be a prevailing idea of the contemporary population control movement. People of color are scapegoated for environmental destruction, poverty and war—this is especially true of women of color. Women are particularly threatening to the colonizer—it is through them that the next generations of communities of color come into being. Consequently, it is not surprising that the control over the reproductive abilities of women of color has come to be seen as “national security” issue.

For Native women in particular, whose ability to reproduce continues to stand in the way of the continuing conquest of Native lands, endangering the success of colonization. Indeed, it is necessary to control and destroy the reproductive capabilities of women to destroy a community. It is necessary to destroy women and children to destroy a community.

In 1970, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare accelerated programs that paid for the majority of costs to sterilize Medicaid recipients. In 1979, seven out of ten U.S. hospitals performing “voluntary sterilizations” were violating federal guidelines by disregarding informed consent procedures and sterilizing women through “elective” hysterectomies. One Montana study which focused on the Blackfeet nation and the urban Native population of Great Falls found that Native women were twice as likely to be sterilized as white women. Another study of the sterilization rates in the Navajo nation found that tubal ligations increased by approximately 61% from 1972-1977.

Sterilizations are not the only issue here, even though they are still continuing to this day. Another issue is the use of long-acting hormonal contraceptives, many of which were experimental at the time of use and have been shown to be linked to various forms of cancer. One example of these abuses was a 1991 case in California where a black woman was given the “choice” of receiving a Norplant or receiving a 4-year prison sentence.

Given the fact that 87% of Depo-Provera and Norplant are paid for by government health care programs, poor women, and particularly women of color, are especially targeted for these contraceptives. This doesn't even get into the forced abortion of otherwise healthy fetuses, which Andrea Smith addresses later in the chapter. Overall, the abuse of Native women in regards to their reproductive health can only be viewed as a continuing form of genocide.

Natural Laboratories

In chapter five of Conquest we see that Native communities are especially targeted for medical experimentation. These incidents of human experimentation mentioned by Smith include the testing of several drugs and surgical techniques as well as performing involuntary hysterectomies on Native women. Most of these experiments did not follow informed consent procedures.

In 1991, a Hepatitis trial vaccine program occurred in South Dakota, with Native children being given an experimental hepatitis A vaccine. The control group was not given a placebo, but rather a hepatitis B vaccine. A short time later, the producers of the hepatitis A vaccine, Smith Kline, resigned from the Australian Pharmaceutical Manufacturer's Association after complaints about unethical school promotions and misleading advertising. Children were offered candy and parents were promised free diapers if they participated in the program.

The GAO report on sterilization abuses in the Indian Health Service (HIS) found that there were thirty-six medical experimentation programs conducted by the IHS during 1974 and 1975. The GAO report indicated lapses in informed consent procedure though denied negative consequences.
The Children's Defense Fund reported that Native children in boarding schools were subjected to a trachoma experiment during the years 1967-1968 and 1972-73 without parental consent. The Proctor Foundation which conducted the research maintained that the "Indian Health Service acts as legal guardian for the children while they attend boarding schools."

As was stated previously, the bodies of Native people are seen as inherently violable and as such these people have no rights which the colonizer is bound to respect.

So We've Laid out the Problem...

Now its time to review the possible solutions put forward by Andrea Smith. While overall her analysis of the problem itself is accurate, the problem lies with her solutions, which retains the flaw of liberalism.

1. “Anchoring Violence Against Women Within the Larger Context of Racism, Colonialism, and Inequality.”
Oppressed nations and peoples of color already know that this is a very true and necessary task. Accomplishing it, however, is easier said than done. First, it would require that large segments of the population would have to recognize that the violence perpetrated against women, particularly Native women and women of color, are a strategy of an inherently racist culture. Given the rhetoric of being a “post-racial society,” this is unlikely to happen unless emphasized by the radical left. Something that is sorely lacking in much of it considering it is largely white, male, petty-bourgeois and labor aristocrat in the U.S. The APL’s ideology clearly links the violence against women of color as part of the inherently racist culture of America. Second, it would require that the masses of the U.S. recognize that their society is imperialist and colonial. Third, inequality is a necessary component of capitalism. Violence toward women is linked to this inequality, however simply linking violence against women to inequality is not enough. The inequality itself must be smashed by socialist revolution.

2. “Restorative Justice and Peacemaking”

There is an inherent problem with this as long as the bourgeoisie remains the ruling class of the country. Restorative justice will simply not be given a chance. There are many instances where the sovereignty that Native nations have on paper is completely disregarded in favor of use of state power to repress the right of autonomy for nations. In short, nothing less than full self-determination of the Native nations—including the right to succession—must be implemented for them to make any forms of restorative justice on their own, as is compliant with their needs and culture. While this is a viable solution, it too, requires socialist revolution to implement.

3. “Develop Interventions that Address State Violence and Interpersonal Violence Simultaneously”

Here again, we run into the problem of the sovereignty of Native nations and the inability of the capitalist state to allow them to develop their own means of dealing with interpersonal violence. Furthermore, the involvement of a foreign state—that of the USA—is in and of itself a violation of the rights of Native nations. This requires socialist revolution to implement. There are many more solutions that Smith has proposed. All of them are viable, except for one factor. They require socialist revolution and the respect of self-determination of nations to implement.

The systems of colonial domination that still control the lives of Native nations cannot and will not provide what nations need in order to solve internal contradictions. Rather, they bank on these contradictions as a means of further subjugating peoples. We must surrender the illusion that colonialism is a thing of the past, and that solutions to the problems left in its wake can be achieved by further assimilation and reform. Revolution is the only force that can stand up to the destruction of peoples that capitalism leaves in its wake.