white, anti-rape movements at odds with Indigenous sovereignty

In her article entitled, Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith critiques white, anti-rape movements from an anti-colonial, Indigenous feminist perspective. Smith (1999) argues that the white-dominated, anti-rape movements “fail to consider how rape also serves as a tool of racism and colonialism” (p. 32). Her critique is based on the premise that the white-dominated, anti-rape movements view rape as “a tool of patriarchal control” (Smith, 1999, p. 32). Patriarchy assumes that only “pure” bodies can be raped and that the “rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty does not count” (Smith, 1999, p. 35). Colonialism and racism, for Smith (1999), assumes that Indigenous bodies are threats to white society, because the aim of colonialism is “not only to defeat Indian people but to eradicate their very identity and humanity” (p. 13). Thus, within a colonial context, the sexual violence that Indigenous women experienced and continue to experience is a direct “attack on Native sovereignty itself” (Smith, 1999, p. 32). Smith calls for both an anti-racist and an anti-colonist response to end violence against women, especially Indigenous women.

Smith presents the problems in mainstream (white) feminism, whose sole focus is to eradicate patriarchy, while simultaneously ignoring the history of colonialism in the United States. Though Smith does not provide a clear definition of colonialism, a definition can be adopted from her argument overall. Colonialism, as stated earlier, can be characterized as the complete erasure of Indigenous bodies and Indigenous identities from society (Smith, 1999). Utilizing Ann Stoler’s definition of racism, Smith (1999) highlights that racism is “a permanent part of the social fabric” (p. 32) and it is a “means of creating ‘biologized’ internal enemies, against whom society must defend itself” (p. 32). For Smith, rape, both as a tool of racism and colonialism, is a means to destroy Indigenous nations and to attack and undermine Indigenous sovereignty. Although the oversight does not undermine her argument, Smith does not clarify what she means by Indigenous sovereignty.

Through reading Smith’s article, one can assume that Indigenous sovereignty is Indigenous peoples’ current occupation of land or access to land. This access to land for Indigenous peoples, however, only includes access to the lands they currently occupy. In contrast, from an Indigenous nation’s perspective, Indigenous sovereignty is derived from prior occupation of traditional lands, which may include surrounding lands outside state-form Reservations. Christina Yui Iwase (2012) writes, “Aboriginal peoples understand Aboriginal rights as stemming from their prior occupation of their traditional lands (i.e. Aboriginal sovereignty)” (p. 99).[1] Yet, the Canadian state does not even acknowledge an Indigenous nation’s prior or current occupation of their traditional lands. With some of Canada’s major resource development projects taking place on Indigenous traditional lands, sometimes these projects trigger long legal disputes (Bennett, 2013). At the heart of these disputes include the Canadian government approving and supporting projects without consulting Indigenous nations who may lose access and control over their lands (Bennett, 2013). This is the complete erasure of Indigenous bodies on Indigenous lands.

Legal scholars also critique how Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights are legally acquired or asserted within a Canadian context. Under Canada’s Constitution, Aboriginal title is derived from Crown sovereignty, and not Indigenous sovereignty, thereby negating Indigenous sovereignty altogether (Iwase, 2012). Rauna Kuokkanen notes the contradictions within Canada’s Indigenous land claims and self-governance systems as well. Kuokkanen (2011) highlights that this system “is premised on the extinguishment of Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal title in exchange for the right rights included in the new settlement or agreement” (p. 287). Both Kuokkanen and Iwase call attention to the problems surrounding how Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal title are asserted or claimed within a Canadian context—arguing that these processes further legitimize the colonial state.

Similarly, Smith’s critique of white, anti-rape movements includes the undermining of Indigenous sovereignty by mainstream feminists. These movements tend to call for increased policing in Indigenous nations. Increased policing might reinforce colonialism, including all of its violence, under the premise that it is necessary for increased protection and safety for Indigenous women. Smith (1999) writes, “relying upon the criminal justice system to end violence against women may strengthen the colonial apparatus in tribal communities that furthers violence while providing nothing more than the illusion of safety to survivors of sexual and domestic violence” (p. 48). To further complicate matters, Indigenous nations, in both the states and Canada, are managed at Federal levels. While the United States’ criminal justice system is managed at a state level, the Canadian criminal justice system is managed at the Federal level. The bifurcation of legislation in the United States creates additional difficulties for white, anti-rape movements in Indigenous nations since tribal nations are controlled by Federal legislation and not state legislation—any adequate criminal justice response is thereby null and void.

For the United States, the drawback of this bifurcated-colonial response is illustrated by the murder rate of Indigenous women on-reserve, which is ten times the national average, and by the fact that over eighty-eight percent of perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women are non-Indigenous men (Chekuru, 2013). Prior to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, Indigenous nations were unable to adequately address this violence committed on-reserve by non-Indigenous men since Indigenous nations did not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indigenous men (Indian Law Resource Center, n.d.). Before 2013, non-Indigenous men were literally protected by the Federal state for the violence that they inflicted against Indigenous women, almost a “get out jail free” card. Only time will tell us if there are any benefits with the state providing protection through policy like the VAWA for Indigenous women. Akin to Smith, I question why mainstream feminists ignore state-supported violence when addressing sexual violence in Indigenous communities. Still, I question why Smith did not raise these points as it could have strengthened her argument that an increased policing or colonial-state response to anti-rape movements is at odds with Indigenous sovereignty.

Based on the above, I will assume that Indigenous sovereignty is the Indigenous people’s occupation of traditional lands. From this assumption, following Smith’s argument, rape, as a tool of colonial and racism, is intended to eradicate Indigenous bodies on Indigenous lands, and a tool to attack Indigenous sovereignty. In response to her critique of white, anti-rape movements, Smith (1999) calls for an anti-colonial, anti-racist response to help stop violence against women. It is important to highlight this anti-colonial response to ending violence against women since many feminists ignore the history of colonialism in both the United States and Canada. For instance, in The Politics of Culture, Racism, and Nationalism in Honour Killing, Shahrzad Mojab (2012) argues that honour killings are a form of violence against women and that they should be acknowledged as a Canadian problem. As part of her solution to these honour killings, she calls for state prioritization responses to violence against women (Mojab, 2012). However, by arguing that honour killings, as a form of violence against women, should be acknowledged as a Canadian problem legitimizes the colonial-state and ignores the history of colonialism and all of its violence committed against Indigenous peoples, specifically Indigenous women. Smith (1999) also calls attention to the fact that (sexual) violence was rare in Indigenous communities and that Indigenous nations were largely matrilineal and matrilocal. Mojab’s argument that violence is a reproduction of male rule is a direct subordination of Indigenous systems, which placed Indigenous women at the center. As a result, without an anti-colonial and an anti-racist response to eradicating violence against women, mainstream feminists responses risk threatening Indigenous systems and risk further subjugating Indigenous women. A more appropriate response to eradicating (sexual) violence against Indigenous women would aim to support community-based responses centered on Indigenous women. Anti-rape movements would also seek to understand the history of colonialism and how colonialism still effects Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women, today. In her blog entitled “Transformative Justice Strategies For Addressing Police/Vigilante/Hate/White Supremacist violence,” Smith offers some practical responses to addressing violence. Some of which include focusing on transformative justice as opposed to restorative justice. In Canada, the criminal justice system adopts a restorative justice approach in response to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal offenders. However, I have previously critiqued the restorative justice system for re-victimizing women, especially Indigenous women, who turn to the state for protection.

In a much broader context, Smith’s examination of feminists and feminisms attempts to eradicate violence against women presents the contradictions inherent in supporting state responses, including increased policing. One example of this increased policing includes the pro-arrest policies of the 1980s. The pro-arrest policies, which were heavily advocated for by feminist organizations, were an attempt to address inadequate criminal justice response to domestic violence in Canada (Johnson, 2012). However, the pro-arrest policies produced a negative outcome, including the indirect criminalization of women who experienced domestic violence (Johnson, 2012). For example, due to these pro-arrest policies, I was criminalized after I attempted to defend myself against my abuser, who was a white male. From this criminalization, I was displaced from my housing because I was remanded and the court felt it was safer for me to be in jail. Once a spot became available at the single Indigenous women only shelter, I lived there for approximately three months. Therein lies one major contradiction with utilizing a colonial system in seeking justice. Even if they are victims of abuse, Indigenous women are still treated as offenders. These pro-arrest policies also assumed that violence against women is a private issue and ignored (sexual) violence as a tool of colonialism and a tool of racism.

Sherene Razack (1998) argues that feminism needs to question how their responses are complicit in maintaining systems of domination. One such system of domination includes colonialism. Further, Razack (1998) highlights the problems with focusing on the vulnerability of women instead of the systems of domination that increase this vulnerability. Mainstream (white) feminists often label indigenous women as the most vulnerable and their movements usually call for increased policing. Yet, at the same time, mainstream feminism often ignores how these efforts indirectly criminalize Indigenous women. In the end, one might argue that there is something inherently wrong with our criminal justice system given that there are over 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women and that Indigenous women’s prison populations increased by ninety percent since 2001 (CBCNews, 2012). However, if the aim of colonialism is to conquer Indigenous peoples on Indigenous lands and the criminal justice system is an extension of the colonial state, then the system is designed to do what it was always meant to do— eliminate Indigenous bodies on Indigenous lands.


Bennett, C. (2013, November 14). “’See You In Court’: An Expensive, Time-Consuming Wrong-Headed Strategy.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/hon-carolyn-bennett/aboriginal-litigation-canada_b_4273893.html.

Blanchfield, M. (2013, February 13). “Mounties raped, abused B.C. aboriginal girls, rights watchdog alleges in report.” The National Post. Retrieved from http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/02/13/mounties-raped-abused-b-c-aboriginal-girls-rights-watchdog-alleges-in-report/.

CBCNews. (2012, February 25). “Aboriginal women imprisoned in soaring numbers.” CBCNews Canada. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/aboriginal-women-imprisoned-in-soaring-numbers-1.1143093.

Chekuru, K. (2013, March 10). “Violence Against Women Act Includes New Protections for Native American Women.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/10/violence-against-women-act-native-americans_n_2849931.html.

Indian Law Resource Center. n.d. Violence Against Native Women Gaining Global Attention. Retrieved from http://www.indianlaw.org/safewomen/violence-against-native-women-gaining-global-attention.

Iwase, C. Y. (2012). “Fiduciary Relationship as Contemporary Colonialism.” The Arbutus Review, 3 (2): 98-115.

Johnson, H. (2012). “No-Drop” Policies are Harming Some Women.” Social Sciences Research at University of Ottawa. Retrieved from http://socialsciences.uottawa.ca/sites/default/files/public/research/eng/documents/HJohnson_WorldIdeas.pdf.

Kuokkanen, R. (2011). “From Indigenous Economies to Market-Based Self Governance: A Feminist Political Economy Analysis.”  Canadian Journal of Political Science, 44(2): 275-297.

Mojab, S. (2012). “The Politics of Culture, Racism, and Nationalism in Honour Killings.” Canadian Criminal Law Review, 16(2): 116-134.

Oppal, W. (2012). Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Inquiry. Retrieved from http://www.missingwomeninquiry.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Forsaken-ES-web-RGB.pdf.

Razack, S. (1998). “From Pity to Respect: The Ableist Gaze and the Politics of Rescue.”  Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms, 130-156. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, A. (1999). “Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.” Journal of Religion & Abuse, 1(2): 31-52.

[1] The term “Aboriginal” is employed here since it is the term used in the Canadian constitution and in a legal context.

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