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Saturday, December 4, 2010

(Book Review) Weaken the Women, Destabilize Their Nation: Sexual Violence as a Tool of Colonization (2008)


Book Review: Weaken the Women, Destabilize Their Nation
Sexual Violence as a Tool of Colonization
Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith
Review by Zoe Aarden and Deborah Simmons

The history and consequences of colonization in North America are complex and multifaceted. Indeed, each culture and people affected by colonization brings another aspect to the story. In her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Andrea Smith draws connections between the raping of Native women’s bodies and the rape of Native lands and cultures. In so doing, she analyses the intersections of colonial gender, race and class and their impacts on Native peoples’ lives, lands and cultures. Smith stresses the common experiences of Aboriginal oppression, focusing on examples from the United States and Canada. Her cross-border analysis extends to the experiences of Indigenous peoples globally and underlines the importance of solidarity in the struggle for self-determination.

Smith uses the tools of gender analysis to explore the intersection of sexual violence and the colonization of Aboriginal peoples and lands. In her view, gender oppression has been a core aspect of state-sanctioned genocide against Aboriginal peoples. The logic of gender oppression is connected to the logic justifying the forcible acculturation of Aboriginal children in residential schools, and the appropriation and ‘rape’ of Aboriginal lands in the name of profit.

Smith is in part inspired by Franz Fanon’s reading of colonialism as a frame for racial and gender oppression. She argues that gender violence and racial oppression are ideologically linked to cultural mechanisms that reproduce specific colonial identities and norms that make the violence of the colonial system seem ‘natural.’ In her introductory chapter, Smith also draws from more recent theories of race and gender that tend to focus on the ideological or cultural aspects of oppression. She does mention the role of class and the capitalist system, but the material basis for oppression is weakly developed in her analysis.

Perhaps what sets this book apart is Smiths’ look at the issue of gender and racial oppression from the perspective of an activist. Smith is a co-founder of INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence, one of the largest grassroots organizations for radical feminists of colour in the US. She has done work with Chicago’s WARN (Women of All Red Nations), as well as initiatives such as the Boarding School Healing Project, the U.N. Conference Against Racism, and the NAWHERC conference on reproductive rights.

Conquest examines the relationship between the violence of state institutions and experiences of interpersonal violence. Smith argues that a culture reliant upon dominance and intimidation for social cohesion will inevitably result in violence within interpersonal relationships. Through a series of thematic chapters, Smith demonstrates how people of colour, and Aboriginal peoples specifically, have been further victimized by the state through racist and sexist policies and surveillance structures that maintain control over every aspect of their lives. At the same time, she casts a critical eye on the “mainstream” organisations that have emerged to combat oppression and environmental destruction, and argues for a radical strategy for building resistance.

Smith’s discussion of the residential and boarding school systems illustrates the process of dehumanization, intimidation, violence and servitude by which Canadian and American governments intended to create “good” Indians — compliant domestic servants. Like the earlier system of slavery in the United States, residential schools instilled in students ideas about gender that have acted like catalysts in the epidemic of violence against women in Aboriginal communities continuing into the present. Smith argues that the global struggle for financial reparations for residential school abuses and other human rights violations against Aboriginal peoples is an important part of the struggle for sovereignty and economic independence.

In a chapter on the destruction of Aboriginal lands, Smith shows that it’s a small step from dehumanizing Aboriginal people to colonizing and polluting their lands. Aboriginal lands are the last frontier for resource development, particularly in the north where petroleum development and mining threaten traditional subsistence resources. Aboriginal lands have become dumping grounds for chemical waste. Contaminants absorbed by women in traditional foods such as fish and caribou have a direct impact on their children.
Clearly, Aboriginal peoples have an interest in opposing ecological destruction on their lands. Nevertheless, mainstream environmentalists have supported racist population control strategies that blame the world’s most vulnerable populations—those in the Global South and Aboriginal peoples—for the devastation of their environment. Mainstream environmentalists see Native sovereignty as a threat to preservation and sustainable management of resources. Smith terms this environmentalist racism “the greening of hate,” and describes how population control policies are an important instrument of genocide against Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal women, along with entire populations in the Global South, have been subject to forced and involuntary sterilization and potentially damaging birth control methods such as Depo Provera. Smith describes a case in the Northwest Territories where Aboriginal women seeking abortions were given the operations with no anaesthesia as punishment.

These examples express, furthermore, a view that sees the right of women to decide what happens to their own bodies as a privilege of the middle class only. Indeed, when the concept of reproductive choice is associated with poor women and women of colour, it suddenly loses its legitimacy. These women are portrayed as not having ‘earned’ the right to choose pregnancy. Quite the opposite: they are said to have a responsibility or obligation to the world to reduce their population growth. In this way, pro-choice language is twisted to advance a view oppressive of women in marginalized communities.

Smith points out that Aboriginal peoples have historically been used as guinea pigs for dangerous medical experiments without appropriate procedures for informed consent. Furthermore, health care services on reserves have been underfunded and rendered substandard. And as the health, lands and culture of Aboriginal peoples have been under systematic attack, Aboriginal societies have simultaneously been mined for their knowledge and spirituality – not only by the New Age movement, but by academic institutions as well. This appropriated knowledge is taken out of context and often highly sexualized, reinforcing racial stereotypes about the ‘wild’ Indian. Indeed, Smith alleges that the misappropriation of Native knowledges threatens Native sovereignty itself.

Smith’s critique of mainstream feminist and environmentalist organizations comes from her experience organizing with Native women at the grassroots level. Working within the logic of capitalism, the mainstream organisations tend to further the colonization and marginalization of those women and land-based peoples whose interests they are mandated to represent. Smith maintains accountability to people of colour first and foremost, constantly questioning mainstream ideas of ‘inclusion’ that are supposed to assist and protect people of colour but fail to address their specific communities’ experiences of colonial violence and injustice.
Smith calls for an anti-colonial strategy that centrally addresses issues of gender violence. She consistently positions women of colour, and specifically Native women, at the centre of analysis and resistance. This contrasts with the mainstream model that positions the most empowered women in society at the centre — middle-class white women —and secondarily attempts to create a model of “inclusion” for everyone else. Neither can an anti-colonial strategy rely upon institutions of the state, since these institutions are themselves instruments of racist and gender violence. In particular, Smith describes numerous examples of racism in the criminal justice system, including three of the most high profile cases of police violence in Canada since 1998.
In her concluding chapter, Smith explores the implications of the new imperialism after 9/11 for struggles against oppression. She shows how the external war against terror has translated into increased racism, sexism and heterosexism at home. In her words, “It is important to understand that this war against ‘terror’ is really an attack against Native sovereignty, and that consolidating U.S. empire abroad is predicated on consolidating US empire within US borders.” Empire is founded on a nationalism that promotes domestic resource extraction on Aboriginal lands, such as the petroleum drilling planned for Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Gwich’in territory; a militarism that supports military testing on Aboriginal lands, such as the 18,000 low-level NATO flights per year that have disrupted Innu lands in Labrador; an anti-immigrant ideology that reinforces the power of the state with respect to Aboriginal lands.

What is most remarkable is that Conquest provides practical, community-based methods for addressing racial and gender oppression. Ah, the offer of some kind of strategy! She opposes the separatism prevalent among Aboriginal activists, noting that this perspective neglects to challenge structures of oppression. Rather, Smith argues for a holistic coalition-building strategy that makes links among social justice movements. She looks to organising models that “make power and take power.” She points to a number of young women’s organisations, such as Sista II Sista in Brooklyn, and Sisters in Action for Power in Portland, Oregon that exemplify this approach.

Conquest is important as a gathering of evidence about the state-sanctioned violation of Aboriginal rights in the United States and Canada, including violence against Aboriginal women and the theft and destruction of Aboriginal lands. Although Smith does not fully explain how this is rooted in capitalism and the drive for profit, her analysis does lead toward a revolutionary strategy. Smith concludes that the struggle for self-determination must involve “the project of creating a new world governed by an alternative system not based on domination, coercion and control.” This global vision is not utopian, but rather is grounded in the experience of resistance.

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