Clothed in the power of European masculinity and authority, Amerigo Vespucci stands on the shore facing a reclining Indigenous woman. In one hand he holds a brass mariner’s astrolabe; in his other, a crucifix. When Vespucci calls her name, America rises from her bed, hand outstretched, legs slightly parted. Wearing only a headdress and feathered skirt, she eagerly invites Europe’s civilizing presence. Ignoring her cannibalistic tribe in the background, she welcomes conquest. If she resists, the sword and cross Vespucci carries endow him with the military, religious, and political ability to take by force what she withholds.
That Jan van der Straet drew America as a woman was no accident. That Theodor Galle likewise engraved the same image speaks to the seemingly naturalness of the representation. Sherry Ortner asserts, “…various aspects of woman’s situation (physical, social, psychological) contribute to her being seen as closer to nature, while the view of her as closer to nature is in turn embodied in institutional forms that reproduce her situation” (Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?). In the image, Indigenous woman, and by extension the land, willingly receives Vespucci’s male/cultural advances. As the colonizer sows his seeds in a new land, so he claims the women he finds there. European colonizers created a new mythos of Indigeneity intrinsically linked to virginal land ripe for conquest by “civilized” men. They did not step into nativism: they exploited and dominated it.
In Galle’s engraving we see the initial positioning of Indigenous femininity by the colonizing white gaze. This positioning has led to increased rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls. More than half (56.1 percent) of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. More than 1 in 7 AI/AN women have experienced sexual violence in the past year. At least, we think so. Sussing out the data challenges even the most stalwart statistician. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) has only four racial categories, relegating AI/AN, Native Hawaiians, Asian, Pacific Islanders, and mixed race people to the nebulous zone of “Other,” making self-reported rates of violence only nominally valuable when analyzing risk factors for AI/AN. The Department of Justice also collects data, but their responsiveness is dismal. In 2016, 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing. The DOJ logged only 116 of them in its federal missing persons database. The system, it seems, has failed us.
But Indigenous communities are not going gently into that goodnight, nor are they passively waiting for justice. They are actively, vociferously fighting to move the needle toward equity. You only have to google #MMIW, #MMIWG, #MMIWG2S, or #MMIWQT to see some of the thousands of ways they’re raising consciousness and advocating for change. Jaime Black’s (Anishinaabe) REDress Project is a visceral response to the emptiness of our lives without the women and girls who have been murdered. The MMIWQT Bead Project: Every One, one of a series of engagement pieces by artist Cannula Hanska (enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold), uses over 4,000 handmade clay beads created by various communities across US and Canada, to emphasize the real-world cost of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and queer/trans community members.
And Fringe by Rebecca Belmore. This piece haunts me. It voices the effects of historic and ongoing genocide, but does so by asserting the modernity and resiliency of Indigenous women. Located at a busy intersection in Quebec in the wake of the Pickton murders, where 49 women were killed, half of whom were Indigenous, the billboard-size photo forces us to confront both the atrocities faced by and the strength of Indigenous communities. The woman in the photo turns her back to us, negates the value of our gaze. With red beads stitching up a wound, Belmore promises that this woman, though hurt, will survive. With her community as a source of healing, she will thrive. She is naked and vulnerable, yes, but also powerful and whole. The needlework, the beadwork, the need for a community of sisters to stitch her up, all speak to a feminine, communal effort.
“It was the site where they uncovered and openly revealed the depths of their intimate wounds. This confessional aspect served as a healing ritual,” wrote bell hooks in Feminism is for Everybody. We all carry wounds. For some, those wounds have been inflicted through ongoing oppression and the violence of colonization. We have to openly reveal our wounds, to acknowledge the ways we wound each other, before we can begin to stitch each other back up. I believe that, together, if we’re vulnerable and honest, we can bind wounds and heal. We can change the future, so that all women, girls, queer and transgender individuals are safe from violence, but first we have to acknowledge the harm that has been done. It takes effort, and it takes all of us speaking out against all forms of oppression, but I have faith that we can do it.
Featured Image from David Bernie, (Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate) available here.