This guest post is a part of the Feministe series on Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Jessica Yee is a self-described Indigenous hip-hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter. 24 years old and Two-Spirit from the Mohawk Nation, Jessica is the founder and Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, a North America wide organization working on issues of healthy sexuality, reproductive justice, cultural competency and youth empowerment. She is a strong believer in the power of the youth voice, and you can see her activisting it up on sites like Racialicious, BITCH magazine, Indian Country Today, or pick up her recently released book “Sex Ed and Youth: Colonization, Communities of Colour, and Sexuality.”
Many people have wondered aloud to me why someone who works in sexual and reproductive health would care so much about the issue and prevalence of violence. Those of you who are passionate about the fields of sexual and reproductive health can probably attest to the fact that while you really want to spend more time on sexual violence and the prevention/awareness of it, various funding/institutional/governmental policies and practices make it difficult if not impossible to do it all at the same time since Western society dictates to us that we ought to focus on essentially one or two things only – and leave the rest to someone else. The exact same can be said vice-versa – I meet many folks who work in domestic violence who would love to be able to talk more about healthy sexuality and sexual pleasure but are repeatedly told they can’t, or don’t have the resources to do it. This simultaneous reality of “it’s not our issue” we face is certainly isolationist, individualist, and capitalist in many respects, but even more than that it often leaves people to become social justice maniacs trying to cover all the bases themselves in either what your job won’t pay you for or your particular activist circle refuses to own as an equally pressing intersectional issue.
Now even if I wanted to think that way and only stick to say sexually transmitted infections or abortion rights, I really can’t. Why? Because I’m Native, and as such the existence of violence in our communities, especially against our women, exists at rates that are extremely abhorrent and exceedingly high. We HAVE to talk about it all because to not talk about is to ignore some 80% of the population of our women who, for example, have experienced intimate partner violence, or the over 90% of our people who are deeply feeling the effects of residential/mission/boarding school which can sometimes result in different types of violence against oneself and others.
The other important reason I can’t ignore the incidence of violence is because as an Indigenous person I come from a culture and a people who believe that EVERYTHING is related – and we take that teaching seriously. So moreover I can’t say, “well sexual health and violence is over here, but you know the environment department is over there” because if I continue to do that, SOMEONE is always going to lose out and as a young person I have a responsibility to the upcoming generations to make sure we don’t do that.
So today my work at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network INCLUDES everything from comprehensive, culturally based sex education to reproductive rights to environmental justice to violence prevention and awareness. We’ve been very honoured to work with an incredible network of youth, elders, and communities all across the United States and Canada who tell us exactly why we shouldn’t back down from working on all these issues together, or if separate at least related. Of course we experience so many of them at the same time – because since when isn’t land connected to bodies connected to spirit?
However from my Indigenous/feminist/harm reduction/sex-positive/Two-Spirit /bi-sexual/sex-working point of view, I’ve got a few issues to raise in the ways that attention is and in many instances ISN’T being paid to violence against Native/Indigenous women – regardless of the areas of passion/justice/activism we are coming from.
First of all – isn’t the fact that Native American women experience violence almost 3 times more than any other group of women in the United States, 86% of the time by non-Native men – an inherently cross-sectional feminist issue? I don’t mean one that gets the occasional blog post every now and then, or gets centre mainstream feminist stage when it’s convenient, especially with statements like “Oh wow, Iook at these numbers – we didn’t even know about this!” HOW is it that you don’t know? Sure the Native American/American Indian/Alaska Native population is just over 1% of the population in the United States, and in Canada the Aboriginal population is roughly 3%, but with rates like these, say in Canada where there are over 500 missing and murdered Aboriginal women, that’s equivalent to some 18 000 white women. WHY don’t the women in our Native communities measure up in priority? I would think that the occurrence of violence against this many Native women would have every single feminist group up in arms and refusing to shut up until something is done about it – I certainly see that kind of coverage when abortion rights are threatened. WHAT are YOU going to do with this information now that you know about it?
Now some of the mainstream media have been paying attention – a little – albeit in a very sensationalist and sucker-punching way. Yet I’ve been reflecting a lot on why it is that violence against Aboriginal women is all of a sudden receiving more mainstream media attention. Ask anybody from an Indigenous community or nation and you will hear that this has been going on for 500+ years. I certainly don’t feel like the violence is subsiding or going away, but I’m acutely aware of how long it’s been going on for and how deeply entrenched it is in many of our communities, to the point of lateral and internalized violence and oppression.
I do think it’s great that there seems to be a sort of recent heightened awareness regarding the degree of violence; however that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t question why it’s happening all of a sudden, and to what extent does this new found care/concern go? Furthermore, so much of the violence is committed against young Native women under the age of 25 and I have yet to read more than one or two stories that actually featured the voices of Native youth talking about their own experiences and opinions.
Much of the violence that does occur is also sexualized, on some level, whether of course it’s gender or sexually based. So additionally it makes sense for the standard sexual health folks to get involved with this issue and vice-versa for domestic violence – or at least we could all get together more so we can look at root causes and collectively make a better concerted effort to involve the unusual suspects – most especially men.
I think about our Native leaders in Saskatchewan and Manitoba who greeted the Olympic torch on traditional horseback by handing them the stats on violence against Native women saying, “If you are going to come to this territory and the media are following you, now you HAVE to report what’s REALLY going on”. I think about the first International Conference on Engaging Men and Boys in Achieving Gender Equality in Rio di Janeiro I attended last year as part of the Youth Forum where I witnessed young men from 150 countries around the world proclaim themselves as feminists and wanting women’s leadership and direction. I think about the “Protecting the Circle: Aboriginal Men Ending Violence Against Women” event we co-hosted this past January in Toronto with folks identifying as men across a gender spectrum and acknowledging the power of being Two-Spirit and what role that has to play in the healing process. I also think about my “hunka” (adopted) brother Richard Milda with his “Men’s Re-Education” project in South Dakota which aims to get away from language like “anger management” and purposely decolonize the ways in which men learn about being men.
One final issue I’d also like to address is the great lengths I see people go to put on vigils and remember missing and murdered Aboriginal women – particularly sex workers – but the lack of support that I see for current sex workers – particularly those who are street-based – to have safe working conditions and basic human rights respected. For all the lofty talk I hear at these vigils about the “poor prostitutes” and how we should “save them all”, I sure don’t see the equivalent amount of care when I walk down the street and see these same people completely ignore sex workers or equally worse – openly shun, judge, and chastise them. I would think that for all the concern people say they have for the “poor Native prostitutes” that at minimum they might support things like decriminalization which might actually save lives, or insist on culturally relevant services to meet us where we are at. We should NOT have to die because of ignorance and injustice before people finally care about us at a vigil. And last time I checked violence is not part of the job description.
Violence comes in many forms, and it’s important not to categorize all Indigenous nations into the same box of what our past and traditions were/are – we are extremely diverse and of course there were issues prior to colonization – but an important difference is that we had our own ways of dealing with this. Where my ancestors come from it was normal practice to keep each other in check, and because we are a matrilineal/matriarchal society (and damn proud of it I should add) this was a true, lived reality which meant that if violence was conducted against any woman or child, we DEALT with it right away. I remember pulling up some old clippings of the colonizer’s newspapers in the late 1800’s where the white women were remarking things like, “You could walk down a road in one of the Iroquois communities and none of the men would touch you!” and how surprised they were at that fact. What’s important to take into account today however is not to romanticize this legacy that we are coming from because it’s still running through our blood – and they can’t take that away from us.
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