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Philosophy 3150 Brian Kersch 1

Decolonizing Feminism and the Politics of Indigenous Women


It is an urgent task to decolonize feminism in order to foster a more nuanced
understanding of the relationship indigenous women have to colonialism, patriarchy, and the
confluence of the two. What is meant by the phrase decolonize feminism is to adopt the
epistemic critique of Walter Mignolo (2000) wherein feminism can be deemed valuable as a tool
to challenge certain aspects of modernity, in this case its patriarchal nature, but to also perform a
double critique (Mignolo, 2000) of the epistemic foundations that replicate
modernist/universalist logics. In order for any philosophy to be truly liberatory philosophy must
attempt to undo the knowledge production of the West that hails from the revival of Greek
thinking during the Renaissance made manifest in colonialism in the 15
th
century. Western
feminism often leaves out the experience marginalized women of color, particularly that of
indigenous women (Smith, 2005b; LaDuke, 1994; hooks, 1984; Smallcombe, 2004). This is
because Western scholarship fails to understand the interrelation between heteropatriarchy and
white supremacy (Mignolo, 2000; Smith, 2006). The successful critique of modernist logics that
laid the foundation for modern patriarchal structures must begin with the critique of the
presumed universalism of the knowledge produced by Europeans; both modernist logics and
critical logics that replicate the universalism of modernity.
Some scholars have made the argument that male domination did not exist on the North
American continent prior to the invasion by Europeans (Smith, 1997), and while others (Smith,
2005a; Grande, 2004) hold such a view as nave, there is something to be said about the
relationship between colonial domination and sexual violence. Andrea Smith (2005a; 2006)
deems it impossible to think against patriarchy without also thinking against settlerism. Smiths
(2006) critique of Western feminism centers around the question of the public/private divide that
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Western feminists tend to overcome, yet often serve to reinforce. In the attempt to dismantle the
public/private divide Western feminism attributes the role of sexual violence to an interpersonal
relationship that ignores the ways in which state sanctioned/based violence occurs in a
patriarchal manner. For example the Violence Against Women Act begins from several
universalist positions 1) that the law is equally accessible across cultures, 2) that the law serves
as an adequate remedy for sexual violence and 3) that the remedies offered by law are applicable
cross-culturally because of the federal nature of VAWA. Smith (2006) would join in the critique
of VAWA because the settler imposition of Western legal institutions onto indigenous persons
has been particularly harmful, especially in the case of VAWA, because the rights of local tribal
councils to remedy or resolve these questions of sexual violence has become preempted by
federal law such that local tribal councils do not hold the legal jurisdiction to prosecute iterations
of sexual violence on tribal land (Romkens, 2001). This becomes particularly dangerous when
each of the universalist presumptions of VAWA is dismantled. The first is the belief in the
accessibility of the law; the universalist position relies upon the possibility that all women who
are victims of sexualized violence can find remedy within American courts which ignores the
structural barriers such as monetary ability to hire lawyers, willingness of prosecutors to
investigate violence against nonwhite women, and, not least of which, a potential language
barrier; this belief then is insidious because the legal structure is one that limits out potential
avenues for remedy for indigenous women (Dossa, 1999); especially considering that some
indigenous women often find themselves in the precarious position of being undocumented
migrants returning to their rightful home (Anzaldua, 1987). The second issue is that the law often
serves as a punitive measure rather than a redemptive one, insofar as indigenous women often
find themselves caught in the Sophies trap of choosing between their personal safety and the
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further intrusion of settlerism into their communities by turning over indigenous men to be jailed
in a racialized white institution of prison; VAWA then harms rather than helps indigenous
women; this also cements the criticism of the third universalist presupposition (Romkens, 2001;
Grande, 2004; Smith, 2005a).
The second critique of Western feminism also stems from its universalism which often
places women of color in the position of being forced to choose between being an anti-racist or a
feminist (Smallcombe, 2004). The declaration of I am indigenous first, woman second
(Smallcombe, 2004) again alludes to the Sophies choice of Western feminism for marginalized
women; whereby revolutionary potential becomes compartmentalized into a litany of disparate
struggles that render the possibility of true liberation impossible. The solution is to adopt Andrea
Smiths (2006) perspective of recognizing that gendered violence stems from State violence and
that settlerism, albeit not the cause of male domination, greatly exacerbated said violence. The
imposition of Western forms of knowing onto indigenous communities hailed the turn from
small levels of male dominance to full blown heteropatriarchy in indigenous communities
(Smith, 2006). The solution then cannot be as simple as a one-size fits all (women) approach to
challenge those structures of domination, but rather should begin from the multi-faceted
challenge to heteropatriarchal settler colonialism. The failure to theorize settler colonialism
reinforces the same settler dynamics that further hierarchical relationships that place the rational
subject; European, at the center of world history and used to demonize those deemed inferior by
Eurocentric logics. Perhaps the most emblematic iteration of this is criticized by Bouteldja
(2010) whenever she lead protestors in chanting Solidarity with Swedish women! Solidarity
with Italian women! because the privilege of solidarity is one normally reserved for white
women who dont experience the same iterations of violence non-white women experience
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globally. White women experience sexual violence and political repression and the haughtiness
of being able to declare solidarity replicates the white supremacist logic that white persons are
somehow above, or beyond, the daily lives of women of color (Bouteldja, 2010).
La Mojada
1,950 mile-long open wound
dividing a pueblo, a culture
running down the length of my body,
staking fence rods in my flesh,
splits me splits me
me raja me raja

This is my home
this thin edge of
barbwire.

But the skin of the earth is seamless.
The sea cannot be fenced,
el mar does not stop at the borders.
To show the white man what she thought of his
arrogance,
Yemay blew that wire fence down.

This land was Mexican once,
was Indian always
and is.
And will be again.
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Yo soy un puente tendido
del mundo gabacho al del mojado,
lo pasado me estira patrs
y lo presente padelante,
Que la Virgen de Guadalupe me cuide
Ay ay ay, soy mexicana de este lado.
- Gloria Anzaluda, Borderlands/La frontera, 1987
The third experience left out by Western feminisms universalism is the ontological
position of la mojada. Western feminism does not have to and cannot theorize the alienation of
la mojada because Western knowledge is always at home in the academy. Yet, for persons from
Latin America the academy is not a home because the first world has knowledge, the third
world has culture (Mignolo, 2009) and to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt
(Mignolo, 2000) because the standard is always Euro(centered) knowledges. La mojada, then
occupies the position of the un-home, a woman alienated from her home and her culture and the
attempt to return has deemed her very body illegal; for how can one migrate to a land that was
Mexican once, Indian always (Anzaldua, 1987, pg. 11) when she is an Indian. Western
feminism cannot think from the colonial difference (Mignolo, 2000) because Western women
never encounter the experience of alienation from their land, their culture, or their heritage.
While it is nave to say that Western women do not have to experience rape; it is however
important to note that Western women are not a product of rape, as is the case with la mojada;
because the process of mestizaje was one meant to eliminate all traces of indigenous culture in
order to clear both the lands and minds of the occupants for colonization (Anzaldua, 1987). La
mojada has no home because indigenous communities reject her white skin and white
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communities reject her red blood, and her home is always already bordered off both in the literal
sense and the metaphorical. The sexual violence experienced at the border through conscription
into the sex trade, or forced to run the border as drug coyotes in order to gain safe passage to
their homeland is an experience unique to la mojada; and theorizing from Western feminism es
se raja (Anzaldua, 1987).
Western feminism is not only insufficient to understand or prescribe responses to the
particular ontological position occupied by indigenous women, but oftentimes is detrimental
because of its presumed universalism. To decolonize feminism is to recognize the relationship
between the settler state and patriarchal domination (Smith, 2005a; 2005b; 2006) and to
pedagogically reinvent the ways in which we discuss and deem valuable certain knowledges
(Grande, 2004; Mignolo, 2000; Mignolo, 2009). The universalism of Western thought laid the
foundation for the colonization of the Americas and of the bodies of indigenous women as made
manifest in the process of mestizaje and the creation of la mojada who is always in the position
of the un-home (Anzaldua, 1987). The necessity of theorizing feminism from a decolonial
perspective becomes paramount to the survival of Native America as a whole and its women in
particular.

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References
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Books.
Bouteldja, H. (2010, October 22). [Web log message]. White women and the privilege of
solidarity, Retrieved from http://www.decolonialtranslation.com/english/white-women-
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Dossa, S. (1999) Liberal legalism: Law, culture and identity, The European Legacy 4(3),73-87.
DOI:10.1080/10848779908579973
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