An Indigenous Perspective on Feminism, Militarism, and the Environment

By Winona LaDuke 

Indigenous women understand that our struggle for autonomy is related to the total need for structural change in this society. We realize that indigenous people in industrial society have always been and will always be in a relationship of war, because industrial society has declared war on indigenous peoples, on land based peoples.

To look within a bigger context, when I say indigenous peoples, I'm not only talking about Indians. All people come from land-based cultures. Some have been colonized longer than I have, which means they have got more work to do.

According to an article by Jason Clay in Cultural Survival, there are 5,000 indigenous nations in the world today, and there are one hundred and seventy-one states. Indigenous nations have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. They share common territory, common language, common history, common culture, and a common government or political organization. That is the definition of nation under international law. Nations exist in theAmericas, in Malaysia, and elsewhere in the world. The Kayapo people in Brazil are a nation; the Penan of Malaysia are a nation; the Palestinians and Kurdish people are nations.  Throughout the world, there are indigenous nations. We have come to accept more commonly that there are only 171 nations and these are states. That is because we are told to accept them by these same powers. These 171 states have, for the most part, been around since World War 11. We need to understand this context.

Most indigenous women understand that our struggle as women is integrally related to the struggle of our nations for control of our land, resources, and destinies. It is difficult for indigenous women to embrace or even relate to the progressive parts of the women's movement. It is not about civil rights for us. It is not about equal access to something. It is about "Get off my neck." From our perspective, that is what it is all about.

Yet industrial society and the military machine continue to devastate our communities. Throughout the Americas, indigenous women are speaking out against militarism. Our people, specifically our men, are being militarized by the American, Guatemalan, and other states. There were 82,000 Indians serving inVietnam from August 1964 to May 1975.

Indians had the highest rate of service for all ethnic groups. It was the same in the Persian Gulf War. I read an article in theLakota Times: five hundred Lakota men were in service in the Persian Gulf . That is a horrendous statistic considering that we are only two percent of the population. Militarism changes how men relate to women, the earth, and their communities. The process of militarizing our men causes a disruption of our order.

I understand very well that militarization has strongly influenced how men relate to women in our society. It is the cause of many problems. As a result, we are talking about hard challenges. We are talking about the fact that the system must totally change if indigenous peoples are to survive. We are talking about the fact that this is a system of conquest. That is the essence of capitalism. That is the essence of colonialism.

And conquest means destruction of peoples, which is integrally related to sexism, to racism, to all the other "isms." It is also intimately related to death, because there is no way that a society based on conquest can survive on this earth.

We've basically run out of room for conquest. There are no more frontiers. The West is an American state of mind. Nobody's going anywhere. There's no place else to go. We have to look at how we can make a systemic change in this society so there's a meaningful change—not only change in the social and political relations between people, between men and women, but also between this society and the consumption of resources.

It is within this context that I believe that indigenous women embrace other social movements, embrace them to the extent that they are interested in systemic change. The women's movement is in a good position to take on structural change. Because there are so many women in this country, the women's movement has the numbers and the potential to engage in real change. I believe that women are able to have more courage in our work and in our struggle than men exhibit. I really think that's true. It's a very difficult struggle. But I myself really don't have anything else to do with the rest of my life. The fact that we are women and we are intimately related to the forces of renewal and life means that we are much closer to an optimism in our understanding of things than are many men in this society.

The war has brought home the concept of Armageddon. Indigenous and land-based societies don't look at this time as a death. They look at it as a time of Earth Renewal, which is a much different understanding and perception of things. I think that women, because we are women, are more in touch with that way of looking at things, which is what gives us the ability to be courageous and be in there for the long struggle.

Winona LaDuke is a journalist, community organizer and president of the Indigenous Women's Network, a continental and Pacific network of native women. Reprinted fromWar After War, City Lights Review 5, Nancy J. Peters, ed. (1992).


Peace Now     |      Vol. 4 No. 4 / Vol. 5 No. 1      |      Spring/Summer 1994