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The Indigenous Roots of Modern Feminism

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Photo credit: Gertrude Käsebier
Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Photo credit: Gertrude Käsebier

Modern environmentalists have a lot to learn from the history of Indigenous resistance for wisdom and inspiration in our common fight for a just and sustainable future. And not just environmentalists, but also the western feminist movement as we know it today. As Dina Gilio-Whitaker explains in this selection from As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, women’s power was already recognized and acknowledged in Native American communities—a concept very foreign to the white settlers bent on colonizing the nation and keeping women subjugated as property.


Long before there was ever a concept called “feminism” in the US settler State, there was the knowledge of women’s power in Indigenous communities. The imposition of foreign cultures, and Christianity in particular, was corrosive to societies that were typically matrilineal or matrifocal, were foundationally equitable in the distribution of power between the genders, and often respected the existence of a third gender and non-hetero relationships. As Christianity swept over the continent, it instilled Indigenous societies with patriarchal values that sought not only to diminish women’s inherent cultural power but also to pathologize alternative gender identities, relationships, and marriage practices outside the bounds of monogamy, establishing a general pattern of gender and relationship suppression that constructs modern American society and reordered Native societies.

Feminism as we know it today is a concept that emerged primarily from the experience of white settler women in the mid-nineteenth century. Historically, European women were little more than the property of men and did not have the same political rights as men did, such as the right to vote or own property. Once they were married, they had no rights to their own bodies or even to their children, amounting to no legal existence, as feminist historian Sally Roesch Wagner recounts. So, it was logical that their struggles focused on the ability to achieve equality, which would mean, among other things, legal standing and rights. Less well recognized today is the way early women’s rights activists were shaped by American Indians. Studying the writings of some of the earliest recognized founders of the feminist movement, such as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joselyn Gage, Wagner noted the ways they were influenced by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) cultures with whom they were neighbors in the Northeast. These settler women observed that Haudenosaunee women were free from constrictive, torturous clothing, were farmers, played sports, owned property, and were free from rape and other violence. They were not the property of men. Haudenosaunee women were highly respected in their societies, and a Clan Mother society guided much of the governance of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) by choosing and overseeing the male chiefs. In Haudenosaunee society, children’s identity was inherited through the mother’s clan (compared to Western societies, which trace identity patrilineally), making the concept of illegitimate children completely foreign. This meant that women had far more control over their bodies than did their white counterparts. While there were norms that governed Haudenosaunee life, women’s sexuality was not policed and condemned the way white women’s was.

White women, in other words, were fighting for the social equity that most Native women traditionally enjoyed in their societies. The work of white women activists in the nineteenth century, often referred to as “first-wave feminism,” gradually bore fruit, and by 1920 white women had won the right to vote. But paradoxically, while white women were gaining rights, Native women’s rights were still being eroded through centuries of forced assimilation into the US political landscape. The bestowal of citizenship upon American Indians in 1924, for example, was (and still is to an extent) controversial in Indian country. For the federal government, citizenship was a strategy of assimilation, but it was also advocated by the Society of American Indians, the first Indian-run rights organization, which was in existence from 1911 to 1923. Citizenship was one of SAI’s primary agenda issues and was viewed as a mechanism to advance Indians’ status beyond “wards of the government” and a “fight for a place as full, modern, and dynamic participants in American life.” But as Wagner also points out, many Haudenosaunee women opposed citizenship because it would subject Native women to the same legal system that continued to oppress white women even after suffrage.


The mid-twentieth century brought with it intense social unrest as traditionally marginalized communities fought to end oppressive policies like segregation and combat poverty borne of their marginalization. The women’s liberation movement, firmly rooted in the white middle class and now referred to as “second-wave feminism,” pressed forward with demands for equality, which would ideally be solidified into an Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution and was first unsuccessfully proposed in 1923. A renewed movement to pass the ERA in the 1970s failed in large part due to obstacles imposed by conservative women. In the meantime, as the feminist and ethnic nationalist movements advanced through the 1970s and beyond, women of color activists and scholars articulated differences between their struggles and those of middle-class white women. Their struggles, they said, were inseparable from their particular histories of racial and colonial oppression. Not all American Indian women, however, agreed that feminism was an appropriate framework, claiming that it opposed traditional practices and forms of social organization. Many of today’s Native feminists counter the claims that feminism was inappropriate, however, and argue for an Indigenous conception of feminism, which recognizes their cultural diversity and that what they do share is their histories of colonial domination. In the words of Native feminist scholars Shari Huhndorf and Cheryl Suzack, an Indigenous feminism “centers on the fact that the imposition of patriarchy has transformed Indigenous societies by diminishing Indigenous women’s power, status, and material circumstances.” Patriarchy, in other words, is inseparable from colonialism.

Indigenous feminism foregrounds Indigenous relationships to place and dominant society, which on a global scale vary from country to country. In the US this is articulated in the language of tribal sovereignty and Native nationhood. This wave of modern rights-based American Indian activism began with SAI, a collection of Western-educated Indian professionals who embraced the Progressive Era values of reform that tended to believe education and government action were key to improving Indian lives. Their work influenced what led to positive change in federal Indian policy in the 1930s with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. It was progressive for its goals to promote self- determination, but also for the way Native women worked side by side with Native men at a time when white women were still barred from many leadership organizations.

The women of SAI are remembered to this day for their bold leadership and fearless voices. There are many noteworthy examples, but a few women stand out as significant players. One of SAI’s founding members was Laura Cornelius Kellogg of the Wisconsin Oneida tribe. She was widely traveled and well educated and taught at two Indian boarding schools. As a public intellectual she was known for her visionary ideas to transform the Indian Service (also known as Office of Indian Affairs, predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), advocacy for preserving traditional Native knowledge, and fighting for land rights of her tribe and others in Southern California. The Los Angeles Times in 1904 described Kellogg as “one of the most interesting Indian women in the United States.”

Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Turtle Mountain Ojibway, was the first American Indian woman to become an attorney. At a time of extreme pressure for Indian people to assimilate into white society and when women were fighting for the vote, Baldwin—a respected employee of the Indian Service—was publicly outspoken on the equity built into Native cultures and “went even further, claiming the cultural superiority of Native societies, especially in terms of the position of women.” Her strong Indigenous feminist stance was highly influential on mainstream suffragists when she participated in a suffrage parade the weekend of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, also known by her Lakota name Zitkála-Šá, is one of the most widely written about women of SAI. Bonnin was a multitalented Native renaissance woman who wrote several books and was an accomplished musician (she wrote the first Native American opera, The Sundance Opera), teacher, editor, and political activist. Perhaps her greatest influence during the Progressive Era came through her leadership in the National Council of American Indians. Formed after the dissolution of SAI in 1923, Bonnin was chosen as president and remained in that post until the end of her life in 1938.


Referred to as the Red Power movement, the activism of the 1960s and ’70s was cultivated largely by young urban Indians, and while women were involved, it was visibly dominated by men who had become so acculturated to dominant white society they had limited knowledge of their tribes’ matrilineal and matriarchal cultures. This translated into sexist, repressive behavior toward women. One of the most profoundly destabilizing aspects of colonization on Native life has been in the relationships between men and women. This “patriarchal colonialism” is particularly applicable to the 1960s and ’70s and led to a new generation of Native women’s organizing. By 1974 some of the AIM women came together and formed the Women of All Red Nations (WARN). Lorelei De Cora Means, Phyllis Young, Janet McCloud, Madonna Thunderhawk, and others organized WARN based on earlier concepts of tribal women’s traditions. Some of these women are still involved in activist organizing; Phyllis Young was instrumental from the beginning of the Standing Rock resistance as a council member who was present and very outspoken in SRST’s meeting with Energy Transfer Partners in September 2014, and Madonna Thunderhawk was at Oceti Sakowin for much if not all of its duration.


Native women’s activism was always distinctly connected to environmental activism in order to protect communities from toxic development and was part of a larger pattern of organizing that led to the international arena. The International Indian Treaty Council, for example, was not a women’s organization, but American Indian women played significant roles throughout its history and IITC became the first Indigenous entity to achieve United Nations nongovernmental organization status in 1977. Andrea Carmen joined the staff of IITC in 1983, and since 1992 she has been the organization’s executive director. On the international scene another visible shift began to occur with the rise of the climate justice movement. Indigenous peoples worldwide became more visible as it became apparent that they, along with more vulnerable peoples in the undeveloped, Indigenous, and fourth world, were on the frontlines of climate change, even though they had been excluded from international processes like the Kyoto Protocol. Grassroots movements and organizations emerged from Indigenous communities all over the world, bringing attention to the effects climate change, the fossil fuel industry, and government collusion were having on their communities. And women were conspicuously at the forefront of those movements and organizations. With the rise of the internet, mass organizing became infinitely easier, enabling people to connect across international and cultural lines. For instance, in 2004 a group of thirteen international Indigenous women came together from communities as diverse as the Dakotas, the Alaskan Tundra, Oaxaca, Tibet, and Nepal to form an “alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come.” Calling themselves the Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, the council held gatherings every year for thirteen years in the home territory of each member.


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Her research interests focus on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. She is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.