Many communities and campuses across the country commemorate the strength and spirit of its Native Americans and their invaluable contributions to the country in November. College campuses often lead the way on celebrating the diversity, endurance, rich histories and stories of the people whose identities and sacrifices are woven into the tapestry of America’s narrative.
For our collective memory and safety, it is vital that our institutions of higher learning create a climate where Indigenous traditions and cultures are not lost or diminished. When we honor the legacy of Native Americans, we ensure their resilience is not forgotten. When we honor their legacy, we ensure their safety is prioritize. And when we honor their legacy, we must also remember the role of Indigenous women in the early tribes.
Native American women had an equal role beside the men in Native society before Europeans arrived on these shores over 500 years ago. These women also had agency over their own bodies and sexuality. Native American society forbade rape. For instance, the Powhatan tribe banished a man from the tribe for raping a woman.
Historians believe European men judged Indigenous women they encountered by Eurocentric Christian values and mores. Native women fought these prejudices then, but this relegation of Native women as less than persists today—even on some college campuses.
There are 574 federally recognized Indigenous tribes in the United States. And while individual states may recognize tribes within their borders, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal government does not recognize state-recognized tribes. There are also difficulties in jurisdictional questions between tribal, state, and federal governments, which often complicates survivor’s pursuit of justice. According to a United States Department of Justice study, 97 precent of Native Americans who were victims of assault were victimized by non-Natives.
Indigenous women are also more vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation due to a lack of law enforcement training and implicit bias. Improving and expanding training for local police departments and campus security officers will help identify and support Native American women and all women of color.
Higher education also has a role to play in raising visibility and creating opportunities for America’s Indigenous people. Only 19 percent of Native Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 attend college. And the numbers appear to be declining. The American Indian College Fund calls invisibility “the modern form of racism used against Native Americans” that contributes “a college access and completion crisis among Native American students.”
Here, inclusion is key. The faculty, curriculum, administration, and campus life should be accept and reflect the Indigenous American experience to Native American students and the student body as a whole. This degree of inclusion creates a climate of respect for Native culture and Native women. This type of visibility and acknowledgment will also help increase the respect and humanity of Indigenous women on campus and in society—and help reduce the potential for incidences of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking perpetrated against Native students.
In his essay “Native American Women in Academia,” Edward Miamee Salce writes those Native American women in academia, including women working to become academics, have had to endure a history of neglect, limited opportunities, difficulties in finding stability and support. Salce also stresses the weight of a unique issue Native women face: being a member of the most historically persecuted group in the country—a group that also comprises the smallest ethnic group.
Native American professors comprise an appallingly low one-half a percent of college faculties nationwide, which means Native American students do not see people who look like them or understand their culture to provide support, especially after an incident.
The achievements of Native Americans who proudly proclaim their Native ancestry are a testament to the courage and humanity of this country’s indigenous people. And Indigenous women play a critical role in the survival of Native culture. We must recognize their struggle for visibility and work to end dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and other crimes against Native women and see that they are supported and receive the access to higher education and other opportunities.
authored by Sandra Grady, Fahrenheit Creative Group