Women’s History: Native Americans

Women of Color in Women’s History

The month of March is officially Women’s History Month here in the United States of America. As a woman of color, I often feel that my womanhood is overlooked since I am more likely to be placed in the minority part of the phrase “women and minorities.”

History is too often “his” stories, and even during Women’s History Month, the lives, stories and current activism of Native American, Black, Latina, and Asian American women get short shrift.

So for the next three weeks, I’ll be focusing on where we, as women of color, fit into women’s history.

I decided to start first with indigenous women, native to the Americas.

Growing up, the only native American women I ever learned about in school were Pocahontas and Sacajawea. As a teenager in New York City, little did I realize that when I went out dancing salsa to the sound of Cheo Feliciano singing Anacaona, the lyrics were about the first indigenous female ruler (Casica) documented in the New World “discovered” by the Spanish.

Anacaona’s fate was to be hanged, and the rape and murder of her sister Tainos, and Native American women here on the mainland, would be repeated countless times in the decades and centuries to come.

She was born in Yaguana (today the town of Léogane, Haiti) in 1474. During Christopher Columbus’ visit to the chiefdom of Jaragua in the southwest of Haiti in late 1496, Anacaona and her brother Bohechío appeared as equal negotiators. On that occasion, described by Bartolomé de las Casas in Historia de las Indias, Columbus successfully negotiated for tribute that consisted of food and cotton for the struggling Spanish settlers under his command. The visit is described as having taken place in a friendly atmosphere. Several months later, Columbus arrived with a caravel to collect a part of the tribute. Anacaona and Behechío had sailed briefly aboard the caravel, near today’s Port-au-Prince in the Gulf of Gonâve.

Anacaona became chief of Jaragua after her brothers death. Her husband Caonabo, suspected of having organized the attack on La Navidad (Spanish settlement on northern Haiti), was captured by Alonso de Ojeda and shipped to Spain, dying in a shipwreck during the journey. The Taínos, being ill-treated by the conquerors, revolted, and made a long war against them. During a feast organized by eight regional chieftains to honor Anacaona, who was friendly to the Spaniards, Spanish Governor Nicolás de Ovando ordered the meeting house set on fire. He arrested Anacaona and her Taíno noblemen, all of whom, being accused of conspiracy, were executed. While others were shot, Anacaona was executed by hanging.

She was twenty-nine years old.

I open one of my women’s studies classes each year with her story. Sadly, few students have ever heard of her. And yet we all get our heads filled with the mythology of Columbus and “Indians.”

It would be impossible for me to cover, in one essay, the lives and contributions of all the Native American women who have played a key role in our history and society.

[We] would like to suggest that you purchase or take out of the library this comprehensive text, Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, (second edition) Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa, editors. From the introduction:

Although the lives of Native American women have been ignored by many historians, and Indian women have been stereotyped as “squaws” and “princesses” in children’s books and many textbooks, ongoing research continues to establish the importance of their roles in both traditional and contemporary cultures. Many factors have combined to produce inaccurate images of American Indian women in today’s society. Historically, cultural determinants and the diversity of Indian cultures established the traditional roles and positions of women within their tribes, but political mandates, educational reforms, and religious fervor often eroded tribal organization and women’s roles, a contradiction that continues to define the lives of American Indian women. The histories of Native women from the past, such as Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Lozen, and Dahteste, resonate with fabulous tales of sacrifice or exploits, achieving for Native women explorer or warrior status, but much of what has been published perpetuates myths that have been repeated by scholars for so long that the complete truth probably will always remain hidden.

Since the earliest accounts, Native women’s lives have been described by outsiders unfamiliar with the cultures or the women’s roles within those cultures. In his earliest journals, Christopher Columbus praises the “gentle” people he encountered, but he quickly replaces his admiration with scorn when it becomes clear to him that he must subdue these people in order to achieve any recognition as a hero for his ambitious journeys to a “new world.” Amerigo Vespucci, after whom two continents are named, observes in his letters that Indian men and women are “dirty and shameless,” with “no modesty.” Of the women, he writes, “They are very fertile women, and in their pregnancies avoid no toil.” This view was resurrected by later writers and moviemakers, who consistently have shown Native women disappearing briefly into the trees to give birth and then returning to hoe the fields or tan hides without seeming to have suffered either pain or exhaustion. Vespucci also writes that Native women are “heartless and cruel,” and go about “utterly naked,” certainly a contrast to the heavily robed women of his contemporary Europe, and therefore unacceptable. These descriptions by male outsiders with ethnocentric expectations began a pattern of describing Native American women that continues to influence biography, fiction, and visual images.

The book covers the lives of 250 Native American women born between 1499 and 1965. I’ve selected two, to highlight here today.

Zitkala-Sa was born Feb. 22, 1876, on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her name means Red Bird in Dakota, but she was given the white name Gertrude Simmons, by missionaries. Taken off to a training school at age seven, her story of the trauma of that experience is documented in The School Days of an Indian Girl, which she wrote and had published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900.

She married Yankton Sioux Raymond T. Bonnin in 1902. What attracted me to her history was not just the scope of her writing and publications, but her activism.

Bonnin was instrumental in the creation of the Indian Welfare Committee within the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of America, and as its research agent she participated in a 1923 investigation that exposed the widespread corruption associated with white guardianships of Indian properties and oil leases in Oklahoma. In 1922 and 1923 she made a speaking tour of the Midwest and South, addressing women’s clubs in order to crystallize public opinion in favor of Indian citizenship.

In addition to their association with these formal organizations, Gertrude and Raymond Bonnin devoted considerable time to lobbying governmental departments and congressional committees on behalf of Indian individuals and tribes…In 1926 Bonnin and her husband organized the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). For the twelve years it existed, it was the only nationally organized reform group with exclusively Native American membership. The Bonnins tirelessly traveled the United States, combining speaking tours with visits to reservations to organize NCAI chapters and enroll members. Her work came to an end in 1938, when she died in Washington, D.C. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Read more about her here. As a medical anthropologist, I was drawn to the life and work of Annie Dodge Wauneka. Wauneka received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. Born April 10, 1910, she was the daughter of Henry Chee Dodge, first tribal chairman of the Navajo Tribe, and became the first woman to sit on the Navajo Tribal Council.

On the reservation, Wauneka witnessed the devastation caused by disease, especially tuberculosis. She knew that conventional Western European, or more colloquially, “white man’s medicine,” might be the answer. She needed to find a way to bridge the gap between cultures for the good of the Navajo people. First, she tried to explain to the traditional families that they might improve their health by simply changing the way they prepared their food and sanitized their cooking and eating areas. She also attempted to win them over through the medicine men, whom the Navajo respected and trusted. If they could be convinced to try conventional medicine, they might convince the others. Eventually, she decided she could make more changes if she were a part of the tribal government. She ran for, and won, a seat on the Tribal Council in 1951. She was the first Navajo woman ever elected to that office. Wauneka was reelected to a second term in 1954, and again for a third in 1959. She was also chosen to head the council’s Health Committee.

She held the office for three terms, leading a tuberculosis eradication project. One of her biggest contributions to the effort was a dictionary she put together that translated English medical terms into the Navajo language. She thus demystified non-traditional medical practices for the people of the tribe, quelling their fears and superstitions. Wauneka also campaigned for other health care improvements for the Navajo, including better gynecological, obstetric, and pediatric care. She also pushed for regular eye and ear exams and fought alcohol abuse.In order to better help herself and her people, Wauneka went back to college in the mid-1950s. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in public health. In 1959, she was rewarded for her efforts on behalf of the Navajo, winning the Arizona State Public Health Association’s Outstanding Worker in Public Health Award.

I’ve spent hours reading histories of our native sisters and mothers. Whose stories do you know? Take this Native American Women’s History Quiz to see how well you do. Before I close, I want to say that history is being made today. You have a chance to be part of that history by helping to elect the first Native American Woman to our Congress.

Wenona Baldenegro, Navajo nation, is running for office in Arizona [D, AZ-01]. For an in-depth look at why this is key, read Help Take AZ Back From Corporations: Wenona Benally Baldenegro for CD-1, by Aji.

You can also support legislation to end the ugly legacy, that started with Anacaona and continues to today. The rape and violence perpetrated against Native women.