Indigenous women, the land and the struggle against settler colonialism

By Mahtowin Munroe
April 24, 2018

A talk by Mahtowin, co-leader of United American Indians of New England,  at an International Working Women’s Day forum on March 17 in Boston.

I would like to acknowledge that we are on the stolen and unceded traditional territory of the Massachusett, land also traversed by the Narragansett, Nipmuc, Wampanoag and many others. I also recognize the enduring presence of Indigenous peoples on this land.

Happy International Working Women’s Day! Mni Wiconi! Water is Life!

I want to dedicate my talk this afternoon to Berta Cáceres, an Indigenous defender of the land and water who was murdered by the Honduran government and paramilitaries, and to all the Indigenous and other water and land protectors throughout these continents, and to our Afro-Brazilian sister Marielle Franco, who has just been assassinated.  Let’s also remember especially our relatives in Puerto Rico, Haiti and Palestine, in particular Ahed Tamimi and the other women and children who are imprisoned by the Zionists. I also want to express my solidarity with Black struggles here and around the world.

It has been really exciting to read about South Africa beginning the very necessary process of taking land back from white farmers there — from the settlers — so that African people would have more land. This hunger for the return of the land is strong among colonized and formerly colonized peoples everywhere. The question of land is central. When settlers dispossess people of their land, it means trying to disappear a whole people. The theft of land is what supports all the other realities on that land.

Sometimes, though, progressive people here do not realize that they too are living on stolen land. Stolen land is not something that just happens somewhere else. We have multiple oppressed nations within the U.S. and all our struggles here are happening on stolen land. The issue of protecting the land and returning the land to Indigenous nations is a fundamental one that underlies everything.

Settler colonialism: Indigenous people, settlers, Stolen people and newcomers

Let me review for just a minute what settler colonialism is here in the country currently known as the United States — incidentally, I believe someday we will have a different name for the U.S. because you have to believe and dream, in addition to struggling day-to-day and being out on the street; we gotta dream for our futures, you know!

We can look at history through a lot of prisms. For instance, we look at things through the lens of class and through the construct of race. We talk about intersectionality. If we are socialists, we look at things through a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint. There are all these tools that we use to look at history, how we got here, who we are and how we fit into the society.

The understanding of “settler colonialism” is another tool that can be used along with all those others, and I think it is an important tool. Some people have thought that viewing the question of land through the framework of settler colonialism was just an academic exercise that you learn about if maybe you take a class in Indigenous studies in college.

However, I disagree with that because I am not an academic at all, just a working-class street activist really, and I find concepts of settler colonialism to be a fundamental tool for understanding a lot of things, as do many other Indigenous people.  If you don’t know what settler colonialism is, then I just want to explain that a little here, because I would never assume that anyone would know what that means. It’s just not something that everyone learns much about.

It is really important to be specific about each country’s historical experience when talking about settler colonialism.  Some generalizations can be made, but clearly Australia does not have exactly the same history as Canada, for instance.

Here in the U.S., we have Indigenous peoples who are from many nations. We also have Indigenous peoples who have migrated from Mexico and El Salvador and Canada and other countries. They are crossing borders that certainly never existed for any of us historically.

There are settlers, who stole land and eradicated millions of Native peoples, from Massachusetts (settlers such as the pilgrims and the puritans and all those folks) to Oregon and California, Florida and elsewhere. Settlers intend to stay and often to supplant the Indigenous populations. Settlers become the law, they become the government, they supplant our own Indigenous laws and beliefs with their own values.

I have heard some people say that everyone who is not Indigenous is a settler. And I want to say that is wrong, and just ignorant when speaking about the situation in the U.S. We have millions of Stolen People (or arrivants), people who were forced here through colonial violence, which in the U.S. would predominantly be Black people. Certainly Black people whose ancestors were brought here in bondage are not settlers.

There have been countless instances of Black-Indigenous solidarity, something that I hope to speak further about at another time.  But even though we have so many common interests, settlers have sometimes pitted us against each other. Sometimes the Stolen People have been utilized to enforce settler colonialism, such as in the case of the Black Buffalo Soldiers who were sent to kill and control Indigenous people on the plains. There are in turn some Indigenous people who participate in the anti-Blackness that runs through society, and there were even some members of the Cherokee, Choctaw and some other nations in the southeast who held Black slaves.

We have also Newcomers, more recent immigrants who came here after most of the initial slaughter and displacement of Indigenous peoples. Some of those newcomers are refugees.

Have in mind, though, that even those who are not settlers usually adopt much of the worldview of settlers and benefit from settler colonialism.

Settler colonialism has been the pathway for the economic system of capitalism to come here. Religion has often been used as a weapon to enforce these viewpoints. So when we look at the role of Christianity within Indigenous communities, we see that it was to wipe out all of our beliefs and enforce a totally different worldview — this is not to disparage people who follow Christianity, but more to speak to how it was used.

Settler colonialism is not just something that happened in the past; rather, it is ongoing. It is really important to remember that it is happening right now. As one of my favorite Indigenous thinkers, Art Manuel, wrote: “Colonialism has three components: dispossession, dependence and oppression. Indigenous people live with these forces every day of their lives.”

Settler colonialism and capitalism alter our relationships with land and water

There are two aspects of settler colonialism and its “kissing cousin” capitalism that I want to talk about: how they bring about violence against the land and against women, because the two are very much intertwined.

When you hear Indigenous people saying that “the Earth Is Our Mother,” that is not just a quaint expression. It is an attempt to explain how deeply interconnected we are. In a traditional Indigenous view — and Indigenous nations are not all the same, this is generalizing — the land and water are our lives, our communities, entirely part of our bodies, not separated from our bodies. The water is part of our bodies. Everything is tied to land — how we treat each other, how we organize ourselves politically, how we treat the land. When we are removed from our land, when our land and water are abused, those are attacks on our bodies.

By contrast, the constant demand of settlers is for property and expansion. Settler colonialism and capitalism reduce our relationships to land as being no more than relationships as property to be bought and sold and exploited. They often also reduce people to property, so stolen Africans became chattel slaves. Indigenous people became slaves early on in many regions and also wards of the government who were not permitted to feed themselves, whose children were kidnapped and who needed passes from the white agent to leave their reservations.

The remaking of land and bodies into property was necessary for settlement on stolen land. Native people were forced off those lands. Black people were landless — almost by definition — and very often worked the land for settlers. When Black people had land, it was because it was considered worthless, or because they were placeholders on the land who could be removed if the white settlers decided they wanted it.

For instance, the Gullah communities were pushed out when whites wanted to develop the coastal areas of South Carolina where they lived. We see this at play now in the gentrification that pushes Black and Brown people out of their communities.  It was okay for them to live in and buy houses in a community at one point. Now they are no longer allowed to be there. Familiar, right?

Now, sometimes people say that “Gentrification is the new colonialism.” It’s not. Colonialism is the new colonialism — because it has never ended. Yet the underpinnings of settler colonialism certainly have led to gentrification.

The capitalist desire for profits at any cost and the settler-colonial contempt for the land as a living being leads to every sort of environmental violence — land and bodies of water, especially in certain communities, are violated through resource extraction, pipelines, waste dumping, toxic water — such as in Flint, Mich., or on the uranium-mining-tainted Navajo reservation.

This environmental violence is an attack on our physical bodies, because of our relationship with the land and water and because of the consequences that we experience.

Gendering of settler colonialism

Land is also viewed as being passive, awaiting the active extraction of resources and profits. In other words, land is a woman, according to settler colonialism. Women’s bodies are also viewed this way, as something to be exploited.

Settler colonialism has been heavily gendered. Many Indigenous nations here had an understanding of people being more than one fixed gender — what we now call Two Spirit people — and viewed gender as fluid. In addition, some Native nations had more than two genders. But the settlers imposed gender binaries, which was a direct attack on Two Spirit people as well as on the leadership of Indigenous women.

The very category of who is, and who is not, considered to be a woman is a tool of settler violence. The state uses gender violence to enforce white supremacy, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism.

Native women are attacked to destroy our families and our nations. Our women were excluded from treaty and other negotiations in the past and are largely excluded even from modern colonial systems of leadership. Even now, relatively few women are bureaucratic Bureau of Indian Affairs or Indian Act chiefs.

Settler colonialism has used gender to colonize through centuries of rape and sexual mutilation and through the widespread sexual violence of the residential schools and in foster care.

Capitalism — the economic system under which we live — commodifies our bodies and lands and resources. When we are viewed as property, we are given different valuations. People who are disabled or trans, LGBTQ or Two Spirit are usually on the lowest rungs.

The lives of Indigenous women are considered utterly worthless. That is part of why it was perfectly acceptable to the U.S., Canadian and Peruvian governments to sterilize thousands of Native women not that long ago. They did this in Puerto Rico, too. We and our children are disposable.

At the same time, Indigenous women are fetishized as being exotic and readily available to white men. You just have to look at a costume catalogue to see all the so-called “Pocahotties” costumes represented.

This violence spills into our family life — more Indigenous children are now being put into the foster care system than were put into the residential schools. This foster care is also done for profit, especially with all the privatized foster care centers that exist now.


Some of you may have heard of an issue that Indigenous women have been raising throughout North America, which is that of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirits. That issue was named in Canada more than a dozen years ago. However, it has been the reality for Indigenous women throughout this hemisphere since the invaders first came here, but I don’t have time to go into the long history of that here. Indigenous women and families have been trying to increase awareness of this issue by many means, ranging from campus awareness days to testifying at government hearings, to bringing information about this issue to women’s marches.

When talking about missing and murdered Indigenous women, I want to note that it is really hard to come up with enough statistics.  Indigenous people are often not counted for many things. The state of Massachusetts, for instance, does not count Native opioid deaths or many other things. There is no database of U.S. national statistics for missing and murdered Indigenous women, even though statistics are compiled for women of other races.

But I can give you some information: In the U.S., 84 percent of Native women experience violence and at least 56 percent of Native women experience sexual violence. (I think that number is actually much higher in reality.) While the government and cops often say that this is due to the violence of Native men, in fact it is non-Natives who commit the vast majority of this violence.

In Canada, First Nations, Metis and Inuit women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than other women. Indigenous women there believe there are likely over 6,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, but do not have an exact number because there is still no national database. We do know that Indigenous women there are 4.3 percent of the population, but at least 16 percent of the murdered. In Manitoba, they are half of the murdered women.

The police often fail to investigate adequately, and many believe that the police themselves are sometimes the culprits. In the absence of proper investigations, families end up doing the best they can to search for and find missing family members, even dragging the Red River for bodies themselves. Many Indigenous youth in cities such as Winnipeg are at particular risk of violence because of the conditions of their being removed from their families and stuck into a dangerous and broken foster care system.

In the 1990s, it became clear that Mexican women in the Ciudad Juárez and El Paso area were being murdered in large numbers, many of them teens. The authorities did not care. Femicide — the killing of women — is a huge issue throughout what is now called “Latin America,” and is all too common against women who are trying to protect their lands and water.

Violence against Indigenous women is rampant at “man camps” that pop up to house short-term workers in areas where there is intense resource extraction activity, such as at oil pipeline sites, fracking areas, mining camps, etc. As a result, the number of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking incidents in North Dakota has tripled since 2008 because of all the man camps that sprang up there along the Bakken formation.

Melissa Merrick from Spirit Lake and Sadie Young Bird from Fort Berthold wrote recently: “Pipeline companies and the banks supporting them are essentially gambling Indigenous women for short-term profits. While bank and oil company executives worry about whether their children are going to make it into an Ivy League school, we worry about whether our children are going to make it home.” [“How Banks Fund Oil Pipelines,” Teen Vogue,  March 14]

There’s a lot of linkage between pipelines and these man camps and the violence that takes place against Indigenous women. This is something that has been raised very strongly as Indigenous movements have struggled against the Tar Sands or pipelines such as Dakota Access, Keystone XL or any of these other projects.

#metoo #timesup

Monica Moorehead mentioned tonight that a Black woman originated #MeToo years ago, although now Black women have been placed on the periphery, and that has also been on my mind. Whose stories are being centered right now in media coverage of #MeToo? Actresses certainly should not be assaulted. But I noticed Hollywood and the media were not talking about the fact that a young, very talented Blackfeet actress named Misty Upham was raped at the [2013] Golden Globe Awards — literally raped there by one of Weinstein’s people, who was cheered on by other men. She ended up dying under suspicious circumstances in 2014.  []

There’s little coverage about sexual assault in oppressed and working-class communities, where this has been part of our lives for generations. So when people are having these discussions, we need to raise all of this, including the sexualized exploitation of immigrant workers.

I hear some so-called feminists call for more police and prisons when they talk about how to end gender violence. People who call for these solutions are not my leaders, and I don’t think they are your leaders either. We need to say that eradicating rape culture and organizing against gender violence does not need to mean fighting for more cops and prisons, because we know what the ramifications of that are. We need to point out the role of imperialism in gender violence worldwide and call bullshit when settler countries such as the U.S. say they are going to war to liberate women.


I believe that ending settler colonialism as well as capitalism needs to be a key part of ending gender violence, too.

Our bodies are our homes that we have a right to protect, just as we have every right to defend the land and water.  To stop being commodified and exploited, we need more than reforms. We need to overthrow capitalism so that we and the Earth can stop being commodified in the pursuit of profits. I personally believe we need socialism as an economic system and that we also must decolonize from settler colonialism.

Anytime there has been a socialist revolution, one of the most important things that should happen is to begin to look at everything within the society, whether it is education, farming, child care, housing or health care — every aspect of society — and think about how people’s views and practices have been informed by the previous economic and social systems. There’s always been what should be an ongoing process of trying to change those things and clear out people’s minds from all the nonsense that capitalism has put into our brains. We need also to look at how every aspect of our lives has been influenced by settler colonialism

Decolonization is already beginning to happen now for Indigenous peoples. It is about “resisting the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies and lands. It is engaged for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing Indigenous liberation.” (Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird) And, I would say, liberation for all of us, because all of us are poisoned by settler colonization and capitalism. Every aspect of our lives and thought has been impacted.

Decolonization is something that Indigenous people are talking about a lot as the path to recovering ourselves, our land and escaping settler colonialism. It is about taking back our cultures and laws, minds and families, relationships with our lands and each other, and not collaborating with settler colonialism.

Fighting against gender violence including violence against trans and Two Spirit people is an important part of decolonization. Within our own communities, we have important work to do to bring Two Spirit people back into the center where they belong.

Ultimately, decolonization is going to lead to the return of control of the land to Indigenous peoples.  It has to. You can’t have a revolution and not deal with the land question. The land question has primacy. It’s also important to understand that different Indigenous nations may make different choices about what they choose to do economically and politically.

This may not necessarily mean everybody non-Indigenous needs to leave. Sometimes settlers panic about the return of the land and ask, “Are we all going to be herded on reservations?” No.

But the return of control of the land does mean that Indigenous nations can finally exercise the right to decide what happens. It does mean there’s going to be an end to pipelines and fracking and all this other destruction, and we might have at least a hope of saving our Earth. And I assure you that Indigenous women will continue to be leading the way.

(Photo: Stevan Kirschbaum)