Women’s History Month (and American History Itself) Rarely Includes Indigenous Women—and That’s a Problem

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Can you imagine if students in Italy were never taught the epic accomplishments of the Roman empire, or if teachers in Athens never uttered a word about the ancient Greeks to local schoolchildren? Wouldn’t it seem odd for history textbooks in any given country to disregard centuries of applicable history? That’s exactly what happens in the United States. Most public schools in the U.S. teach shamefully little about Indigenous history, and the contributions of Indigenous women remain notably left out.

I grew up in North Dakota, where I attended K-12 schooling in a predominately white school off of the reservation. I always knew that both my Ojibwe and Lakota histories were being ignored. It left me with a drive to seek the truth—America’s complete story—so I studied Indigenous history at Dartmouth College. The more I learned about my peoples’ history, and that of other Indigenous cultures around the globe, the more shocked I became that I grew up being taught so little. It’s not okay for Native American history to be shoved into a one-paragraph blurb in a text book. It’s also not okay that when our leaders or chiefs are recognized, the focus lies only on the men.

Indigenous people today are the descendants of vast, diverse tribal nations who once covered every inch of the Americas. We are very much still here, even though only a small percentage of our ancestors survived genocide. This genocide spanned a 500-year colonial period, and experts believe that European conquest of the Americas took between 9 million and 19 million Indigenous lives. It is, of course, a shameful and tragic history, which is likely why American textbooks leave Native people out altogether, rather than confronting the grim truth. The early colonists and Founding Fathers did not settle on an empty land that was up for the taking. They stole the land from its Indigenous inhabitants.

Now and then, Native American people are rich in all aspects of history: language, culture, war, peace, agriculture, trade, and every other mark of a fascinating civilization; certainly worthy of study. And yet, textbook versions of American history exclude us almost entirely, as if we were never a part of this soil. Not only is this a detriment to Native people, who remain invisible or stereotyped in the eyes of most Americans, it is also a disservice to American society at large. Wouldn’t we all have more to be proud of, collectively, if we acknowledged and celebrated our Indigenous history? We claim to celebrate diversity in America, but if we ignore our Indigenous voices of the past and present, do we?

I encourage all who are interested in women’s history to learn as much as you can about the history of Indigenous women, and the legacy that they have left that is carried on in tribal nations today.

One thing of note is that many Native societies were matriarchal, meaning the women served as the primary leaders in social and political life. In the Haudenosaunee tribes, for example, they have always appointed clan mothers to serve as the final say in community decision-making, keeping the chiefs and other male leaders in check. In nearly every tribe, whether structured technically as a matriarchy or not, women and two-spirited (our term for LGBTQ+) people were honored and respected for their power. For example, when a woman had her first moon time (our term for a menstrual cycle), they were honored and welcomed into womanhood with an elaborate ceremony. These practices are still being continued and reclaimed today. This is a far cry from the savage and violent stereotypes that Hollywood has given our people. But this is the truth.

In nearly every tribe, whether structured technically as a matriarchy or not, women and two-spirited (our term for LGBTQ+) people were honored and respected for their power.

Many people in our tribes today are suffering from historical trauma and socio-economic hardship as a legacy of genocide and colonialism. There is an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and rates of sexual violence against Native women are alarmingly high. But there are also those who are thriving, changing things for the better. Here are a few examples:

  • IllumiNative is an organization founded by CEO Crystal EchoHawk. It is dedicated to showing the world who Indigenous people really are, by highlighting our voices in media, entertainment, and education systems.
  • Bethany Yellowtail is the founder and CEO of B. Yellowtail, a fashion company that offers beautiful, authentic Native jewelry, clothing, and accessories.
  • I20SP is an organization founded by and for Native youth, which is dedicated to offering fun and unique ways for Indigenous people to heal from historical trauma.
  • All My Relations is a fascinating, wildly entertaining podcast co-hosted by world-renowned photographer Matika Wilbur and Brown University professor Dr. Adrienne Keene, which offers listeners a deep dive into every aspect of Indigenous life and history.
  • Last but not least, you should learn about Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland—two history-making Native American women who are currently serving in the United States congress.

Let these women be the arbiters of truth who open your eyes into the truth about who we are. In addition to these amazing resources, there are countless other people and organizations who are committed to retelling our history the way that it deserves to be told. Until every American takes the time to learn about Indigenous people, we will be missing out on the full complexity of our truth.

Read more about the truth behind Indigenous wellness, from a Native perspective. Plus, what Women's History Month means in 2020.

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