by Kristi Nason, Cultural Anthropology Student, August 16, 2019


Despite the significant roles of power and influence held by Indigenous women traditionally, they are currently the most oppressed and abused populations in North America. They are battling a critical crisis in economic opportunity, physical and mental health, violent crime and a lack of adequate legal protections. Current conditions are due to failed historical assimilation attempts and current stereotyping, racism and a complicated law enforcement jurisdiction problem.

I became interested in researching Indigenous women when I learned that prior to colonization many Native women held significant roles of power and influence within their families, communities and political systems. Simultaneously, and in stark contrast, I learned of the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) awareness campaign and the legal problems around law enforcement jurisdiction gaps for violent and sexual assault victims in Indigenous communities. This paper will summarize my research findings around current issues facing Indigenous communities and provide an overview of the historical circumstances that have led to current conditions. I start with research on pre-colonization gender roles and expectations, then of the assimilation era of the 20th century, and lastly look at current areas of concern.

I’m including a complete listing of resources, not only the ones cited, at the end of this paper. My research included peer reviewed academic sources, ethnographic books, articles available online, the documentary titled “The West”, legal document reviews, personal reflections from my relationships with women in the Nooksack tribe, my personal observations at the “Paddle to Lummi” protocol ceremony and the podcast, “Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo”, where Connie Walker’s search for a family’s missing sister led me to an understanding of the personal implications of the racist assimilation programs of the Canadian and U.S. governments in the mid to late 20th century.

The terms “Native”, “Indigenous”, “Native American”, “American Indian”, and “Indian” will be found within this report. Another term I’m hearing regularly is “First Nation”. Although I sought to find the term that was the current accepted and respectful identifier, I was unable to make a conclusion about which one that would be. Identifiers are impacted by regions, “Native” being more common in the United States and “Indigenous” being more common in Canada (Zovar 2019) and by personal preference. According to a small survey done by Amanda Blackhorse in 2017, “Indigenous peoples continue to widely reject the monikers ‘Native American’ and ‘American Indian’ and, instead, refer to themselves by their tribe, nation” (Blackhorse, 2017, para 1). Opinions from her survey participants actually contradict each other. One of Blackhorse’s sources explains, “when she’s around friends and family she’ll usually use terms such as ‘Natives’ or ‘Ndns’. When she’s among a non-Native crowd, she will use ‘American Indian’ or ‘Native American.’”(Blackhorse 2017, para 10) In contrast, another Blackhorse source, “doesn’t like to use the terms ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’ because as she stated, ‘We were here before America was established. It wasn’t America before settlers came in and created their government.’ She also says that the term ‘Indian’ refers to a historical time and ‘is a run off from the days of Columbus’” (Blackhorse, 2017, para 16). Where possible I will identify using specific tribe or nation identifiers. When speaking generally the terms will be used interchangeably with “Indigenous” being the term that appears to be the most widely acceptable in Canada, and “Native” most widely acceptable in the United States. As a non-Native, I do not assume that I can make the determination on acceptable terminology and hope for some grace from the Indigenous community if I get it wrong. It’s clear to me that the best practice is to ask individuals how they prefer to be identified and respectfully follow their preferences.

A caution against over generalizations

Wherever possible I will be clear about which tribe or geographical area is being discussed. Tribes vary widely in customs, cultures, language and histories and generalizations must be consciously avoided. Prior to my research, I made assumptions that the geographical closeness of the Nooksack Tribe and the Lummi Nation meant they were closely related in culture, language and even genealogy. In many ways, I thought of them generally as one population. One example I came across highlights how false this line of thinking is: “In 1873 an effort was made to remove the Nooksacks to the Lummi Reservation. However, the Nooksacks returned to their upriver sites as they were not closely related by linguistic or kinship ties to the Lummi” (NPAIHB 2019, Nooksack Tribe section). There are many important factors that distinguish between them, despite that they are both located in Whatcom County. To further describe my error in generalizing them together, here is a very brief summary of each:

“The Lummi people (the Lhaq’temish ) traditionally lived near the sea and in mountain areas and returned seasonally to their longhouses located at a number of sites on the present reservation and on the San Juan Islands. The Lummi Nation signed the treaty of Point Elliot in 1855 ceding much of their aboriginal lands in western Washington. In return they received a reservation that originally covered 15,000 acres. …The Lummi are a self-governing Nation within the United States, the third largest tribe in Washington State, serving over 5,000 members. They manage nearly 13,000 acres of tidelands on the Lummi Reservation. … approximately 78% of the enrolled Lummi tribal members live either on or near the reservation boundaries” (NPAIHB 2019, Lummi Nation section).

“The Nooksack Tribe is reported to have 1,800 enrolled members and as of the 2000 census, had a reservation resident population of 547 persons living on 2,720 acres of land. They were not federally recognized until 1971 because they did not have a tribal land base. The 1971 recognition included a reservation of 1 acre in Deming, WA.” (NPAIHB 2019, Nooksack Tribe section). Their status as a federally recognized Nation has been tenuous in recent years over council election and power controversies, and a legal battle over the disenrollment of three family lines that started in 2013.

Along with cautioning against generalizing between tribes for language and genealogy, generalizing about gender roles and issues must also be avoided. “Any attempt to generalize about gender in Native America runs the risk of serious distortion when applied to specific peoples. Native cultures differ from one another in significant ways, and, consequently, so do the relationships between women and men.” (Perdue 1998:7)

Pre-colonization gender roles

In Maze of Injustice, Amnesty International claims: “Contemporary scholars on traditional Native American and Alaska Native cultures have found that prior to colonization women often held esteemed positions in society” (Amnesty 2007:16). Early Cherokee economy was greatly influenced by the ingenuity and leadership of women. “During the Mississippian Culture-period (800 to 1500 CE), local women developed a new variety of maize (corn) called eastern flint. … The successful cultivation of corn surpluses allowed the rise of larger, more complex chiefdoms” ( Many Indigenous cultures were matrilineal, meaning that women controlled property rights and hereditary status. Theda Perdue describes the Cherokee gender roles as balanced: “women balanced men just as summer balanced winter… Men did not dominate women, and women were not subservient to men. … Women had their own arena of power” (Perdue 1998:13). “Available evidence indicates that violence against women [prior to colonization] was rare and, when it occurred, was often severely punished” (Amnesty 2007:16). “Brigadier General James Clinton of the Continental Army said to his soldiers as they were sent off to destroy the Iroquois nation in 1779: ‘Bad as the savages are, they never violate the chastity of any women’” (Smith, p.8).

Coast Salish tribes, such as Nooksack and Lummi, were not strictly matrilineal like the Cherokees, but according to Northwest Coast Native creation myths, as told by Anne Cameron in Daughters of Copper Woman, the woman was created before man. Cameron shares her grandmother’s stories of women as the ones who held the knowledge of life. “Then Copper Woman told Hai Nai Yu that the wisdom must always be passed on to women, and reminded her that whatever the colour of their skin, all people come from the same blood, and the blood is sacred.” (Cameron 2002:43). Cameron retells her grandmother’s story about how women in their prime, who weren’t pregnant or breast feeding, defended their community against rapist colonizers by planning an elaborate attack that included seducing the watchmen, slitting their throats, and in the end sacrificing their lives through a group suicide. (Cameron 2002:75-86).

The influence of the white European-Americans is thought by many historians to have had a significant and negative impact on Indigenous women. According to, “George Washington sought to ‘civilize’ Southeastern American Indians.” This reflects the ethnocentric beliefs of the time that only Western societies were “civilized” and the Indigenous cultures were called “savages”. On top of this racist bias, women were also subjected to the gender bias of western society. “European societies were thoroughly misogynistic. … Native societies were relatively more peaceful and egalitarian (Smith 2003, 8). “Colonization and its aftermath profoundly changed gender roles among Indigenous peoples” (Amnesty 2007:16). Cameron’s grandmother describes the negative attitudes of the colonizers of her tribe, who she refers to as the “Keestadores”: “They started off complainin’ about the kids swimmin’ naked and wound up tryin’ to control our lives. Wound up talkin’ against the Women’s Society, tellin’ the men that women weren’t supposed to be partners, weren’t supposed to pass inheritance, were only there to be ued by men, bosed around and traded like lifeless things. Seems as if everthing about the women just stuck sideways in their throats” (Cameron 2002:73). In Not an Indian Tradition: The Sexual Colonization of Native Peoples, (2003) Smith explains the motive at the heart of the oppression and abuse: “Native women …pose a supreme threat to the imperial order. … U. S. colonizers view[ed] the subjugation of women of the Native nations as critical to the success of the economic, cultural, and political colonization. … Symbolic and literal control over their bodies is important in the war against Native people” (Smith, 2003, 5).


Residential boarding schools, the “Sixties Scoop”, and female sterilization without informed consent

“White” Euro-Americans used several practices to keep Indigenous people from interfering with their economic expansion and cultural norms. In the process, they often performed cultural genocide, taking away the ability for the Native people to live by their traditional customs. Some of this was subtle: eliminating the ability for Indigenous people to farm, hunt or fish on vast expanses of land as they had in the past. Some of it was deceptive: making treaty promises that were not kept. Some of it was purposeful: forcing Indigenous children into assimilating residential boarding schools where they were brutally punished for use of their language or customs; sterilizing women of child-bearing age to reduce the population; adoption programs that put Indigenous children into “white” homes with no access to their inherited culture or their birth relatives; and a continuously shrinking service budget for housing, education, medical care and law enforcement.

The affect of these acts of oppression and cultural assimilation-genocide results in current Indigenous people being trapped dependently on government programs that don’t adequately meet their needs. “By 1874…most tribes were officially confined to reservations. Dependent for their survival on government rations that often did not arrive. And on the whims of government agents, who often did not care” (Burns, S1:E6). Many of these people are still on reservations, living in extreme poverty and under complicated legal jurisdiction systems that don’t protect the most vulnerable within their societies. It has also caused generational trauma that continues in today’s families–visible in the statistics of physical health problems, mental/emotional health issues, addiction issues, poverty issues, and crime levels. And strong racism and stereotyping problems, which are an inherit element of colonialism, are still present today.

As Dustin Louie explains in his prevention education proposal (2018), to understand current social positioning of Indigenous peoples, it is necessary to include the oppression and assimilation efforts of Euro-American governments. “[During] an era of tragic attempts of cultural genocide. … The [Indian Residential Schools] IRS system, which remained in Canada until 1996, forcibly apprehended Indigenous children from their families and placed them in distant boarding schools … designed to both usher Indigenous peoples into Western society and eliminate their communal strength … establishing harmful education systems that would irrevocably damage generations of Indigenous people” (Louie, pg. 5).

I learned from Connie Walker’s Missing & Murdered, Finding Cleo podcast that in the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. and Canadian governments coordinated a campaign to adopt out Indigenous children to white families. It is referred to as the “Sixties Scoop”. Advertised like animals and separated from their siblings, the emotional impact of the campaign was tragic. Many Indigenous children lost all contact with their families and cultures, were in some cases adopted for farm labor or abused in other ways, and endured racism in their new homes and communities. “Death by suicide is an all too common outcome for children who were taken during the Sixties Scoop. … Some say these tragic experiences are a direct result of a system designed to ‘deal with the Indian problem’ in Canada. First in residential schools, then in the Sixties Scoop. A system of oppression that many say continues to fail some of the most vulnerable people in Canadian society: Indigenous children. Children who are more than twice as likely as other Canadian children to live in poverty…four times more likely to become involved in the child welfare system… seven times more likely to take their own lives” (Walker, C. 2019, S2:Ep6).

With failed boarding school and adoption campaigns, government agencies then attempted to reduce the number of Indigenous children. I was shocked to learn that as late as 1976, Indigenous women were sterilized without informed consent. “Dr. Connie Uri (Cherokee/Choctaw) conducted … investigations leading her to estimate that 25 percent of all Native women of childbearing age had been sterilized without their informed consent, with sterilization rates as high as 80 percent on some reservations” (Smith, p.10).


The startling statistics around suicide and sterilization reminded me that I’d seen articles about another startling issue, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. During my online research of the problem, I came across the “Paddle to Lummi” event. The event came up in my search because they intended to address the MMIW issue during their protocol ceremony, scheduled for the following day. I immediately rearranged my schedule to attend the event in person. Before attending, I researched what the “Paddle to Lummi” event’s purpose. “The annual Canoe Journey is a gathering of Indigenous nations from the Pacific Northwest and Canada … [2019’s] host is the Lummi Nation, a Coast Salish nation whose reservation is located near Bellingham, Washington. The event includes round-the-clock sharing of songs, dances and gifts by representatives of each nation and concludes with the calling of witnesses and gifting by the host nation. This follows the tradition of the potlatch, which historically was a form of wealth redistribution” (Walker, R. 2019:para 13).

On July 25, 2019, I loaded a free shuttle bus that traveled around the back roads of the reservation, past a good deal of homes in bad states of disrepair and half covered with wild blackberry bushes. After a walk around the beach and a viewing of the canoes, my husband and I walked up the hill to the Lummi School and we attended that protocol ceremony. I stood crammed into a tiny space next to a trashcan, against the wall of the entrance because the protocol building was completely filled. Elders were given a front-row place of honor around the floor. Different tribes took turns going around the perimeter of the gymnasium-sized floor in the ceremony, each having a different group (such as men or women) to honor and celebrate. Men drumming and singing, women and girls dancing and adding their voices, while the MC spoke of the importance of the group being honored and sprinkling in words from the Lummi Native language. Despite my poor vantage point, the opening of the protocol ceremony was incredibly moving and I found myself getting goose bumps, especially from the beating drums and male voices raised loudly in song. The event felt very much like attending someone else’s family reunion, but every person I encountered was warm and welcoming.

Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women was a focus of this year’s event. Many attendees, inside and outside the building, wore the MMIW symbol of a red-paint handprint on their faces. The protocol ceremony introduced the tragic topic with drums, song, dance and chanting as well as two very large fishnet banners with the words “Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women #MMIW” spelled out on them. The mood had me at the brink of tears.

Another of the issues spotlighted at the protocol was opioid abuse. Although we often hear that alcohol abuse is a major issue among Indigenous people, alcohol abuse was not mentioned. Alcohol and drugs were prohibited at the event. As I walked around the event, including the camping areas, the vendor areas and the beach, I did not see one single incidence of alcohol use. I occasionally smelled marijuana smoke, but did not see it smoked openly. However, tobacco smoking was openly and widely used, despite the event being on school grounds. It did not seem to have the same negative social stigma I’m used to seeing at “white” events. Several vendors had long wooden pipes for sale, as well as sweet grass or sage bundles for smudging.


Physical Health

Statistics of alcoholism and alcohol abuse within Indigenous communities don’t support the common stereotype messages. According to Claire Gordon, “alcoholism is the most well-known health problem in the Native community, and a source of ample stereotyping” (Gordon 2014, para. 3). However, Erikson reported, “in contrast to enduring stories about extraordinarily high rates of alcohol abuse among Native Americans, University of Arizona researchers have found that Native Americans’ binge and heavy drinking rates actually match those of whites [and] Native Americans were more likely to abstain from alcohol use.” Erikson quotes Cunningham who points out that a consistent alcohol abuse problem exists within “[a]ll major U.S. racial and ethnic groups.” Alcohol abuse issues are amplified by other factors for Indigenous peoples. Erikson’s source, Solomon, makes the point that “Native Americans, as a group, have less access to medical care, safe housing and quality food, which can amplify health problems connected to alcohol” (Erikson, 2016: para 1,5,7).

Native communities suffer more of the usual predictors of poor health, such as poverty, unemployment and a steep high school dropout rate. These issues are a great source of stress and concern for Native women who oversee the health care and education of children. Federal funding for health care is vastly inadequate to meet the needs of Native communities. Claire Gordon quotes Colorado State University’s Irene Vernon as saying, “The money we get for health is less than the money given to prisoners” (Gordon, 2014: para 7). Gordon’s statistical research shows American Indians and Alaska Natives with the highest rate of diabetes and the incidence of tuberculosis as five times higher than for non-Hispanic whites. She explains that risk factors–such as inadequate medical services, alcohol and tobacco use, subsidized food and poor nutrition–are common in low-income communities. “Native Americans and Alaska Natives die younger, on average, than other Americans. In addition, “Compared to white Americans, Native people are twice as likely to die in a car crash, three and a half times more likely to die as a pedestrian, twice as likely to die by fire and three times more likely to drown” (Gordon 2014, Injuries).


I found the suicide statistics alarming and sad. “Young Native Americans are more likely to kill themselves than any other group … young Native women in Alaska were 19 times more likely to kill themselves than other women their same age” (Gordon 2014, Suicide section). According to Potter, in 2014, John Yellowbird Steele, the president of the Oglala Lakota, declared the youth suicide rate an emergency on the Pine Ridge reservation. “By June 2015, he was testifying in front of Congress, citing the loss of 11 lives in just seven months, with an additional 176 youth attempting suicide. Girls in particular are at risk” (Potter 2016: para 8-9). Her Many Horses, Oglala Lakota tribal member, proposed a possible explanation for the high youth suicide rate on the reservation: “Poverty is so widespread and so is joblessness. These kids need jobs. Our kids are not prepared for the system. Some cannot even get a drivers license” (Larsen 2015). Many communities have implemented teen suicide prevention programs and those run by tribes often include cultural education programs to assist young Natives in feeling connected to their tribal communities. Potter describes one such program on the Pine Ridge reservation: “Each summer, elder Inila Wakan Janis and his wife, Jennifer Janis, a teacher at the local middle school, present a math camp there for the girls. It’s a way to keep them up with studies during the summer as well as a chance to imprint the spiritual and cultural practices of their people” (2016, para 2).

Violent Crime, Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

In addition to suicide, violent crime on many reservations has “skyrocketed in the last decade, even as it’s dropped across the country. Too few tribal officers and federal police, and deeply underfunded tribal courts, have created a pervasive sense of lawlessness“ (Gordon, 2014). Gordon shares this tragic statistic: “One in three American Indian women is raped in her lifetime, … more than twice the national average” (Gordon 2014, Sexual Abuse section).  The sex trade is of special concern for Indigenous girls and young women and appears to be a factor in the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women numbers. Dustin Louie, examines which life experiences increase the threat of sexual exploitation and how Indigenous girls are recruited into the sex trade in his 2018 prevention-education proposal. Louie also explains how the sex trade is especially dangerous for Indigenous girls who are “more likely to experience physical abuse and rape … while also being less likely to have their reports pursued by the police“ (Louie:3). “Colonization, realized through IRS [Indian Residential Schools], assumptions of white supremacy, and systemic oppression, establishes an environment in which Indigenous girls endure the [exploitation] pathways at an increased rate. … [and] influences predators to recruit Indigenous girls as a result of societal devaluation of Indigenous femininity” (Louie 2018:24). Identifying the Needs of American Indian Women Who Sought Shelter details areas of need for victimized Native women and challenges to meeting those needs: “[A] wide variety of specific personal needs (e.g., safety, housing, transportation), needs relating to their children (e.g., safety, education, socialization), community needs (e.g., relating to their tribe), as well as legal needs (e.g., help obtaining a restraining order or divorce). …The nature of native culture presents unique challenges for victimized women –especially among those living on the reservation– including increased social and geographic isolation and a lack of community resources” (Fox et al 2018: 1).

Law Enforcement and Legal Jurisdiction Problems

Even after a good deal of research on my part, I’m still confused by the legal jurisdiction issues that complicate the ability to enforce laws against violence and sexual assault. It appears that formal legal agreements can be written between law enforcement agencies, (state, federal and tribal) to fill the gaps, but I was unable to conclusively find any for the Lummi Nation or Nooksack Tribe. Limited budgets for tribal law enforcement and court systems create a dangerous lack of available protection and justice services. Maximum sentence restrictions for tribal courts, set by the federal government, is another area that limits the ability for victims to receive justice for the crimes against them.

The Indian Law and Order Commission points to “the archaic system in place, in which Federal and State authority displaces Tribal authority and often makes Tribal law enforcement meaningless.” (ILOC, 2013, p.14). The Indian Law Resource Center explains that Indian nations are unable to prosecute non-Indians, despite the fact that they commit the vast majority (86%) of sexual violence crimes against Native women. Some of this number is non-Native men who live directly on tribal land “non-Indians now comprise 76% of the population on tribal lands and 68% of the population in Alaska Native villages” ( “An unworkable, race-based criminal jurisdictional scheme created by the United States has limited the ability of Indian nations to protect Native women from violence and to provide them with meaningful remedies” (ILRC n.d.:Racial Discrimination section).  It is disturbing that non-Native men can live on tribal land but be outside the jurisdiction of tribal police. But the lack of response from U.S. attorneys, who have the jurisdiction to prosecute non-Natives and don’t, is even more disturbing. “[B]etween 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country matters referred to them involving sexual assault … many of these crimes in Native communities are not even investigated” (, n.d.). Several attempts at updating legal jurisdictions have been presented and a few laws have been passed. However, resources for tribal law enforcement, such as funding, are still lacking. “On paper, President Obama closed that loophole when he signed the Violence Against Women Act in March. But not one tribe is currently [as of 2014] capable of enforcing the new law” (Gordon 2014: Sexual Abuse section). Amnesty International claims “Indigenous peoples in the USA face deeply entrenched marginalization–the result of a long history of systemic and pervasive abuse and persecution. Sexual violence against Indigenous women today [is] …compounded by the federal government’s steady erosion of tribal government authority and its chronic under-resourcing. … It is against this backdrop that American Indian and Alaska Native women continue to experience high levels of sexual violence, a systemic failure to punish those responsible and official indifference to their rights to dignity, security and justice” (Amnesty 2007: 14).




The power once held by Indigenous women has been systematically stripped by Euro-American conquest, racism, and assimilation practices that resulted in cultural genocide and generational trauma. Indigenous communities today are under-funded, under-resourced, and under-supported. Despite epidemic levels in violent and sexual crimes, tribal police are crippled by complicated legal jurisdiction problems and a lack of resources to protect their communities. The Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women awareness campaign is highlighting current racism in the media (with under-reporting, and victim blaming) and within the judicial system (with lack of diligent record keeping, lack of communication with tribes, and lack of response to reported crime). Non-Natives are mostly unaware of Indigenous challenges and often believe the false stereotypes and respond with racist attitudes. We must do more to support our Indigenous neighbors–vote for laws that support and protect their safety, well-being and culture; demand legal jurisdiction clarification and cooperation agreements between law enforcement agencies; stop telling history from a biased “white” perspective; and stand against white privilege attitudes and negative stereotypes. It is our responsibility to learn about the true history of how we treated Indigenous peoples in the past, and how we are treating them today. We must also support and encourage their fight for self-determination and the strengthening of their nearly lost beautiful cultures and languages.






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