Review: “Conquest” by Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence And American Indian Genocide

Exciting milestones: this is the 200th post on AWH!! *throws confetti*

Trigger warning: racial, colonial, and sexual violence against Native people.

Video by Savage Media, an organization founded by Native students at Dartmouth university. They’re raising money to purchase their own recording equipment and props – support them here.

I’ve been quoting Andrea Smith a lot lately. I just finished reading her first book, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. It’s an amazing, impassioned book – a difficult read, given the topic, but a necessary one. It’s something all non-indigenous Americans (continentally speaking, not just referring to the U.S.) should read.

I meant to post a review of it for Banned Books Week (last week), as Conquest would fall under the category of ethnic studies books now banned from being taught in Tuscon, Arizona schools. But thanks to a computer mishap, the whole review disappeared just as I was finishing it up. So instead I’m posting it in observation of Indigenous People’s Day, and as yet another reason why we shouldn’t be celebrating Columbus Day.

Side note: Rethinking Columbus, a book challenging the dominant story of Columbus’ “discovery” of America, is also one of the books banned from Tuscon high schools. The reflections of Bill Bigelow, the co-editor of the volume, on the implications of Columbus Day are worth reading.

Conquest starts with the observation that sexual and reproductive violence against Native women are forms of racial and colonial violence:

Women of color live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race. Within the mainstream antiviolence [sic] movement in the US, women of color who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselves against their communities, often portrayed stereotypically as violent, in order to begin the healing process. Communities of color, meanwhile, often advocate that women keep silent about sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a united front against racism. In addition, the remedies for addressing sexual and domestic violence utilized by the antiviolence movement have proven to be generally inadequate for addressing the problems of gender violence in general, but particularly for addressing violence against women of color. The problem is not simply an issue of providing multicultural services to survivors of violence. Rather, the analysis of and strategies for addressing gender violence have failed to address the manner in which gender violence is not simply a tool of patriarchal control, but also serves as a tool of racism and colonialism. That is, colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized (p. 1).

Conquest unpacks the various ways in which sexual violence “serves the goals of colonialism,” an examination that Smith argues “forces us to reconsider how we define sexual violence, as well as the strategies we employ to eradicate gender violence.” In her analysis, environmental racism and exploitation, forced assimilation/cultural genocide, spiritual appropriation, medical discrimination, and colonialism/empire are all connected to sexual and reprodutive violence against Native people.

Obviously, the book covers a lot of ground! It’s worth a more detailed review, and I’ll be looking more closely at parts of it in future posts (no promises about the timeframe, heh). But for now, some of the major points:

  • Conquest pushes the definition of sexual violence to include reproductive violence and injustice. White/Western medicine has a long history of nonconsensual sterilization of and experimentation on Native bodies. Native women have been disproportionately exposed to more dangerous or experimental forms of birth control, often without their informed consent. Medical discrimination and systemic, racialized poverty mean that Native women and communities have less access to birth control, abortion, and maternal/family health services.
  • Smith also explores the impact of environmental racism and exploitation on reproductive and family health in Native communities (“women of color are suffering not only from environmental racism but environmental sexism” – p. 69). The burden of environmental pollution from toxic wastes, weapons testing, workplace exposure, and other sources disproportionately fall on people of color – e.g., reservations and other Native lands are frequent sites of waste dumps, mining for radioactive materials, and nuclear testing. These environmental injustices lead to higher rates of conditions like ovarian cancer, miscarriages and stillbirths, and birth anomalies in Native communities.
  • The long history of forced assimilation and cultural genocide through the boarding school system (Native children were taken from their communities to be “educated” into conforming to Christian/Western culture) meant Native youth were subjected to rampant abuses, including a high incidence of sexual abuse. The boarding school system also undermined the stability of Native families and communities, introduced patterns of gendered violence into these communities, and worked to displace traditions that provided Native women with positions of leadership with Western patriarchal norms.
  • Smith connects systemic appropriation of Native religious practices to the idea that Native bodies are inherently “rapable.” Appropriation of Native spiritualities is part of white/Western “taking [from Native people] without asking” that assumes the “needs of the taker are paramount and the needs of others are irrelevant, [mirroring] the rape culture of the dominant society” (126).

Smith shows how both colonizing cultures and mainstream social justice movements rely on historical and cultural narrative that requires Native people to “play dead.” That is, we systematically pretend that Native Americans are long gone, absent, or vanishing. Indigenous people are either living relics or imagined symbols of a mythical past, which we can then ignore or appropriate the “memory” of as convenient:

Kate Shanley notes that Native peoples are a permanent “present absence” in the U.S. colonial imagination, an “absence” that reinforces at every turn the conviction that Native peoples are indeed vanishing and that the conquest of Native lands is justified. Ella Shoat and Robert Stam describe this absence as

 An ambivalently repressive mechanism [that] dispels the anxiety in the face of the Indian, whose very presence is a reminder of the initially precarious grounding of the American nation-state itself . . . In a temporal paradox, living Indians were induced to ‘play dead,’ as it were, in order to perform a narrative of manifest destiny in which their role, ultimately, was to disappear.

There’s a constant stream of examples of this symbolic/cultural violence against Native people. The awful “trend” of non-Native people playing dress-up as Natives is one of them (scroll down for the main post). The recent incident with Sen Scott Brown’s staffers mocking Elizabeth Warren’s claims of Cherokee heritage is another – and she’s not without her own issues on this subject. David Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian, refers to this latter case as yet another example of how American culture loves to “Kill the Indians, then copy them.”

In any case, the mythic Indian virtues of dignity and freedom adhere less to real Indians than they do to the very nation that deposed them. Just think of how much the ultimate American, the cowboy, has in common with the Indian: a life lived beyond the law but in accordance with a higher set of laws like self-sufficiency, honor, toughness, a painful past, a fondness for whiskey and always that long, lingering look over his shoulder at a way of life quickly disappearing. Contrary to the view held by a lot of Indian people, America hasn’t forgotten us. It has always been obsessed with us and has appropriated, without recourse to reality or our own input, the qualities with which we are associated.

This tendency to treat Native communities as “dead” is evident in modern social justice movements, for example, in how mainstream environmentalism doesn’t center Native communities or even form pro-environment alliances with them, instead allying with groups that often have racist, classist, and anti-immigrant agendas (dedicated to “reducing population growth of all peoples in theory and of people of color in reality” – 78). Alarmist rhetoric about overpopulation is often a thin veil for implicit or overt prejudice against communities of color and a desire to restrict their reproduction, growth, and even movements. At the time of the book’s writing, e.g., prominent members of the Sierra Club were also members of the anti-immigrant group FAIR; Smith also documents attempts to pressure the Sierra Club into advocating anti-immigrant positions. Meanwhile, mostly white/non-indigenous environmentalist groups often push for land “protection” policies that are harmful to Native people actually living on/off the land in question.

The major example Smith gives of how mainstream activism expects Native women in particular to “play dead” is the failure of both anti-racists/indigenous activists and advocates against domestic violence to center Native women in their work. Conquest calls on activists in both communities to adopt intersectional and community-based approaches to combating racism and gender violence together.

Approaches to gendered violence that rely heavily on state/police intervention and the prison system only address violence after the fact and have limited use in preventing domestic violence or protecting survivors in general. For Native women, Smith argues, these approaches are actively harmful in a culture where Native women, other women of color, and people of color in general are disproportionately and often unjustly incarcerated, and in a culture where state violence (police brutality, racism and sexism in the prison system, etc) are a major cause of and contributor to gender violence in Native communities.

Instead, Smith calls for domestic violence prevention and survivor support strategies that are based in community accountability and redressing economic injustices that make women of color more vulnerable to abuse and less able to leave abusive homes or partners. This model means creating communities that are educated about domestic violence, intervene in abusive situations, hold abusers accountable, and materially support survivors. The long-term goal of such a model would be to build “communities where violence becomes unthinkable” by fostering real communal consequences for and responses to abuse.

One thing I really appreciated about Smith’s take on community-based responses to violence is that she acknowledges the the serious obstacles that exist to putting it into practice effectively:

Sometimes it is easy to underestimate the amount of intervention that is required before a perpetrator can really change his behavior. Often a perpetrator will subject her/himself to community accountability measures but eventuality will tire of them. If community members are not vigilant about holding the perpetrator accountable _for years_ and instead assume he or she is ‘cured,’ the perpetrator can turn a community of accountability into a community that enables abuse.” (164)

In addition to this, so much of what allows abusers to get away with violence is community investment in preserving the group. Or rather, a particular understanding of group “safety” that often means that the safety of vulnerable members of the group – often women and children – is treated as less of a priority. What Smith argues for is a reversal of this mindset, to one where the wellbeing and safety of women and youth (rather than the protection of abusers) are seen as central to the health of the community. But this requires a pretty radical cultural shift for many communities. For this reason I have a lot of concerns about the effectiveness of community-based approaches in keeping survivors and vulnerable populations safe and keeping abusers to account (of course, the current system isn’t terribly effective, either).

All in all, Conquest is a great book, persuasively and clearly written. Some historians might be skeptical of how Smith works with chronology and geography, jumping back and forth between different periods and places. I think it’s very effective at showing the continuities between the genocide and exploitation of indigenous peoples that we think of as being in the past and the present, global realities of state and interpersonal violence against indigenous people. Conquest raises a lot of thought-provoking questions that the mainstream feminist and anti-violence movements still haven’t started to grapple with, but really need to.

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