Violence, Popular Culture and Anti-Indian Racism (Participation)

Published September 12, 2014 by djlwsu


by Elissa Washuta, originally published on Tumblr

Captain Hook kidnaps Tiger Lily in Peter Pan.

The body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, a member of Sagkeeng First Nation, was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on August 17. Her murder has brought about an important conversation about the widespread violence against First Nations women and the Canadian government’s lack of concern.

In her August 20 Globe and Mail commentary, Dr. Sarah Hunt of the Kwagiulth band of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation wrote about the limited success of government inquiries and her concerns about other measures taken in reaction to acts of violence already committed, such as the establishment of DNA databases for missing persons. Dr. Hunt writes:

“Surely tracking indigenous girls’ DNA so they can be identified after they die is not the starting point for justice. Indigenous women want to matter before we go missing. We want our lives to matter as much as our deaths; our stake in the present political struggle for indigenous resurgence is as vital as the future.”

Violence against indigenous women is not, of course, happening only in Canada. In the U.S., for example, the Justice Department reports that one in three American Indian women have been raped or experienced an attempted rape, and the rate of sexual assault against American Indian women is more than twice the national average. This violence is not taking place only in Indian Country.

In the Globe and Mail on August 22, Elizabeth Renzetti wrote aboutthree recent murders of First Nations women.

“What unites these three cases is that the victims – Tina Fontaine, Samantha Paul and Loretta Saunders – were all aboriginal women. What else unites them, besides the abysmal circumstances of their deaths? What economic, cultural, historical or social factors? Anything? Nothing?”

Jeffords holding the murdered Sonseeahray.

I can’t answer that, but I know that all of these women—and every other indigenous woman in Canada and the U.S.—lives in a society that includes images of violence against indigenous women in its entertainment products. Over and over, violence against indigenous women is made to titillate, built into narratives along with action, suspense, swashbuckling, and romance. Indigenous women become exotic props, and when we are identified with these dehumanized caricatures, it becomes easier to treat us inhumanely.

John Smith points a rifle at Pocahontas

Take as an example Disney’s Pocahontas. Released in 1995, the cartoon feature has replaced the historical figure’s life story in the minds of many Americans. Much has been made of Disney’s exotification of Pocahontas. John Smith is only compelled to put down his gun because of her beauty. Pocahontas is imbued with animal qualities throughout the film as she scuttles, bounds, swims, creeps, and dives. This reinforces a long-held conception of Native peoples as being “close to nature” at best, “more animal than human” at worst—and the latter is a view that makes us easier to abuse.

Emily and Sam in New Moon

The recent depiction of Emily (a Makah woman) in the Twilight series offers viewers a direct representation of violence in a fictional Native community. Emily’s broad, visible facial scar is said to be the result of her partner Sam’s (a Quileute man/werewolf) outburst of rage: he was a younger werewolf, with difficulty controlling his “phasing” from human to wolf, he became angry, and she was standing too close. The presentation of this story problematic in its shrugging absolution of Sam of his responsibility in maiming Emily, and the aftermath is heartbreaking: in the more detailed version of the story presented in the Twilight books, after Sam mauls Emily, she not only takes him back, but convinces him to forgive himself. This sends the message that an episode of violence can and should be overlooked for the sake of romance. Emily, a Native woman, becomes expendable. Her safety is of little concern; the fact that Sam has “imprinted” on her, cementing his attachment, is more important than the reality of recidivism.

In a Globe and Mail editorial, “How to Stop an Epidemic of Native Deaths,” the author brings up the many social factors at work in the epidemic of violence against Native women. I bring up the problematic and pervasive imagery above not because I think it is the most problematic issue, but because it is what I know, and because we can start solving it with our individual actions. We don’t need to call Native women “squaws” and joke that they were “hookers” when forced into prostitution, as Drunk History did last year. We can make better choices than “naughty Native” costumes on Halloween. We have the freedom to choose the representations we make in the world, and when we perpetuate damaging stereotypes of indigenous women as rapeable, we are using our autonomy to disempower others.

Karen Warren wrote in “A feminist philosophical perspective onecofeminist spiritualities”:

“Dysfunctional systems are often maintained through systematic denial, a failure or inability to see the reality of a situation. This denial need not be conscious, intentional, or malicious; it only needs to be pervasive to be effective.”

Tiger Lily faces Hook.

I’m tired of hearing that these images aren’t harmful. I’d rather see how much they’re missed when they’re gone than continue to listen to the insistence that the image of Pocahontas at the end of a gun barrel is wholesome while, every day, more and more indigenous women die while we are told that this is not a phenomenon, not a problem, nothing more than crime.

Elissa Washuta is an adviser in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and a faculty mentor in the MFA program in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her first book, a memoir called MY BODY IS A BOOK OF RULES, was recently published by Red Hen Press.


5 comments on “Violence, Popular Culture and Anti-Indian Racism (Participation)

  • its crazy to here about a story like this and the things that happen. it terrible but as we have learned in class we can see why this type of thing is still happeining, alot of this incidens is due to the way people see this “race” of women. And the enviroment they live in cant be good for them, the native race is a very interesting one becuase the white race has been trying to take their land for many many years and this is not the time the native people have been wrongfully killed. Its happened many times beforer, for example how this great land became america was through murder and theft. But in the video pocohantice i thing it does more good then bad becuase they are not saying its a good thing they show how it is wrong what we were doing and should not happen or should not have happen. But sense it did happen the fuwed between the whites and the native people wiull live on for a long long time in my opinion.


  • It is unfortunate that images such as those presented in the article are still prevalent in the media today, because this is what young children see, which already begins to foster unconscious racism. But, beyond the indigenous women that are spoken about, if we think on a broader spectrum, how is this representation of women acceptable in any circumstance, regardless of race? This post reassured the utter disrespect and indecency that we encounter daily in pop-culture regarding women, and how far we are from any idea of true equality in society. Even if in the future we get to a period without racism, women will always be viewed as the weaker sex. An extremely drastic change in beliefs, teachings and perspectives will have to begin if any progress towards realization that displays of women like this in the media are far from acceptable.


  • In response to Mahal: When you think about how prevalent those images and criticisms are today, it makes me wonder what racism, specifically unconscious racism will be like in 5, 10, or even 50 years. Will there still be undesirable images of native Americans or other races? Will the stereotypes we are familiar with today still be around?
    If we have a future without racism, that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be inequality. Women have been put in a weak, non-authority and sometimes even submissive role in society. Talking about women’s role in society, just as talking about racism, gives a potential for making the issues evident to others and could ultimately aid in equality.


  • I find it so unfortunate that violence against native woman is still an issue today. What is even more concerning is that movies like Twilight and Pocahontas are available for kids of any age, with Twilight targeted toward pre-teens and teenagers and Pocahontas being a Disney movie for kids. The fact that kids are exposed to racism and violence at such a young without even realizing it, is why violence is still an issue today. Violence is not something your parents teach you, its something you have to see and experience yourself. Because kids are already starting to see it in their daily lives, they become more aware of it once they are able to comprehend violence as a world issue not just something they see in a movie. Movies like this can not also misconstrued an important and touchy concept, but can also present the viewer with false information. For example, like Mahal mentioned, women are often seen as the weaker sex, but that doesn’t mean that they are. However, uneducated kids might not understand that concept if that is what is being portrayed.


  • I was shocked when I read this article because native american woman are not viewed as equal as a person who is white. So this makes it ok to abuse them physically and sexually, i don’t think that is alright. And that the fact that media is not helping native woman establish that they are more than just an object. Isn’t it not bad enough that european settlers came to america and basically took their land and to this day native’s are not viewed as people but as a animal. Woman already get miss treated because they are seen as fragile and weak so when I read that native woman get treated less then white woman I was disgusted. Race should not determine how a person should be treated.


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