Anti-Colonial Responses to Gender Violence

This article was abridged and adapted from Andrea Smith’s book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (South End Press, 2005). Andrea Smith is Cherokee and a professor of Native American  Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and co-founder of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and the Boarding School Healing Project.

Because sexual violence has served as a tool of colonialism and white supremacy, the struggle for indigenous sovereignty and the struggle against sexual violence cannot be separated. In my activist work, I have often heard the following sentiment expressed in Indian country: “We do not have time to address sexual/domestic violence in our communities because we have to work on ‘survival’ issues first.” However, statistics show that indigenous women suffer death rates from domestic violence that are higher than any other group of women.

We are clearly not “surviving” as long as issues of gender violence go unaddressed. It has been through sexual violence and through the imposition of European gender relationships that Europeans were able to colonize Native peoples in the first place. If we maintain these patriarchal gender systems, we will be unable to decolonize and fully assert our sovereignty.

Conceptualizing sexual violence as a tool of genocide and colonialism fundamentally alters the strategies for combating it. When sexual violence is viewed in this light, it is clear that we must develop anti-colonial strategies for addressing interpersonal violence that also address state violence.

Criminal Justice

For many years, activists in the rape crisis and domestic violence movements have promoted strengthening the criminal justice system as the primary way to reduce sexual and domestic violence. Particularly since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in the US in 1994, antiviolence centers received a considerable amount of funding from the government, to the point where most agencies are dependent on the government for their continued existence. Consequently, their strategies tend to be government friendly: hire more police, give longer sentences to rapists, pass mandatory arrest laws, etc.

There is a contradiction, however, in relying upon the government to solve problems it is responsible for creating. Native people are the most arrested, most incarcerated and most victimized by police brutality of any ethnic group in the US. Given the oppression Native people face within the criminal justice system, many communities are developing their own programs for addressing criminal behaviour, which often draw on some of the principles of “restorative justice.”

Restorative Justice

“Restorative justice” is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of programs that attempt to address crime from a reconciliatory rather than a punitive framework. As opposed to the state criminal justice system, which focuses on punishing the perpetrator and removing him (or her) from society through imprisonment, restorative justice attempts to involve all parties (perpetrators, victims and community members)
in determining the appropriate response to a crime in an effort to restore the community to wholeness.

These models have been particularly well developed by many Native communities, especially in Canada, where the sovereign status of Native nations allows them an opportunity to develop community-based justice programs. During the time that the Hollow Water reserve in Canada used a community approach (from approximately 1984 to 1996), 48 offenders were identified. Only five chose to go to jail, and only two who entered the program have committed crimes since.

They are also most successful in small, geographically isolated areas where it is more difficult for the perpetrator to simply move to another area. Such programs are also more likely to be successful in addressing child sexual abuse. However, adult survivors of domestic and sexual violence are often pressured to “forgive and forget” in tribal mediation programs that focus more on maintaining family and tribal unity than on providing justice and safety for women. In addition, in cases involving an adult woman victim, community members are more likely to blame her instead of the perpetrator for the assault.


Because of problems encountered with restorative justice approaches, some advocates argue that incarceration is the most appropriate way to confront sexual violence. The argument goes that if a Native man rapes someone, he subscribes to white values rather than Native values, because rape is not an indigenous tradition. Thus, if he follows white values, he should suffer the white way of punishment. However, Native antiviolence advocates also struggle with a number of difficulties in using imprisonment as the primary strategy to solve the problem of sexual violence. First, so few rapes are reported that the criminal justice system rarely has the opportunity to address the problem. Incarceration has been largely ineffective in reducing crime rates in the dominant society, much less in Native communities. In the words of sociologist Luana Ross, “The white criminal justice system does not work for white people; what makes us think it’s going to work for us?”

Policing under tribal control is not necessarily an improvement, as can be attested to by the countless charges of police brutality. For example, in the mid-1990s, indigenous children in Montana were calling the reservation police “terminators.” In 2002, the entire police force on the Rocky Boys Indian Reservation in Montana was placed on probation because of allegations of police brutality.

State Violence Against Women

State violence—in the form of the criminal justice system—cannot provide true safety for women, particularly women of colour, when it is directly implicated in the violence women face. Consider these examples:

  • An undocumented woman calls the police because of domestic violence. Under mandatory arrest laws, the police must arrest someone on domestic violence calls. Because the police cannot find the batterer, they arrest her and have her deported (Tucson).
  • An African-American homeless woman calls the police because she has been the victim of group rape. The police arrest her for prostitution (Chicago).
  • An African-American woman calls the police when her husband, who is battering her, accidentally sets fire to their apartment. She is arrested for setting the fire (New York).
  • A Native woman calls the police because she is the victim of domestic violence, and she is shot to death by police (Alert Bay, NWT).

Abused women often end up in jail as a result of trying to protect themselves. For instance, over 40 percent of the women in prison in Arizona were there because they murdered an abusive partner. The criminal justice system, rather than solving the problems of violence against women, often revictimizes women of colour who are survivors of violence. In addition, those who go to prison for domestic violence are disproportionately people of colour.

Increasingly, domestic violence advocates are coming to recognize the limitations of the criminal justice system. This recognition gave rise to the joint statement by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance, “Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex: Interpersonal and State Violence Against Women of Color.”

Solving the Dilemma

All women of colour, including Native women, live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race. Within the mainstream antiviolence movement in the US, women of colour who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselves against their communities, often stereotypically portrayed as violent, to begin the healing process. Communities of colour, meanwhile, often pressure women to remain silent about sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a “united front” against racism.

We face a dilemma: on the one hand, the incarceration approach promotes the repression of communities of colour without really providing safety for survivors. On the other hand, restorative justice models often promote community silence and denial around issues of sexual violence without concern for the safety of survivors.

I argue for the need to adopt antiviolence strategies that are mindful of the larger structures of violence that shape the world in which we live. When we centre women of colour in the analysis, it becomes clear that our strategies must be informed by approaches that also combat violence directed against communities, including state violence—police brutality, prisons, militarism, racism, colonialism and economic exploitation. The issues of colonialism, race, class and gender oppression cannot be separated. By centring women of colour in the analysis, we may actually build a movement that more effectively ends violence not just for women of colour but for all women.


Posted on June 21, 2009, in Imperialism & Colonialism, Indigenous Struggles, State Repression, Women's Liberation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Anti-Colonial Responses to Gender Violence.

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