Thinking and feeling feminism from an Indigenous perspective

Indigenous Women discussed what feminism means to them, whether this is a specific vision of Indigenous Peoples and what they can contribute from their own Cosmovision.

Grecia Mariel Gutiérrez Lara

What does feminism mean for Indigenous Women? How do we move past standoffs and strengthen relations between Indigenous Women’s movements and feminist movements? What are the main challenges in recognising gender identities in the Indigenous Women’s movement? These were just a few of the questions to spark dialogue and reflection amongst Indigenous Women from different Indigenous Peoples around the world in the online session, ‘Indigenous Women, Feminisms and Identities’, on the third day of the Second World Conference of Indigenous Women.

Dozens of Indigenous Women joined the conservation to question, rethink and reflect on the term feminism over the 90-minute session, since some sectors of the Indigenous Women’s movement still see the term as somewhat alien. Norma Don Juan, a Nahua woman, activist and member of the Mexico-based National Coordinator of Indigenous Women (CONAMI), introduced the discussion: ‘In my experience of working and progressing on our rights and my rights alongside my sisters, I had never heard about feminisms until, one day, a friend said: “You’re a feminist because you defend the rights of women and that makes you a feminist”.’

Although Norma Don Juan finds it difficult to define herself as a feminist, she recognises the work, struggles and solidarity support the movement provides in favour of women’s rights. She states that from diverse feminisms, Indigenous Women should meet with other colleagues in respect but, in turn, question dynamics of power. ‘We do not reject feminism but rethink and redefine it, and from there, build on it,’ states Don Juan.

In turn, Sandra Luz Villalobo, a Zapotec woman, quickly defined herself as a feminist as ‘feminists are those fighting for the rights of other women, for their daughters and granddaughters’.

Feminism has traditionally been conceptualised from a Western standpoint that does not address many Indigenous Women. ‘I cannot identify with it. Feminism came from Western women, and my colleagues and I do not feel they are talking about us. In rural areas, it’s quite tricky to said you are a feminist. Maybe we need to find an alternative, a different term to define us, something that says we are Indigenous Women who have been fighting and that our grandmothers have often fought alongside men,’ commented Viviana Tambaco, a Quechua woman from Ecuador.

Our own feminism?

‘We need to question what we understand as feminism and, from this, we have to write what we understand; we need to build a theory from our own peoples, as each has different approaches and a way of life and seeing the world. The challenge for us is to construct a theory based on how we empower ourselves. We do see feminism as a political approach that seeks to assert our rights, but as Mayan women, we also have those principles when we are asserting our identity,’ stated Cleotilde Vásquez, a Maya Mam woman from Guatemala.

‘I think many women are still afraid of it, afraid to say we are feminists, as the media often sells us a certain idea of feminism and radicalism. I see myself as a feminist as feminism is collective and is the spirit of our ancestors, our entire history over time, and is healing,’ pointed out Zaira Italia García.

Whilst feminism for some participants starts with an individualistic perspective that contrasts with the duality of the Indigenous Cosmovision, for others, idealising cosmogony and the relationship between man and woman in Indigenous Peoples is a mistake that draws a veil over all the work Indigenous Women have put in to defend their rights.

Romanticising Native Cultures without an historical analysis could lead to the belief that people lived in harmony with their community and territory, states Guadalupe Martínez, a Nahua woman. Martínez affirms that male domination (machismo) and the patriarchy are present in cultures and legends, even from before colonisation: ‘In our own stories, Coatlicue fell pregnant and the 400 Centzon who represented the stars at that time killed her, as it was wrong for her to become pregnant. Clearly, there is a subjugation of women within our own legends. History teaches us that.’

Martínez also pointed out that thanks to the feminist movement, different rights have been achieved. ‘When we talk about human rights, we are also talking about them from the West,’ she stated, committing on the use of an Indigenous and decolonialised perspective to enhance feminism. ‘What does it mean when we talk about Tequio collective work and doing it as women? ‘What does it mean when we talk about Trueque bartering and doing it as women? What would the category be to know that there is a way to view our position and situation as Indigenous Women, whether from a community or cultural perspective? What reflection is there to dismantle the colonisation that makes us speak here in Spanish or English,’ she added.

Sexual and gender diversity

For LGTBIQ+ activist Ángelica Telles, there are as many feminisms as women. ‘Nobody can impose one on you. It is perfectly valid when you do not identify with feminism—everyone can self-identify as they wish. We shouldn’t argue over whether we say we’re radical or liberal feminists; we should remember to show solidarity to one another,’ she stated from Mexico.

For Angelica, defining yourself as a woman, Indigenous, feminist or lesbian should not create any type of aggression or exclusion. Nonetheless, she is aware that in the still violent context of being an Indigenous Women, acknowledging yourself as such represents a political position.

Sexual diversity has been a difficult reality to talk about with Indigenous Peoples and has made it difficult for lesbian Indigenous Women to come out in public spaces. In the US, Lisa Colón, a non-binary Indigenous person, stated that ‘we need to recognise gender identity as a part of the Indigenous Women’s movement’. She also questioned what makes a woman. ‘There are many ways of being a woman. This non-binary identity is one that enables me to be who I am; thinking about an alternative word could be a possibility,’ Colón stated.

Outside communities, governments also fail to show support for diversity. This refusal is seen in the lack of public policies and budget allocations for the recognition of and work on diversity amongst Indigenous Women.

Different views on feminism were shared during the session—an essential exercise to deconstruct and appropriate the concept. The dialogue gave participants the chance to question theories and give new meanings to feminism based on the cosmogony of Indigenous Women. In their own words, and with deep respect, they recognised the women who came before us and who fought so that today we can freely enjoy our most fundamental rights.