All posts by mehughes

The Sexualization of Native Women

When I was reading the accounts of Saartje Baartman and the way she was turned into a racialized and sexualized Other by Europeans, I thought back to Dr. Adrienne Keene’s lecture about the offensive images of Native American women that have existed for centuries. Like comments made by those who put Baartman on exhibit, early settlers in the Americas saw Native women as extremely sexualized and as theirs for the taking. In this way these women represented the land that needed to be dominated and controlled while reaping the benefits from it.

Although Baartman’s body itself became a display and an object, Native American women’s bodies have been collectively objectified in a process that turns real human beings into sexualized caricatures that can be sold for profit. From offensive Halloween costumes to images on food items to the trendy war bonnets worn at photoshoots and music festivals, the bodies and symbols of Native women been appropriated and commodified by a postcolonial structure that refuses to see Native women as contemporary and multi-dimensional.

Typical "Poca-hotty" costume
Typical “Poca-hottie” costume


Bulane-Hopa (2011) writes of the trauma of seeing oneself and one’s culture depicted by the former colonizer, made worse by a lack of control of choosing how to be portrayed. While Bulane-Hopa focuses on the medium of film, I see the depiction of Native Women fitting into such a framework as well. Both a sense of personhood as well as very real economic resources are lost when Native women are not given a say in how they will be represented.

The question of how this fits into repatriation is tricky. In the context of Native American women’s bodies, it is not a matter of hundreds of remains or several dozen funerary objects, but rather an entire collection of images that have already been proliferated through mainstream America. The first response I could think of was to stop using images and symbols of Native women—or to go a step further, all indigenous people—on items not produced or endorsed by Native women themselves. Yet this only halts a process that has been going on for a long time.

If repatriation is about giving back items and knowledge of spiritual importance, then perhaps advocating for the representation of Native women BY Native women could be a means of doing this. Giving due attention to the complicated and humanized depictions of Native women while also focusing on the alarming problems that many face (see additional readings) could be a way to restructure how Native women are ‘exhibited’ in our society.

Native American actress and producer, founded Spirit World Productions, a company meant to allow Native people to tell their own stories, has produced many award winning documentaries
Joanelle Romero: Native American actress and producer, founded Spirit World Productions, a company meant to allow Native people to tell their own stories, has produced many award winning documentaries


Sources and Additional Readings

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Wounded Knee: More Than A Massacre

Much of the language traditionally used to describe the Massacre at Wounded Knee centers around the idea of finality. It’s usually a quick note in a history book that demarcates the end of the Indian Wars, which in turn usually means the last mention of Indians in said history book. But Wounded Knee is more than just one instance of violence against the Lakota. Not only does it symbolize the suppression of a revitalization movement, as Fine-Dare notes, but it remains part of an unfinished legacy of genocide of Native peoples.

The trauma surrounding the Wounded Knee Massacre is also unfinished and continual. Fine-Dare cites the high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and poverty as evidence of the ongoing effects that events like the Massacre have had on living Lakota. Perhaps one case study that could serve to highlight the tragedy of Wounded Knee is the story of Lost Bird, an infant who was found alive by some miracle after the 1890 slaughter. A U.S. general adopted her as his own and she was taken away from her people into the world of the whites. Unfortunately the rest of her life was filled with abuse and loss until her untimely death in 1920.

Lost Bird and her adopted "father"
Lost Bird and her adopted “father” Leonard Colby

Lost Bird was initially buried in a cemetery in California, where she died, but her story does not end there. Just over one hundred years after the massacre, in 1991, Native advocates fought to have her remains repatriated and she was buried at the site of the mass grave where her family members were laid to rest at Wounded Knee.

Another repatriation victory was the return of a tunic stolen from the site and later given to the Kelvingrove Museum in Scotland. In August of 1999 the shirt was brought back to Wounded Knee in the first successful international repatriation case of Native objects. The tunic was one of the famous Ghost Dance shirts worn by many members of the Sioux tribe who participated in the revitalization movement at the end of the 19th century. They believed that by participating in the dances and wearing the shirts they would be safe from the bullets of the United States military. Its spiritual and cultural significance is clear, and I was pleased to learn that it was successfully returned to the Lakota, who held a healing ceremony upon the return of the shirt.

Wounded Knee Cemetery
Wounded Knee Cemetery


Unfortunately as noted in this LA Times article, perhaps the seemingly easy return was due in large part to the religious value of the shirt itself. Though hundreds of possessions were taken from the bodies of the victims of Wounded Knee and sold to be displayed at the World’s Fair Exhibition, other objects that might seem less significant could take longer to return to the Lakota tribes. That is, if they were even returned at all. I believe that given the especially tragic circumstances of Wounded Knee, any and all artifacts associated with the Massacre should be returned to the Lakota people as soon as possible. These objects do not belong in any museums in the United States or elsewhere. Though the Massacre is certainly part of American history, items stolen from the victims should not be spoils of war that remain on view for museum visitors to gawk at without context. The 20 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for bravery that day would serve as better artifacts and would generate much more complicated and fruitful discussion of the policies of extermination adopted by the U.S. government.


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