I’m starting this blog entry with the above video about cutting hair because it seems the most appropriate way to open a discussion about racism, stereotyping, domestic violence and assimilation. Canada is not immune to the many atrocities indigenous cultures around the world have had to endure when they were first approached by settlers over 150 years ago. However, it is worth noting that we cannot solely blame settlers for these atrocities as many indigenous people enslaved their own and subjected their women to all sorts of violence.
Why hair? You may ask. To put it succinctly. In indigenous cultures, hair is a part of their identity. It provides deep meaning and personal connection with one’s hair, health, and spirituality which gives them strength and endurance. Author Steven Bancarz, the creator of Spirit Science and Metaphysics, informs his readers about the native hair, “In Native cultures, men and women are recognized by the length and glory of their hair. The cutting of hair by oppressors has long represented the submission and defeat of a People, through humiliation. The way a People comb (the Alignment of thought), braid (the Oneness of thought), tie (the Securing of thought) and color (the Conviction in thought), their Hair is of great significance. Each hairstyle represents a different frame of mind.” So it is only natural for those who are in the business of enslaving and “de-personalizing” an individual to cut their hair as it is often recognized as a sign of slavery and used as a method to steal their power; to decrease, demoralize and punish those enslaved.
In today’s mainstream culture, hair is more of a fashion statement than that of spirituality, even the act of shaving one’s head can be regarded as a sign of freedom and empowerment. However, we are not talking about your average citizen but indigenous cultures for which we have yet to admit truths and reconcile with the people who occupied this land centuries before us; the people who were gracious enough to share this land’s natural resources when we first arrived upon their shores just over 150 years ago. Yet instead of sharing the land and honoring commitments forged by the way of Treaties we stole their land, raped the earth of its natural resources, enslaved their people and demoralized their way of living – beginning with their hair. Sadly, not much has changed today. Our indigenous communities still suffer the wounds inflicted by decades, even centuries, of earlier generations of stereotyping that leads to discrimination and racism. Who bares the brunt of these atrocities the most?
Our aboriginal women.
Canada’s Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women
On February 23, 2016, the federal government wrapped up a cross-country pre-inquiry consultations with families and announced the official inquiry for missing and murdered women that launched during the summer months. A list of 22 recommendations provided by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) to help guide the inquiry. In making these recommendations, the NWAC consulted indigenous female leaders, family members of murdered and missing indigenous women, and human rights experts from the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”
The Minister’s comments suggested that an RCMP report in 2014, which put the tally at 1,181 murdered and missing women between 1980 and 2012, did not paint a complete picture of the size of the problem. The force added another 32 deaths and 11 disappearances in a 2015 update.
“We can’t lose sight that this isn’t just a race issue, that it is a fact that a particular group is being doubly discriminated against … because you have the intersection of the racism and the sexism, and the challenge here is about inter-sectional violence,” ~ Lavell-Harvard.
Among many points, the group wants the federal government to look at the root causes about why indigenous women and girls remain socially and economically disadvantaged, in addition to examining why indigenous women experience sexualized stereotyping. This is not an easy task. The issues are multifaceted and complex of decades upon decades of abuses by European colonizers, the imposition of Christianity, western morality and abuses endured in the residential school system where children began to mimic at home the abuse they were experiencing in the schools; which included, the cutting of their hair.
Native and non-Native scholars have addressed the way Christian imperialism has oppressed native people but did so without addressing the specific impact of imperialism on Native women. This three-part series will briefly see only some of the development of such abuse(s) in a semi-Christian context where feminist theologians have analyzed the ways in which Christian theology has served to oppress women.
If one were to look at the root causes of sexualized stereotyping and reasons for socially and economic disadvantages of aboriginals then it must include the consultation of native women activists who have analyzed the intersections between Christian conquest and violence against Native women in their efforts to heal Native societies. And so let us begin by consulting biblical scriptures in an effort to discover the roots of such oppression.
The Canaanites – The Biblical Narrative
In Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, contributing author Andy Smith writes: “[the Biblical] Canaanites are the descendants of the unsavory relations between Lot and his daughters who are the descendants of the sexually perverse Ham. They commit acts of sexual perversion in Sodom and prostitute themselves in service of their gods. The Canaanites, as sexual sin, then became expendable in the biblical narrative and it is Canaanite women who [were] targeted for abuse. It is the women in particular who cause the downfall of Israelite men by leading them to worship other gods.
“The Lord had said to the Israelite, “You shall not enter into marriage with [foreign women], neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.” (1Kings 11:2).
While God commands the Israelites not to intermarry with Canaanite women, they are given license to rape them en masse. This is particularly illustrated in the story of the Rape of Dinah (Genesis 34). After the Canaanites have raped Jacob’s daughter, Jacob’s sons destroyed their city, killed the men “and their wives…they captured and made them their prey” (v. 29). While the Israelite woman’s bodily integrity is defined in the narrative (even if it is because she is the property of Jacob), Canaanite women, who had no role in her rape, are deserving of rape. Stereotyped like Canaanite women, Native women are perceived as sexually loose. As such, they become “the sexual fantasy” of the colonizers and marked by “sexual perversity”.
“… [Indian] marriages are not a sacrament but a sacrilege. They are idolatrous, libidinous, and commit sodomy. Their chief desire is to eat, drink, worship heathen idols, and commit bestial obscenities.” Bernardino de Minaya
It is here that we see similarities between the Canaanite woman and the native female’s sexuality transformed into the “squaw” who was “lewd and licentious” and morally reprehensible.” Native women, however, were not always perceived in this way. In Construction of a Negative Identity, author Kim Anderson writes: “Long ago when the Europeans first arrived on Turtle Island in the sixteenth century, Europeans produced images of Native womanhood to symbolize the magnificent richness and beauty they encountered. This was the phase of the great mother, the Indian Queen…” Exotic, powerful, dangerous and beautiful, this Native female symbol represented both “American liberty and European virtue”, but the queen was demoted as the European settler became more familiar with the land. Colonial land claims would only work if the queen became more accessible, less powerful, and within the grasp of the colonizer.
“Draped in leaves, feathers, and animal skins, as well as in heavy jewelry, she appeared aggressive, militant, and armed with spears and arrows. Often she rode on an armadillo, and stood with her foot on the slain body of an animal or human enemy. She was the familiar mother-goddess figure – full bodied, powerful, nurturing but dangerous – embodying the wealth and danger of the New World.” ~ Rayna Green, Cherokee Scholar
Out of this need, to conquer the Native woman, the “Indian princess” was born and the queen transformed from a mother-goddess figure to a girlish-sexual figure. “Indian princess” imagery constructed Indigenous woman as the origin frontier, the pure border waiting to be crossed. The enormous appeal to the covetous European male wishing to lay claim to the “new” territory. This equation of the Indigenous woman with the virgin land, open for consumption, created a Native female archetype which, as Elizabeth Cook-Lynn pointed out, could then be “used for the colonizer’s pleasure and profit.”
And so began the sexual stereotyping of the erotic image of the Native female, as “new” territory in the American narrative that persists to this day. You need only to glance at Walt Disney’s poster of Pocahontas to be confronted with a contemporary example of this archetype. It has also been promoted through other popular historical characters like Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who led “explorers” Lewis and Clarke into the interior of the North American continent. In Spanish colonial history, there is la Malinche, the Aztec woman who birthed the mestizo children of Cortez and interpreted for Spanish troops. It is possible to interpret characters like Pocahontas, Sacajewea, and la Malinche as strong Indigenous leaders, but the mainstream interpretation of these mythic characters is the opposite. Native women (and, by association, the land) are “easy, available and willing” for conquest.
While Native women are the sexual fantasy of European men, they are also dangerous to the world order because they were women untamed by patriarchal control. Colonizers (especially white women) expressed constant outrage that Native women are not tied to monogamous marriages and “hold the marriage ceremony in utter disregard,” are free to express their sexuality and “have no respect for …virginity”. Native women do not see themselves as “fallen” women as they should, therefore, their sexual power was threatening and colonizers consequently sought to control it.
Paula Gunn Allen argues that Christian colonizers realized that in order to subjugate indigenous nations, they would have to subjugate women within these nations. Native people needed to learn the value of hierarchy, and the importance of women remaining submissive to their men. They had to convince both men and women that a woman’s proper place was under the authority of her husband and that a man’s proper place was under the authority of priests.
These goals were further accomplished through the boarding system, which had their beginnings in the 1600s under Jesuit priests along the St. Lawrence River. It is through a regimented, hierarchical boarding school system reinforced by abuse, Church boarding schools began to transform Native children “into the great body of English-speaking, home-loving, industrious and pure-minded American [Canadian]” who adhered to “obedience to Christian principles of morality” leaving Native nations with a legacy of dysfunction and abuse. Accomplishing this goal started with cutting their hair; for the Native woman (and men) hair is a physical manifestation of the growth of the spirit, and some say it allows for extra-sensory perception, an extension of your thoughts and connection to all things; namely Mother Earth. So when a Native person’s hair is cut like the above-mentioned song says; you are cutting down their heritage – their “roots”.
It is worthy to note that pre-colonial Indian societies were, for the most part, not male-dominated. Women served as spiritual, political, and military leaders. Seventy percent of tribes did not practice war and when they did it was not to annihilate the enemy but to gain honor through bravery. Many societies were matrilineal and matrilocal. Violence against women and children was infrequent, unheard of in many tribes. The fact that women had high status in Native societies, the settlers felt they had to demonize Native women to prevent European women from leaving their society en masse. Between 1675 and 1763, almost 40% of women who were taken captive by Native people in New England chose to stay with their captors despite being told repeatedly about the “savage” nature of Indian people.
Additionally, because of the Christian patriarchal need to demonize Indian societies that might be attractive to women, the captivity narrative became a popular genre in the United States. These narratives were supposedly first-person narratives of women who were abducted by “savages” and forced to undergo untold “savagery”. Their tales, however, were usually written by men who had their own agenda in publishing these women’s stories. Women who read these supposedly true accounts and later became captive of Indian people were shocked to find that they often went unmolested. General James Clinton of the Continental Army once said to his soldiers as they traveled to destroy the Iroquois nation in 1779: “Bad as the savages are, they never violate the chastity of any of their women prisoners.” The same could not be said of the colonizers.
“Indigenous women makeup approximately 4% of Canada’s population, and are over-represented among the missing and murdered women, highlighting the effect that colonial images have had on North American beliefs on Aboriginal women today. It has been found in September 2013, that about 1,017 Aboriginal women have been murdered, which is 16% of all homicides in Canada. Colonial culture has been the foundation of these stereotypes creating a relationship of violence and hatred, which justifies the treatment of First Nations people to this day.” [Wikipedia]