When we talk about colonialism and all the issues it brings, we encounter many critics who argue that the problem of sexism is separate and distinct from colonialism and thus, they require separate treatment. Sexism, not unlike the idea that humans are independent and unattached, is viewed as an island. Such islands are treated as if they are unconnected and the work done on one island, has absolutely no effect on any other island. This view, however, denies the deeper connections between people, ideas, and all things. One who wants to address sexism, but wants to deny its connection to colonialism only wants to mask the symptoms of sexism, without getting to the root of the problem. Sexism, in the Americas, is intimately connected with, taught by, and promoted by colonialism. This means that in order to really address sexism one must also address colonization.
When European colonizers first came to the land of the Americas, they brought with them many preconceived notions about the world and how both men and womxn are to interact and how they are to treat each other. Christians are responsible for a great deal of colonization throughout the world. With them, comes the idea that Christians are supreme and anyone that is not Christian is inferior and must be assimilated.
With the colonizers came the patriarchy and sexism of Christianity.
Before colonization, womxn and their roles in society and tribal life were revered and respected. In many Indigenous cultures men and womxn have separate roles, however, each role is, rightly, seen as equally valuable and equally important. Let’s take for example the Lakota of the North American plains, who learned their roles from the Holy Woman, White Buffalo Calf Woman.
White Buffalo Calf Woman came to the Lakota during a time of suffering. They had lost their way. However, White Buffalo Calf Woman came to help them find their way back to harmony with each other, nature, and all things. Part of doing this, was explaining their roles to them and how those roles are indispensable.
White Buffalo Calf Woman turns to the womxn and says:
“My dear sisters, the women: You have a hard life to live in this world, yet without you this life would not be what it is. Wakantanka [the Creator, the Great Mystery] intends that you shall bear much sorrow—comfort others in times of sorrow. By your hands the family moves. You have been given the knowledge of making clothing and of feeding the family. Wakantanka is with you in your sorrows and joins you in your griefs. He has given you the great gift of kindness toward every living creature on earth. You he has chosen to have a feeling for the dead who are gone. He knows that you remember the dead longer than do men. He knows that you love your children dearly.” (The World’s Rim 156)
Here, White Buffalo Calf Woman is describing womxn as the culture keepers, those who tell the stories to the children, who propel the family forward, keeping the family alive and well. Remembering those who have come before and the wisdom they possessed, and bearing the sorrow that comes with such remembrance. In many Indigenous cultures womxn are respected for their decision making and listened to closely. For they are the keepers of the children and the home, they are tempered with kindness, and can see how the living and the dead are effected by our actions and decisions through keeping and passing on the stories of the culture. It is the role of the womxn to make the clothing and care for the children and the home.
When White Buffalo Calf Woman turned to the men she said:
“Now my dear brothers: […] The tribe as a whole depend upon it [the Sacred Pipe] for their necessary needs. You realize that all your necessities of life come from the earth below, the sky above, and the four winds. Whenever you do anything wrong against these elements they will always take some revenge on you. You should reverence them. Offer sacrifices through this pipe. When you are in need of buffalo meat, smoke this pipe and ask for what you need and it shall be granted to you. On you it depends to be a strong help to the women in raising the children. Share the women’s sorrow. Wakantanka smiles on the man who has a kind feeling for woman …” (The World’s Rim 157)
White Buffalo Calf Woman, tells the men that they are called upon to provide the necessities of life to the tribe, to pray, and to make sacrifices. This includes hunting and procuring buffalo meat and all the buffalo provides. Through their prayer and sacrifices they can assure that the necessities of life will be provided. They are protectors of the womxn and must share in their burdens.
We see, that for the Lakota, the roles of womxn and men and their domains are different. However, both roles are necessary for life to continue as it does. One role is not dominant or superior to the other. There is a balance of male and female powers.
We also see this in the Holy People of many Indigenous cultures. There is always a balance of male and female powers. Each male Holy Person is paired with a female Holy Person. For instance, the first Holy People of the Navajo, First Man and First Woman, who, together, lead the others to the Earth’s surface and created the Navajo.
The European culture of the colonizers contradicts this balance of male and female to proclaim that man is superior to womxn. In the creation of humans, in the Christian tradition, nature is flipped on its head. In the reality of nature man is born of woman. It is woman who bears children, both male and female. Yet, in the Christian story, this is not the case. Adam is created first and from his rib Lilith (who was rejected by Adam, because she was too independent and strong) and then Eve. Thus, in this cosmological story, the power of creation is taken from the womxn and given to the man, making his superiority to womxn more concrete, for now it is man who is the creator of life.
In addition, when reading the Bible, we find that the importance of womxn is only through their relationships with men. The Mother Mary is important because of her relationship to her son, Jesus, and Sarah is only important through her relationship with Abraham. You will find no independent, unwed, strong womxn in the Bible. We are told that womxn will be saved by man, and in fact it was a man (Jesus Christ) who came to save the entire human race. This devalues womxn and their roles. Womxn cannot be saviors, they can only be saved and follow and serve the men who can.
Through forced assimilation the Indigenous ideas of balance and harmony of womxn and men are stolen and replaced with patriarchy, a system in which men hold the power and womxn are largely excluded from it. The Christian/patriarchal roles of men and womxn were, and are, forced upon Indigenous communities destroying Indigenous gender relations.
Colonizers brought with them patriarchy and unequal gender roles. They forced these roles and views upon the Indigenous populations, in effect creating and propagating sexism in the Americas. Thus, we see that colonization and sexism are not separate problems. Sexism in the Americas is a symptom and result of colonization. So, if we treat sexism as problem independent of the context of colonization, we are merely attempting to mask the symptom of a much deeper problem. However, if we treat sexism in the context of its relation and foundations in colonialism we can get to the roots of the problem and pull them up!
*This is the second installment of a series on colonization and decolonization
Alexander, Hartly Burr, The World’s Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1953), 156-7.
Christianity, Colonialism, and Sexism https://www.telesurenglish.net/opinion/Christianity-Colonialism-and-Sexism-20160809-0020.html (accessed December 2019)