Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Raping Indian Country

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

Raping Indian Country

Article excerpt


This article examines issues going to the heart of tribal self-determination-extractive industries operating within and near Indian country (1) and how they are impacting tribal communities through climate change and the safety of Native people, especially women and children. (2) Given the importance of the topic, the title of this article is deliberately provoking. Using "rape" as a metaphor for any other human experience is mired in controversy. (3) Some activists within the anti-rape movement have raised significant concerns that the use of the language of "rape" outside the context of criminal law only serves to minimize the experience of individual sexual assault victims. (4) While we are sympathetic to this perspective, we also strongly believe that an expansive definition of the term "rape" can and should be understood to mean a serious harm to both the climate and Indian nations, and what will happen to tribal cultures and the lands that have been exploited. Thus, in this Article, we deliberately deploy the language of "rape"--despite its controversy--to tell the legal story of how violence against Native women is directly linked to the fossil fuel industry and, by extension, climate change.

There are two reasons to use the language of sexual violence in our examination. First, many tribal cultures understand the unchecked exploitation of the earth to be a violent attack on the land, which itself carries feminine qualities. Because many tribal cultures ascribe important feminine qualities to the land, the mistreatment of "mother earth" carries important gendered consequences. As an example, Native scholar Donald Fixico explains the gendered nature of the land which is embedded within many tribal epistemologies:

   The traditional Indian woman represented the heart of her people.
   Her role was often mixed with the symbolism of the earth in the
   philosophies of many tribes. In the oral tradition of many tribes,
   the earth is a mother nourishing her human children and animal
   children alike ... In this light, earth and the mother are the
   same. (5)

Thus, while other mainstream movements in the United States may object to the use of "rape" as a descriptor for environmental degradation, it has particularly salient relevance in the unique context of Native communities who are seeking to protect their land and water. Typically, traditional epistemologies understand Native people as being inextricably linked to land--completely dependent on the land for subsistence. In addition, many tribal spiritual beliefs are tied to the land. (6)

Second, because the crime of sexual violence has exponentially increased in communities where extractive industry activities have been established, (7) we can understand how the rape of the bodies of Native women and children is directly linked to extractive industries. These dynamics are explored below. (8)

We deliberately deploy the controversial language of rape to discuss the concrete impacts of climate change and environmental degradation and the connection to the widespread rate of violence and sexual assault that women and children experience. Indeed, the tactics of both exploitative energy companies and sexual predators share many of the same qualities, tactics, and motivations. (9) While we do not mean to suggest that these companies themselves are "rapists" in the criminal sense, the exploration of these shared tactics helps us better understand the linkages between harm to the earth (through energy extraction and climate change) and harm to Native women. Indeed, understanding rape by gendering land allows us to articulate the connections between exploitation of the land and exploitations of the female body. "Rape" is more than mere metaphor in the context of tribal lives--the rape of mother earth and the rape of women and children are part of the same colonial power dynamics. Our use of the term "rape" is not intended to be a mere metaphor when we talk about the types of environmental harm that can be conceived as a type of sexual violence being perpetrated against the "mother earth. …

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