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Native Women and Suffrage


The historical memory of the women’s suffrage movement that culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment, 100 years ago, is almost lily white. The pictures in our mind are of the mothers of the movement, such as Anthony and Stanton, white women in white dresses marching down streets in New York and Washington, white women protesting against Woodrow Wilson’s reticent to support the amendment. We’ve changed that a little bit in recent years as people have highlighted both Ida Wells’ participation in the movement and bemoaned the white supremacy used by many famous suffragists to justify why they should get to vote if Black men do too.

Even among the liberal-left, we have lots of historical memories that are inherently white in this country (the beloved CCC is another great example of this). But the reality is that it was a lot more complicated than we remember. Native women were major fighters for suffrage too. And the fight for women’s rights among Native communities continues today. The Times had a great conversation between Cathleen Cahill, a historian of Native suffrage, and Sarah Deer, a Muscogee activist today. It’s great way to connect past and present and you really should read the whole thing:

Cathleen D. Cahill:

You have spent much of your career addressing the issue of violence against Native women, including in your book, “The Beginning and End of Rape.” Native women have been calling attention to this kind of violence for more than a century. Why are Native women especially vulnerable?

Sarah Deer:

I’m a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and I have been working to address violence against Native women for over 25 years. I started when I was 20 years old as a volunteer advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and that experience inspired me to go to law school. It was in federal Indian law classes that I began to understand the reasons for the high rate of violence. Quite simply, the criminal legal system in Indian Country is broken. What else could explain these statistics: Over 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and over 56 percent of Native women have experienced sexual violence. This is data directly from the federal government — and these are probably low estimates.

To make matters worse, in 1978 the Supreme Court ruled that tribal nations lack authority to prosecute non-Natives — again, for any crime. Many experts believe this is one of the reasons Native people experience the highest rates of interracial violence in the nation. A system that doesn’t hold people accountable sends two message — to victims, it says “don’t bother to report” — and to perpetrators, it says “keep victimizing people.”

Cahill: That’s really awful. In the 1920s Gertrude Simmons Bonnin drew similar connections between violence against Native women and the fact that federal policies had dismantled tribal governments and made Indian people “wards” without any political power. That seems like such a long time ago, but the July 9 Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma demonstrates that the past is so clearly present in Indian Country. Can you talk about the ruling’s ramifications?

Deer: Indian law scholars are calling this the greatest win for tribal governments in the last 50 years. It also hits close to home — it was a victory for my own tribal nation.

Our Nation signed a peace treaty with the United States in 1866 which established specific boundaries for our reservation — about 3 million acres. The United States promised that this reservation would “be forever set apart as a home for said Creek Nation.” Seems simple, right?

Throughout the 20th century, though, the state of Oklahoma ignored the treaty and gradually began exercising criminal and civil authority over the reservation, denying its existence.

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