Stolen Sisters

Clothed in the power of European masculinity and authority, Amerigo Vespucci stands on the shore facing a reclining Indigenous woman. In one hand he holds a brass mariner’s astrolabe; in his other, a crucifix. When Vespucci calls her name, America rises from her bed, hand outstretched, legs slightly parted. Wearing only a headdress and feathered skirt, she eagerly invites Europe’s civilizing presence. Ignoring her cannibalistic tribe in the background, she welcomes conquest. If she resists, the sword and cross Vespucci carries endow him with the military, religious, and political ability to take by force what she withholds.

“The Discovery of America” by Theodor Galle after Jan van der Straet, 1580 image in public domain

That Jan van der Straet drew America as a woman was no accident. That Theodor Galle likewise engraved the same image speaks to the seemingly naturalness of the representation. Sherry Ortner asserts, “…various aspects of woman’s situation (physical, social, psychological) contribute to her being seen as closer to nature, while the view of her as closer to nature is in turn embodied in institutional forms that reproduce her situation” (Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?).  In the image, Indigenous woman, and by extension the land, willingly receives Vespucci’s male/cultural advances. As the colonizer sows his seeds in a new land, so he claims the women he finds there. European colonizers created a new mythos of Indigeneity intrinsically linked to virginal land ripe for conquest by “civilized” men. They did not step into nativism: they exploited and dominated it.

In Galle’s engraving we see the initial positioning of Indigenous femininity by the colonizing white gaze. This positioning has led to increased rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls. More than half (56.1 percent) of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) women will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. More than 1 in 7 AI/AN women have experienced sexual violence in the past year. At least, we think so. Sussing out the data challenges even the most stalwart statistician. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) has only four racial categories, relegating AI/AN, Native Hawaiians, Asian, Pacific Islanders, and mixed race people to the nebulous zone of “Other,” making self-reported rates of violence only nominally valuable when analyzing risk factors for AI/AN. The Department of Justice also collects data, but their responsiveness is dismal. In 2016, 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing. The DOJ logged only 116 of them in its federal missing persons database. The system, it seems, has failed us. 

REDress Project by Jaime Black

But Indigenous communities are not going gently into that goodnight, nor are they passively waiting for justice. They are actively, vociferously fighting to move the needle toward equity. You only have to google #MMIW, #MMIWG, #MMIWG2S, or #MMIWQT to see some of the thousands of ways they’re raising consciousness and advocating for change. Jaime Black’s (Anishinaabe) REDress Project is a visceral response to the emptiness of our lives without the women and girls who have been murdered. The MMIWQT Bead Project: Every One, one of a series of engagement pieces by artist Cannula Hanska (enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold), uses over 4,000 handmade clay beads created by various communities across US and Canada, to emphasize the real-world cost of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and queer/trans community members.

MMIWQT Bead Project (Every One) by Cannula Hanska photo credit: Red Shawl Solidarity Society.

And Fringe by Rebecca Belmore. This piece haunts me. It voices the effects of historic and ongoing genocide, but does so by asserting the modernity and resiliency of Indigenous women. Located at a busy intersection in Quebec in the wake of the Pickton murders, where 49 women were killed, half of whom were Indigenous, the billboard-size photo forces us to confront both the atrocities faced by and the strength of Indigenous communities. The woman in the photo turns her back to us, negates the value of our gaze. With red beads stitching up a wound, Belmore promises that this woman, though hurt, will survive. With her community as a source of healing, she will thrive. She is naked and vulnerable, yes, but also powerful and whole. The needlework, the beadwork, the need for a community of sisters to stitch her up, all speak to a feminine, communal effort.

Fringe by Rebecca Belmore photo credit: Henri Robideau, Guy L’Heureux

“It was the site where they uncovered and openly revealed the depths of their intimate wounds. This confessional aspect served as a healing ritual,” wrote bell hooks in Feminism is for Everybody. We all carry wounds. For some, those wounds have been inflicted through ongoing oppression and the violence of colonization. We have to openly reveal our wounds, to acknowledge the ways we wound each other, before we can begin to stitch each other back up. I believe that, together, if we’re vulnerable and honest, we can bind wounds and heal. We can change the future, so that all women, girls, queer and transgender individuals are safe from violence, but first we have to acknowledge the harm that has been done. It takes effort, and it takes all of us speaking out against all forms of oppression, but I have faith that we can do it.


Featured Image from David Bernie, (Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate) available here.


  1. Thank you for this post, Bryn. It is an honor to witness how these women make art and change. This is so powerful and a beautiful way to honor Native American Heritage Month.

  2. Wow, thanks so much for this. The startling lack of respect and compassion and complete ignorance of culture and society already long established in the “Americans” is shocking.
    The arrogance of naming and claiming this already named and highly settled lands goes beyond the pale. The already owners of the lands still need protection and respect from the irresponsible oppression that is ongoing. Returning as much land ASAP to the indigenous to manage and teach the colonization force about is vitally necessary is we humans are to survive our own selfish and disrespectful and destructive nature.

    • I agree. #LandBack is one vital step to reducing violence against Indigenous women. Addressing the white heteropatriarchy that Indigenous communities have been forced to mirror is likewise fundamental to the process. If you haven’t read Sarah Deer, I recommend her writings on Indigenous Feminist Legal Theory. She’s not only brilliant but also incredibly consistent in addressing both our starting point and our goals for the future in terms of the legal aspects of #LandBack.

  3. Terrific post. Wow. Really powerful. I appreciate that you brought up this issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The issue came to my attention a couple years ago when I started listening to the Missing and Murdered podcast, whose host — a Native American woman — tells the stories of indigenous women who have gone missing. I’m glad to learn about these artists who are raising awareness of this terrible reality.

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