There is No “We”: V-Day, Indigenous Women and the Myth of Shared Gender Oppression

The problem with the framing of sexualized violence as an issue that hurts all women equally is that it erases the experiences of Indigenous women.

by Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear on February 3rd, 2014

On February 14, 2013, Eve Ensler and her organization V-Day hosted an event called One Billion Rising. It was slated as a global movement to end violence against women, with countries around the world participating in dance events to bring attention to what Ensler describes as shared gender oppression among women. The idea is that all women of all backgrounds around the world are subjected to sexualized violence, so we can all come together with common needs.

Last year on the 14th, Ensler decided that One Billion Rising, Canada was going to spotlight Indigenous women. What she failed to recognize and acknowledge in her spotlighting efforts was that February 14th is already an important day on the calendar for Indigenous women across the country, and has been so for decades. This year will mark the 23rd annual Women’s Memorial March, which originated in Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and has since spread across the country. These events are specific and important because they were created in the context of structural and societal indifference towards Indigenous women, and in response to the widespread problem of their disappearances and murders.

An Indigenous woman is pictured, facing away from the viewer and towards a sweeping landscape of water and green hills. Her arms are opened wide, palms upturned. The text reads: I have my own traditions and dances, I don't need to be given one. I dance for our people and not for causes defined by others. On February 14th, I stand with the memorial marches, and honor the missing and murdered Indigenous women. February 14, 2014 The Global Day to Honor Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Hashtag MMIW.

The actions made by V-Day on February 14, 2013 bulldozed and railroaded existing grassroots organizing by Indigenous women, and then attempted to silence Indigenous women for dissenting. This was not the first time that V-Day and Ensler were condemned by Indigenous women, and these actions are unfortunately emblematic of mainstream feminism and its anti-violence movement.

Today, One Billion Rising is bigger and louder than ever, with thousands of events planned around the world. A short film about them premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Pop singer Pink recently led a dance in their support. In San Francisco, One Billion Rising events will feature famous performers, including a rapper from the Black Eyed Peas. Natalie Merchant is singing in NYC. V-Day has also partnered with SAFER Campus, called Campus Rising, to produce initiatives to influence campus assault policy and procedures. The organization also has massive support from law enforcement, prosecutors, and city officials in cities across the country, and even launched the U.S. Prisons Project.

Mainstream Feminism and Harmful Approaches to Gender Justice

Eve Ensler’s V-Day has become synonymous with violence against women. The Vagina Monologues dominate college campuses, and celebrities rush to be spokespeople for the organization. She has developed substantial influence in the media, the ability to reign in money, and most importantly and dangerously: the ability to sway national policy. The V-Day idea of gender justice has had a major impact on mainstream feminism, and has been able to cultivate a narrative of addressing sexual and domestic violence by means that are actually harmful to women of color.

Throughout the past couple of months, we have been having Twitter chats such as #FreeMarissa which centered on Marissa Alexander’s incarceration and how many women of color are being incarcerated through anti-violence policy, and #CrimVAW which focused on the criminalization of girls and women of color and all of the ways the state creates policies to punish them. #IDidNotReport covered reasons why victims of sexual violence do not report to authorities – including knowing the shame, blame, and possibly punishment that often comes from doing so. Many of the sentiments and points embedded in #FreeMarissa and #CrimVAW discussed federal and state interpersonal violence policies. They highlighted how mainstream feminist anti-violence policies backfire on women of color and other marginalized groups. We also shared these problems in the #CleryChat and #CampusSAVEAct discussion to express how carceral solutions directly hurt people of color on campus.

As we have laid out in many of our Twitter chats, the general message of “empower to report and demand justice from law enforcement” is what gets women (of color) incarcerated. Meanwhile, Ensler and One Billion Rising and have decided to launch the U.S. Prisons Project, with the idea to make prisons more habitable and less violent for our country’s overflowing population of incarcerated women. This idea is inconsistent with other approaches One Billion Rising has promoted; as Mariame Kaba of Project Nia states, “She has announced herself ready to discuss and address the negative consequences of increased criminalization. Yet just a few months ago, One Billion Rising, Ensler’s global ‘anti-violence’ campaign, was primarily encouraging survivors of interpersonal violence to report their rapes and assaults to law enforcement.” Instead of dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex, the U.S. Prisons Project is ultimately reinforcing the structure that targets women of color, who are victims of interpersonal violence, with mass incarceration as the goal.

The “Benevolence” of White Women

White feminism does not provide a frame of reference to address issues that affect Indigenous people, or other women of color, that is not based in white supremacy. The standards of justice, equality, and even definitions of gender violence are white. One of the most glaring examples of this disconnect was the tribal provisions in the 2013 re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. For a decade, Indigenous women had worked on a restoration of sovereignty to present to the federal government as a specific redress to violence. While organizing to get VAWA reauthorized with full tribal provisions, I ran into significant pushback from white feminist groups who were ready to cut that portion of the bill off and let it sink, because tribal authority had become a point of contention with our elected officials.

A poster for the Save Wiyabi Project shows a person, their face not pictured, wearing a tank top with the word Fight written across their collarbone area, and holding a candle, the soft light illuminating the word. Beneath, the poster fades to black with white text: The House version of the Violence Against Women Act was specifically created to eliminate rights for Native Americans. The state of Alaska has already been excluded from the new tribal provisions and if a select group of Republicans get their way, the rest of Indian Country will look the same.

When the answer to solving interpersonal violence doesn’t include a harsher crackdown by law enforcement, mainstream feminism has trouble coping. It also tends to have negative attitudes about giving power back to tribal governments, because their idea is that Indigenous women need to be rescued by the benevolence of white women from scary, savage brown men on reservations.

Three men wearing jeans and t-shirts stand outside, surrounded by trees and a very blue sky. There are some houses barely visible in the background. They are holding a sign up on posterboard that says Honor Our Women in cursive. One is lifting his arms and pointing down to the photo as the other two hold the posterboard on either side of him.

This year, a new piece of legislation is on the table called the International Violence Against Women Act. The idea behind this legislation is that the United States and white feminism need to rescue women and girls around the world from their abusers by instilling western values and approaches to solving violence into other countries. One Billion Rising has listed the I-VAWA as a top priority to assist our federal government in passing. V-Day, in partnership with other white feminist organizations, is attempting to help replicate the same Prison Industrial Complex that efficiently locks up women of color in the United States to countries around the world. “(I-VAWA) would permanently integrate gender-based violence prevention and response into all U.S. government programming overseas operates,” says Amnesty International. This means U.S. military members and contractors, whoare violence against women globally, would be enforcing this.

Tellingly, when Ensler and I spoke to discuss the serious problems with her platform and organization, she explicitly told me that none of the people who are part of One Billion Rising are mandated to complete any type of training. White feminism has sent the message that it’s acceptable to use survivorhood to perpetuate ideas about what interpersonal violence is, and this has influence over national policy. The result is people using survivorhood as an anecdote to address a problem they have no concept of.

Ensler herself is a playwright and an actor. She’s not someone who works on, or understands violence outside of being a survivor. Sexual assault and domestic violence are pervasive problems, yet it is her brand of anti-violence which ends up guiding the conversation and having the power and platform to decide “solutions”… solutions which end up being destructive and harmful.

There Is No We

Ultimately, there is no “just turn to the system to have some order in addressing sexualized violence” because the system does not operate to help us.

There is no “we.”

There is no “all rape victims.”

Women of color continue to discuss the ways in which state violence is significant and is used to break up our communities to further harm us. That structure is violence; it is historically predicated on rounding up and locking away Indigenous and Black people. The existing system is not a place we are able to turn to for help. When mainstream white feminism is continually calling for more laws, punishments, for strengthened ties with law enforcement, and expanded police jurisdiction, they are enabling the violence against us. There is no “we,” because this approach is at the expense of us. Women of color become collateral damage in the continued quest to uphold and protect white womanhood.

The problem with the framing of sexualized violence as an issue that hurts all women equally is that it erases many of the historical and current experiences for Indigenous women. Rape in particular is a force of colonization. It is a tool used to acquire land and keep the United States empire going. While Indigenous communities are doing work to address internalized symptoms of colonization such as interpersonal violence, this interpersonal violence is not something traditional to many Indigenous Nations.

Five Indigenous women standing next to each other smiling. They are from tribes across Montana and wearing powwow regalia called jingle dresses. All have two braids, and beadwork in the form of hair ties, leggings, moccasins, neckties, belts, and earrings.

Photo from a jingle dress healing dance which was performed last February 14 at the state capitol in Montana. The jingle dance was done to heal survivors of sexual assault, and to dance for VAWA, and be in solidarity with the 2/14 marches in Canada.

As Andrea Smith says, “If we were to develop a feminist history centering Native women, feminist history in this country would start in 1492 with resistance to patriarchal colonization.” Part of patriarchal colonization includes white women. White settler feminism likes to say we’re “all” fighting the patriarchy and ending violence against women without acknowledging or claiming the part they played in instilling patriarchy into Indigenous communities.

The Diocese of Helena, Montana is in the middle of filing for bankruptcy due to the large-scale lawsuit launched against them in 2012 for sexually abusing Indigenous children in boarding schools and missions during the 1930s-1970s. Ursulines in a different Catholic order are being sued for being complicit in the rape and murder of Indigenous children. Settler colonialism and white women being colonizers contradicts the idea that we’re all women experiencing the same violence in the same way. We’re not, and we don’t.

Opposing V-Day and Supporting Community-Based Approaches to Anti-Violence

We have fundamental and ideological differences about interpersonal violence, justice, organizing, and solutions. Save Wiyabi is an advocacy group that addresses interpersonal violence within Indigenous communities and assists in community-based solutions. The Save Wiyabi Map is a map and database documenting missing, and solved and unsolved murders of Indigenous women in Canada and the United States, making this information accessible and visible online. (Of course, white feminism continues to bash Anonymous for the justice ops centered around rape victims, while never mentioning Operation Thunderbird, an initiative launched by Indigenous women with the assistance of the Anonymous network, and responsible for putting together this vital digital tool.)

Screenshot of the Save Wiyabi map. The map is interactive, and this overview screenshot shows Canada and the United States. About twenty red dots of varying sizes mark the sites of unsolved or solved murders, unsolved undetermined deaths, unsolved missing or unidentified remains of Indigenous women. The numbers on the dots marking the cases in an area number up to 300.

The Save Wiyabi Map and database documenting missing, and solved and unsolved murders of Indigenous women in Canada and the United States

On an ongoing basis, many of the individuals and organizations that Save Wiyabi collaborates with work on restoring bonds with our men, two-spirit people, and reclaiming our sense of being Indigenous, and reclaiming our sense of being a people.

A poster for the Save Wiyabi Project. It reads Self-Determination at the top of the image. Two Indigenous women stand back-to-back, facing the camera. One has her arms crossed, and the other is raising her arm with her fist clenched, her other hand grasping her bicep. Both of their biceps have the word Strong painted on them in red ink.

In contrast, the harsher crackdown on interpersonal violence facilitated by mainstream feminism is designed to break up Indigenous communities, because that is the inherent goal of the state. The idea of women unifying and sharing gender experiences only works under the assumption that women of color are going to submit and be nice to their oppressor – and it is an assumption mainstream feminism has no issue with. But this is not going to happen, because we are going to continue to dismantle systematic forces of oppression and ongoing colonization. This includes supporting our own efforts to organize against violence, and for many of us that includes opposing V-Day.

V-Day is a corporation and a pillar of the White Savior Industrial Complex, with interests that involve exploiting and colonizing Indigenous people through their global domination. Indigenous women become mascots to the “cause” where our dance, pain, and stories are put in books, TED Talks, and turned into campaigns that aren’t about us, to inspire white women and make them feel better about themselves. The continued usurping of Indigenous women’s lives and work to spread a worldwide message of justice and equality defined by white western feminism and backed by the United States system of incarceration is colonialism. Enacting the legal structure of the U.S. is not ending violence against women globally, it’s inciting it.

Opposing V-Day on February 14th includes active demonstrations against One Billion Rising and Vagina Monologues events. In addition to the missing and murdered Indigenous women solidarity panels, vigils, classroom curriculums, and gatherings planned in the United States, there will be picketing outside of anywhere that has the Ensler and V-Day influence. Because we are not just honoring those who have been victims of systematic violence created by colonization, we are pushing back against those who continue to reinforce it. Please join us.

More Resources on Opposing One Billion Rising