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Beyond “Survival”: A Native Reflection on Reclaiming Justice

The forces that destroy Black and Brown lives, and ravage the lives and bodies of women of color are unapologetic, and so are we.

"Why would we, as survivors of colonial violence, seek to refashion American 'justice' into something that might suit our own needs?" writes Truthout's Kelly Hayes. (Image: Jackie Fawn)

Yesterday, social media users around the world marked International Women’s Day by flooding their networks with posts about women who have affected the course of history. Even though, on such days, there is an unfortunate tendency to lift up accomplished American and European white women, at the expense of militant freedom fighters, trans women and Black and Brown women – the people I am fortunate enough to share space with online presented me with some quality reading material that left me more knowledgeable by the day’s end, and I am grateful for that.

But throughout the day, I couldn’t seem to turn my mind to celebration, to the extent that I would have liked to.

I can’t stop thinking about the names that we won’t find in our social media timelines and newsfeeds. I am thinking about murdered trans women of color, Black women criminalized for defending their bodies from harm, and of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

But more than anything, I am thinking of a 4-year-old Native girl, whose name I don’t know. Kidnapped, raped and nearly strangled, all I know of her is that, in another life, she could have been my daughter, my sister or me. I know she suffered horribly at the hands of a man – a man who has now allegedly been apprehended, and who has been thrust into a system that has nothing to do with Native justice, Native healing or what’s best for this battered child.

Like all of our children, she will live her life as a survivor of the traumas we have survived as a people, and like too many of our women, she will live her life as a survivor of sexual violence. But today, she is four years old, and already facing the world as a survivor of her own journey through hell – a journey that will likely color the rest of her childhood, if not the rest of her life.

I do not say this to diminish the truth of this young girl’s resilience. Her blood carries the strength of a people who survived the massacre of a hundred million. Her very existence is a triumph against colonialism, and I believe in the power of a young Native heart to conquer all things. I myself have done a great deal of surviving, but I have also done many of the things survivors do when forced to walk wounded through this world. I have, at various times in my life, buried my heart and mind in drugs and alcohol, lost myself in abusive relationships, and walked a lonely path through my anger in despair.

If I myself had disappeared, during those dark days, those who knew me may have been scarred by my loss, but they would not have been shocked or even surprised. Because for years it seemed unlikely that my life’s journey would lead me to old age, health or happiness. Prison, death and a cycle of abuse from without and within were foreshadowed in chapter after chapter of my life, until a brighter day finally dawned.

On that day, I summoned the strength of my ancestors, and began a process of personal healing. No longer content with mere, survival, I started on a path toward something fuller, that had the potential to lift my voice and heal my soul.

And don’t we all deserve more than survival?

I, of course, was one of the lucky ones. Few of our women fall as far as I did and get back up. And when I see the harms that many Brown women and girls wear on their sleeves, I am frightened for them. I want them to find the kind of healing and hope that pulled me back from the abyss. I want them to find it much sooner, and without further tragedy in their lives. I want them to know their strength and their greatness, and to remember that one need not be spiritual to know that we carry both the impact of our ancestors trauma, and the power of their survival in our blood.

We are made of the stuff that survived the decimation of nations.

We are the flame that could not be snuffed out.

We are survival itself.

So when I think of this child, who I will likely never meet, I wonder, what can we do for her? What can we build in her name – a name we’ll likely never know – and in the names of all the women and children whose stories will remain untold?

Well, if you care to venture down this road of aspiration with me, I’d ask that you consider the following.

Self-Defense Is Liberation

Both Black and Brown women are chronically criminalized for acting in defense of their own bodies. Countering this practice requires social transformative, but transformation takes time, and we have a right to survive, unviolated and free from harm, here and now.

We have a natural right to defend our bodies and the lives and well being of our children, by any means necessary.

I won’t delve into matters of self-defense too deeply here, as I have elaborated on such matters elsewhere, and I believe it is a topic worthy of separate discussion, but it is a subject that must be mentioned in any dialogue about what it means for us to survive, because if our women, girls and non-binary community members are going to survive a world that supports and facilitates their destruction, they must be allowed to be warriors in that world.

We must be allowed and even encouraged to take up whatever means of defense best protects us.

In Chicago, I helped found a collective called Lifted Voices. We are a group of Brown and Black women and non-binary people who organize in defense of women and non-binary people of color. Our vision of self-defense is cultural, political and personal, and we hold weekly self-defense classes to better equip our members, and our allies, to defend themselves in a world of racist, patriarchal violence.

The forces that destroy Black and Brown lives, and ravage the lives and bodies of women of color are unapologetic, and so are we. As organizers, we function within an abolitionist, transformative framework, that does not embrace the trappings of this system of justice, but our collective repudiation of punitive justice does not mean that we act gently in matters of survival and bodily autonomy. Our safety and dignity are paramount, and we believe that owning our ability to defend our own bodies is crucial to our fight for freedom.

It is important that we lift up the efforts of women and non-binary people who pursue militant and physical means of self protection. Our bodies have been under attack, under colonialism, since Columbus began sexually enslaving the women and children of the Taíno people. We must be supported in our efforts to beat back sexual violence – violence that we most frequently suffer at the hands of non-Native people.

But in any discussion of self-defense, it must be understood that whereas violence is destructive, defense is creative. Because while the act of meeting a raised fist with one’s own fist may at times repel the forces that seek to harm us, not everyone has the ability to meet physical violence with reactive force. Many are too old, too young, or simply lack the physical ability to strike back in their own defense. And for those of us whose able-bodied privilege may at times allow us to evade harm, such moments must be understood as battles within a larger war.

A series of moments in which we evade harm will not dismantle the mechanisms that inform those harms. We must therefore defend our lives more broadly, and with a creative eye toward transformation.

Native Justice Must Be Transformative

While there has been much discussion of reclaiming criminal jurisdiction over those who harm Native women, there has been far less discussion of reclaiming tribal mechanisms of justice.

At least 1 in 3 of our women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, and in 86 percent of those cases, the perpetrator will be of non-Native descent. Given that most women and children, across racial and ethnic lines, are victimized by members of their own communities, this statistic powerfully communicates the ongoing legacy of colonialism. While Native communities certainly generate their own manifestations of misogyny and patriarchal violence, our women and girls remain a group that is largely acted upon by outside forces, enabled by the social and political disposability of our people.

Disturbing statistics, however, have at times limited our focus to issues that fail to strike at the heart of what’s killing us.

Given that any violation of a major crimes act on a reservation falls within the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, many have turned their thoughts to matters of legal sovereignty. Federal authorities have shown a predictable disinterest in pursuing cases against those who rape Native women, and efforts to enable tribal courts to prosecute non-Native domestic abusers continue even today, despite legislative victories. But the theft of Native justice is not grounded in our lack of access to colonial constructs of crime and punishment.

In 1824, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a long and tragic process of eroding what was left of our Native systems of justice. In spite of the violence of colonialism, many of our people had managed to hold onto restorative processes that aimed to address harm in a constructive manner. While various penalties for harm certainly existed, many Natives sought to address harm through a lens of healing and restoration, rather than using the extremity of one’s punishment as a metric of justice. Those who did embrace such ideas were ultimately robbed of their expression by the same government that’s sought to erase and destroy all things Native, throughout the course of its history.

So what does it mean to reclaim justice? Does it mean reclaiming jurisdiction? Certainly. We cannot decide for ourselves what justice looks like while living under the absolute power of colonial authority. But when we bring justice home, what does that justice look like? Is it the localization of white justice? Or should we perhaps learn from the failures of the larger American system – one that is grounded in punishment, violence and the re-institution of slavery? Why would we, as survivors of colonial violence, seek to refashion American “justice” into something that might suit our own needs?

The trappings of a system that is grounded in our annihilation can only further that system’s original intent. The very idea of America is built upon a false narrative of noble discovery and proud settlement. This narrative requires the erasure of Native peoples ground under colonialism, and the assimilation of all those who would benefit from colonial constructs. Our survival cannot be dependent upon the social and legal mechanisms that have and continue to crush and kill us.

Efforts like the Hollow Water First Nations Community Holistic Healing Circle, which aimed to bring restorative solutions to communities ravaged by alcoholism and sexual abuse, provide a glimpse at what community based solutions for Native people may look like, but unlike colonial law, such solutions do not come in hard-and-fast, one-size-fits all packages. Developed most extensively in the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, recent incarnations of Native restorative circle practices have in fact sprung up in Native communities throughout North America, without a singular rule book to govern their implementation. This autonomy is crucial to any re-evolution of Indigenous justice, because the needs of our people are as varied as the lands we live on, and we must be allowed to pave our own paths forward.

These efforts must be supported both on and off of what is legally recognized as Native land. Because while reservations are undeniably microcosms of the larger spectrum of colonial violence, Native women and children who do not live on reservations are not exempt from the statistics that quantify our struggles. Thus, we must build culture, on and off of what is recognized as Native land, because every inch of this continent is in fact Indigenous land, and although our numbers have been greatly reduced by genocide, we continue to walk these lands, from shore to shore. We must have the power to build with Natives, and non-Natives, to create systems that transform communities, making the harms that shatter so many lives increasingly unthinkable, rather than simply addressed through punishment.

It is well established that merely punishing a crime does not address the root issues that facilitated the harms involved in that crime. And truly, how could the act of punishment accomplish such a thing? How could perpetuating a cycle of colonial violence – one that includes every layer of Native suffering – create spaces where such harms fail to exist in recur?

We will not save ourselves by owning the tools of our oppressors. Our cultures – those that endure, those that have been reborn and those that are being fashioned and refashioned in real time – are more beautiful than anything that has sprung from the dominant culture of the United states. Assimilation and death are not forces of creation, and therefore cannot yield anything life-giving in this world.

Colonial violence and mechanisms of “justice” mark far too many pages of our histories. A future in which that young Native girl, whose name I will never know, can heal, and where others like her are less likely to experience the trauma of rape, and other forms of brutality, must be built by those who believe in transformation. It must be built from love, with the hopes and values of our communities woven into the fabric of its justice. It must be built not in the image of this system, but in opposition to it. Because whether we are confronting the violence of rape, toxic water or police violence, everything that is destroying the lives of our women and girls flows from the heart of this system. And everything that will free us must flow from us.

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