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Learning from Conquest: Reflections on Privilege and Perspective

By Meghann McCluskey, CCASA Blogger

“The extent to which Native peoples are not seen as ‘real’ people in the larger colonial discourse indicates the success of sexual violence, among other racist and colonist  forces, in destroying the perceived humanity of Native peoples” (12). 

“As a consequence of this colonization and abuse of their bodies, Indian people learn to internalize self-hatred, because body image is integrally related to self-esteem. When one’s body is not respected, one begins to hate oneself” (12). 

“Native peoples internalize the genocidal project through self-destruction. As a rape crisis counselor, it was not a surprise to me that Indians who survived sexual abuse would often say they no longer wished to be Indian” (13).

These quotes are excerpted from Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Conquest is a harrowing book that details the ways in which sexual violence has been and continues to be used as a forceful and effective means of American Indian subjugation. Smith courageously relays the sickening truths behind the systematic domination of Native peoples and exposes present-day efforts to eradicate and extinguish this entire cultural group. Conquest is by no means a pleasant read, but I believe it’s a hugely important one for anyone working to diminish the colossal prevalence of sexual violence in this country.

It’s been a long time since a book has impacted me quite like Conquest. I experienced outrage, disbelief, and horror while delving into its pages. The information and analysis provided by Smith motivated me to act, but I felt confused and powerless as to which types of action would be helpful or even meaningful. Above all this, I felt a deep sense of sadness – sadness for a group of people who have been so routinely oppressed and dismissed, and sadness for my country whose very cornerstones are engraved with this<

Amidst this swell of emotion, I realized that my strong reaction to Smith’s book is in and of itself a stark reflection of my ignorance and therefore of my privilege. I knew, for example, that American Indians had been forced to attend boarding schools beginning at the turn of the century, but I wasn’t fully aware of the reality that “sexual, physical, and emotional abuse [have] been rampant ” in these facilities (38). I didn’t know that some Native children have died in boarding schools from abuse and neglect, or that others have been forcibly sterilized, or that many boarding schools have “refused to investigate” abuse allegations “even when teachers have been accused by their students” (38).

I was also unaware of the fact that our present-day foster care system continues to separate Native children from their families. A 2002 survey found that in South Dakota, for example, “Indian children were 1,600 percent more likely to be in foster or adoptive care” in comparison to their non-Native counterparts, and the motivation behind many of these child removals remains highly questionable (41). Finally, I had no idea that on Indian reservations in the United States, many perpetrators of sexual violence against Native women are not prosecuted for their crimes because of “complex jurisdictional issues” (31). Tribal justice systems lack the authority to prosecute major crimes like sexual assault that occur in Native communities, and yet, according to Smith, the Department of Justice seldom oversees the prosecution of these acts of violence in a responsible and expedient manner.

The scores of social ills impacting Native peoples are egregious and inexcusable, and yet they are unquestionably perpetuated by the lack of awareness among many people in positions of social privilege like me.  If I could impart one personal take away from Conquest, it would be the idea that ignorance of oppression is in some ways just as detrimental as explicit oppression. Throughout this riveting book, Smith details the extent to which tribal communities have been rendered invisible through the centuries of overt and covert genocidal practices. For me, it’s important to educate myself about these practices in order to avoid participation in them to whatever extent possible.

All quotations excerpted from:
Smith, A. (2005). Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. South End Press.

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