LOCAL Review :: Gender and Sexuality : Peace & War : Women

Book Review: "Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide"

In the foreward to Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, Winona LaDuke aptly suggests that, in order to build an effective movement for peace, we must first challenge the violence of historical and contemporary colonialism. As a Native American Studies scholar at the University of Michigan, grassroots activist, and co-founder of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Smith’s community work and recently published book embodies this mission. Conquest is not only an informative account of the role of sexual violence in Native American history, but also helps us to understand how to confront this form of violence in the twenty-first century
Book Review: "Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide" by Andrea Smith
The eight chapters of Conquest cover a wide range of topics related to violence and Native American life, which primarily span from the nineteenth century to the present. The text opens with a discussion of the feminist dialogue on rape and patriarchal oppression. Like many contemporary scholars, Smith emphasizes the need to consider sexual violence as a “tool? of racial genocide and colonialism. She proceeds to examine the history of American Indian boarding schools in the United States and Canada, environmental racism, reproductive policies for Native American women, medical experimentation within Native communities, and the relationship between the state, empire and sexual violence. As she grapples with each of these topics, she looks at the material, psychological and symbolic legacies of violence.

At the core of her work, Smith convincingly asserts that domestic and sexual violence threatens the future of Native American culture.

One of the greatest strengths of Conquest is that it situates Native American issues within a global dialogue on racial oppression. In chapter one, for instance, she discusses the need for a Native American presence in the global reparations movement, but also calls attention to the unique perspective of indigenous peoples. She explains that Native American organizations have objected to demands that the United States disburse land as compensation for its history of racial oppression. They have argued that the land cannot be fairly redistributed, as it was unjustly seized from indigenous groups and therefore does not “belong? to the government. Reparations will only be effective, Smith cautions, if we address the psychological, as well as the economic, repercussions of colonialism and sexual violence. As she explains, “No amount or type of reparations will ‘decolonize’ us if we do not address oppressive behaviors that we have internalized […] Activists should ask what would reparations really look like for women of color who suffer the continuing effects of slavery and colonialism through interpersonal gender violence? (51).

Smith’s discussion of the population movement and Native women’s reproductive rights is also compelling. She argues that racism plays a major role in the widespread anxieties about a rise in the global population. Although population control organizations may claim to want to reduce the size of all ethnic and racial groups, in the end, they often work to reduce populations of color. This reality leads to Smith’s discussion of reproductive rights, which she views as a thinly veiled attempt to destroy and control Native American communities. Taking this argument to a metaphorical level, she claims that the attack on women’s reproduction transforms “Native people into pollution or dirt from which the body politic, to ensure its growth, must constantly purify itself? (106). She then explores the history of sterilization from the 1970s to the present, revealing how women of color have been targeted for the marketing of hormonal contraceptives.

Later in the text, Smith makes several key claims about the relationship between the environment, racism, and Native American spirituality. Because their spirituality is land-based, separating Native peoples from the land leads to cultural genocide. Native Americans ultimately have resources that the dominant culture desires—an economic factor that, according to Smith, continues to lead to genocide. Relating this claim to a larger argument about sexual violence, she contends that colonial enterprises have (metaphorically) “raped? Native American occupied land.

The final chapters of Conquest illustrate yet another positive aspect of Smith’s scholarship: its use of Native American history to guide and transform activist responses to sexual violence. She outlines multiple strategies to help organizations combat sexual and racial oppression. For example, she calls for interventions that address both state and interpersonal violence, and later discusses the need to organize outside the “industrial non-profit complex? (165). At the end of the text, she not only includes detailed endnotes, but also presents a thorough guide to activist organizations for Native Americans, environmentalists, and survivors of sexual assault.

At times, Smith’s overarching argument seems to get lost amidst the diverse range of topics covered in the text, from boarding school abuses to spiritual appropriation. It is, periodically, difficult to understand precisely how these complex topics relate to sexual violence, especially when she begins to analyze rape on a metaphorical level. This lack of clarity is due, in part, to the unnecessary segmentation of individual chapters, which are broken down every few pages under new topic headings. But perhaps more importantly, Smith could enrich her text with a more detailed narrative of the history of rape in eighteenth and nineteenth century America. Although she clearly recognizes the ties between colonial history, racial and sexual oppression, she offers a comparatively sparse discussion of early American life. Finally, I was left wondering how she views her work in relation to other scholarship on colonialism, such as Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (1995).

Nevertheless, Conquest is an accessible text that will appeal to a wide range of readers with interests in Native American history, grassroots activism, and violence studies. Indeed, Smith’s scholarship may help encourage the potentially dynamic interplay between academic and activist work. Rather than masking her subject position, Smith incorporates her identity as a Native American woman, activist and scholar into her historical analysis. From beginning to end, the honesty and directness of her authorial voice makes Conquest a compelling and informative read.

Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide
Andrea Smith
Pages: 282
ISBN: 0-89608-743-3
Format: paper
Release Date: 2005-05-24