Following our Protest and Activism workshop last week, we’re delighted to share a fascinating guest blog from the University of Stirling’s Dr Gyorgy Toth on the topic of Native American women’s transatlantic activism.
Gyorgy “George” Toth holds degrees from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary (M.A. in English Language & Lit and American Studies) and The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA (Ph.D. in American Studies). Since December 2014 George has been serving as Lecturer in post-1945 U.S. History and Transatlantic Relations at the Division of History and Politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. His book From Wounded Knee to Checkpoint Charlieon the transatlantic alliance for American Indian sovereignty in the Late Cold War was published by SUNY Press in 2016. His research profile is at https://www.stir.ac.uk/people/257093
In April of 2019, my friend Christine Nobiss, an activist of Canadian Cree-Salteaux and Hungarian heritage, will travel to Glasgow, Scotland, then on to Poznan, Poland, to present a paper at the annual American Indian Workshopconference. Christine is the founder and co-director of the organizations Indigenous Iowaand Seeding Sovereignty. At the conference and in her meetings with European activist groups, Christine will discuss her experience in the resistance to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Sacred Stones Campin North Dakota, and her various projects to decolonize the environment and landscape of what she calls the land of the Ioway – much of what is now the U.S. Midwest.
With her travels, Christine is not inventing the wheel – in fact, her trip as a Native North American woman activist will only be the latest in an established history of indigenous American female campaigners for sovereignty who toured Europe. Some of the key members of Christine’s mother’s generation of Native women travelled to Europe as part of a transatlantic alliance for causes related to Native American sovereignty. These included campaigns for indigenous reproductive rights, environmentalism and resource sovereignty, anti-nuclear and peace causes, and even Marxist revolutionary projects.
The Native American women activists of the 1970s and ‘80s were ‘woke’, tough, and persistent. Their awareness of colonialism and discrimination most often came from their own experience – whether from living on reservations, the crucible of urban life, university workshops, or the social movement struggles of the 1960s. Native women often formed the hard core of the Red Power struggleand the American Indian Movement– they were the ones who put their backs into movement work, including the everyday tasks less glorious than the dramatic demonstrations on Alcatraz in 1969-71, the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington, D.C. in 1972, or Wounded Knee in 1973. At key junctures, female elders and activists would also provide a crucial pushneeded for these protest events to take place. Native women participated in all such events, sometimes with their whole families, even marrying, giving birth, or burying their community members right there at the protest sites.
After these dramatic and costly confrontations with the United States government, by the mid-1970s Native sovereignty activists had changed strategy. In 1974, the American Indian Movement (AIM) launched a sustained and concentrated organizational effort to pursue the decolonization of Native America by seeking admittance to the United Nations and forging alliances with Central European solidarity groups. AIM representatives travelled to Europe to form and visit solidarity groups, who in turn raised funds, publicized the cause of sovereignty, collected signatures, and sent petitions to U.S. government officials and judges. This strategy put external pressure on the United States government in order to force it to legislate American Indian sovereignty rights. The major organ of this strategy was the International Indian Treaty Council, which attained consultative NGO status at the United Nations in 1977. In September of the same year, the United Nations held their International NGO Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americasin Geneva – a breakthrough in the transatlantic alliance for Native American sovereignty.
Transatlantic Warrior Women
One of the key activists in the Indian Treaty Council was Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a lady of Southern Cheyenne and white Oklahoman heritage. Dunbar-Ortiz had fervently campaigned for some of the most important social causes in the United States and internationally, including women’s liberation and Marxist world revolution. After working with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense / Offence Committee, Dunbar-Ortiz became one of the early leaders of the International Indian Treaty Council. Committed to a Marxist revolutionary project of national liberation, she believed that the Indians of the Americas were part and parcel of the downtrodden working class in each country. Dunbar-Ortiz insisted that national liberation movements should include indigenous populations, and that revolutionary regimes should recognize Indian sovereignty rights.Importantly, this Native perception of Marxism called for a deep commitment and mutual collaboration between sovereignty activists and revolutionary movements and regimes.
As a representative of the Treaty Council, Dunbar-Ortiz crossed the Atlantic for the 1977 conference in Geneva with several other Native American women. Especially notable was Winona LaDuke, an 18-year-old girl of Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) and Jewish heritage, who fearlessly addressed the world gatheringabout the effects of uranium mining on the Navajo nation.
The Native women who went to Geneva did not stay in Geneva. After their conference, the American Indian delegation fanned out across Europe to build alliances. One team featuring Allene Goddard-Cottier of the Oglala Lakota took a trip to the USSR. In Moscow they met the Soviet Peace Council, government officials, educators, and the press. The group toured the Kremlin, and two of them visited the Moscow Ballet. A University of Moscow ethnographer presented them with eagle feathers from Siberia, and they appeared on Soviet TV, broadcast to some 180 million viewers. Next the delegation visited the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, where they were explained the Kremlin’s progressive policies for Kazakhs as a minority “of color.” Goddard concluded her trip with a visit to the Soviet Republic of Mongolia.
The daughter of AIM leader Russell Means of the Pine Ridge Oglala Reservation, 15-year-old Sherry Means accompanied her father on a trip across Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary and East Germany. In Bulgaria, where they were treated as guests of the government, the sovereignty delegation met with members of the country’s Central Committee and the World Peace Council. In East Germany, the Indian visitors learned about the history of the Sorbs, an ethnic minority, whose human rights were now protected under socialism. For Sherry, “that goes to show what a lie the Americans are living” with their anti-Communist propaganda. She concluded that “what I have learned in these countries is that they believe strongly in human rights and for our struggle. They aren’t the people to feel sorry for. They have no poverty or competition with each other, and nobody wants to get rich because they all have equal opportunities.”(It can be reasonably assumed that not all Native American activists actually believed Eastern Bloc propaganda, but rather they reported it strategically, in order to bolster their cause back in the U.S.)
The 1977 UN gathering and post-conference tours in Europe were so successful that German solidarity workers planned a new campaign the following year, with another group of Native North American activists. One important new feature of the May 1978 tour was its stronger focus on Native women’s causes than in the previous visit. In addition to Dunbar-Ortiz, the delegation featured three women activists. Phyllis Youngof the Standing Rock Sioux nation had co-founded Women of All Red Nations, an organization that campaigned for Native treaty rights and the elimination of demeaning Indian stereotypes in U.S. culture.Yvonne Wanrow, from the Colville Reservation of the Confederated Tribes of Washington, championed women’s right to self-defence and legal protection in the U.S. courts. Barbara Moorewas the Sicangu Lakota sister of the famous late Mary Moore, whose book Lakota Womanlater documented women’s experience in the American Indian Movement. A victim of the practice herself, Barbara Moore campaigned against involuntary sterilization, which she recognized as a measure of colonialist control of non-white populations in the United States.Several of them strong personalities and veteran activists, these women forcefully foregrounded Native women’s demands and contributions to the sovereignty struggle, and shared their experiences and wisdom about activism with their German audiences and counterparts. Accordingly, the tour’s program also included events such as a mass rally on women’s rights at the Audimax hall of the Technical University of Berlin on May 5, 1978.
‘Sisters’ in Transatlantic Activism
European women were often partners and allies in Native American transatlantic activism for sovereignty. After the 1975 opening of an American Indian Movement office in West Berlin, Regina Mayerserved as a solidarity volunteer, doing public outreach for Native sovereignty across West Germany.In April and May of 1978, Ulla Bäcksin of the Swedish Indian League (Svensk Indianska Förbundet) helped take Eddie Benton Banai and Shirley Blakely of the Federation of Survival Schoolson a “European Speech Tour” to West Germany and Austria.In the 1970s, university professor and popular author Liselotte Welskopf-Henrichwote a fiction pentalogy titled The Blood of Eagles, focusing on current Native American issues.In the mid-1980s, Renate Domnick of the West German NGO Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker(Society for Endangered Peoples) helped conduct a media campaign to publicize the right of the Sioux nation to the Black Hills of South Dakota.In 1984, the West German Green Party’s founder, nuclear disarmament activist and eco-feminist politicianPetra Kellydemanded that her country’s government lend support to the same land rights case in the United Nations. Kelly raised the issue of German complicity in uranium mining in the Black Hills, and eloquently explained that the Sioux nation were no less sovereign than West Germany, which had become independent from the “trusteeship” of the United States after World War Two.In the same year, Kelly published her book Fighting for Hope, a call for a world free from violence generated by colonialism, gender politics, and humans’ exploitation of the environment.
Stronger with Age, Still Fighting
Kelly’s murder by her partner in 1992 serves as a horrible reminder of the deadliness of domestic violence against women. Yet several of the above members of this great generation of transatlantic activist women remain leaders in their causes to this day. Barbara Moore served as dean of the Crow Dog’s Indian Way School on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota, where she was also an educator for Native reproductive rights.Yvonne Wanrow was a champion of traditional Indian lifeways, and a defender of female Native American prisoners. Phyllis Young was a pillar in the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipelinein 2016-2017, and has subsequently helped defend water protectors in the courts. After decades of activism in the United Nations, in Nicaragua and with transnational organizations, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortizkeeps speaking and writing about the relationship between indigenous rights, the left, and women’s liberation. Winona LaDuke’s activism for environmental sovereignty has earned her high prestige in activist communities. Also known as “Thunderbird Woman”, LaDuke has not only promoted local and Native lifeways, faming and dietas a viable alternative to factory farming and consumption. As vice presidential candidate on Ralph Nader’s Green Party ticket, she was theNative American woman who arguably helped upset the U.S. presidential election of 2000-01.
With such elders, my friend Christine can proudly make the trek to Europe in her campaign for environmental sovereignty, which now is a pillar of the movement to turn the tide of climate change. May she find sisters and brothers who will join her in our shared struggle!
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2005) 17, 20, 51, 261.
.“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.
“Indian Delegation Visits Soviet Union.” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 3; Sherry Means, “‘These Countries Believe Strongly in Human Rights.’” Treaty Council News Nov 1977, 4. Original title in quotation marks. Records of the International Indian Treaty Council, San Francisco, California.
Meg Devlin O’Sullivan, “’We Worry About Survival’: American Indian Women, Sovereingty, and the Right to Bear and Raise Children in the 1970s.” 17, 20, 32, 91. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Department of History, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007. Online: https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent?id=uuid:7a462a63-5185-4140-8f3f-ad094b75f04d&ds=DATA_FILE. Accessed November 7, 2018.
Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 112. On Barbara Moore, also see Crow Dog and Erdoes, 4, and Brave Bird with Erdoes, 193.
“0132/62-65. Performance Göttingen Delegation ’78. Photo Baugert,” and various other photographs. Photo archive of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker. Undated “Endgültiger Terminplan fur die Indianerdelegation ’78 [Final Schedule of the Indian Delegation in 1978].” April 8, 1978 letter from Society to its members regarding the schedule of Indian delegation. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, Göttingen, Germany.
Letter to Richard Erdoes from Regina Mayer White Plume, February 13, 1975. Richard Erdoes Papers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Yale University.
December 17, 1977 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society for Endangered Peoples. March 29, 1978 letter from AIM Support Group Hamburg to the Society. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker.
For more on Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, see Glenn Penny, “Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich and Indian Activist Networks in East and West Germany,” Central European History 41 (2008): 447-476.
Clippings from assorted newspapers published between February and September 1984. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).
August 31, 1984 letter from Petra K. Kelly to West German Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Translation by the author. Records of the Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (Society for Endangered Peoples).
Jael Silliman et al, eds. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2004), 119.
In the November 2000 presidential elections of the United States, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5% or 543,895 votes; yet George W. Bush won the Electoral College by 1 single electoral vote. The Green Party ticket, with presidential contender Ralph Nader and vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, won a total of popular vote of 2.74% or 2,882,955, but did not win an Electoral College vote. In the Electoral College, one elector abstained from voting. In the key state of Florida, which ultimately decided the election, Gore lost to Bush by 537 votes, or by 0.01%; the Green ticket received 97,488 votes, or 1.63% of the vote. “2000 Presidential Electoral and Popular Vote.” Federal Election Commission. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm