They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.” I am speaking the truth, and the truth is savage and dangerous.
--Nawal El Saadawi, 1975

Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing— instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
--Ursula K. Le Guin, 1989

Civil rights have been an ongoing issue in the United States since the birth of the nation. These issues occur among many different groups of people, predominantly underrepresented populations and women. Before European colonization of the United States, Indigenous women had many rights amongst their communities as domestic artisans, farmers who operated their own land, hunters, fishers, leaders of tribes, and shamans. Some tribes lived in a community where females were head of households, traced their descent through women, lived amongst their female parents and elders, and held beliefs in which female entities were thought to be their creator.

These freedoms began to shift as more European-American settlers colonized tribal lands. Some early settlers admired Indigenous women’s role within their tribes, while others had negative attitudes. During the Revolutionary War, many native peoples lost their lives and were forced to join sides with the British or the new Americans. Prejudiced attitudes appeared towards the Indigenous people as the new settlers officially colonized their newly formed nation. The perceptions influenced policy decisions regarding the remaining tribes. Some colonizers began to view the Indigenous people as “wild animals” who should be exterminated, while others felt they needed to be assimilated and Christianized. The new governments’ three main issues in managing the tribes were: how to gain permanent access to tribal lands and other resources, how to assimilate them into American culture, and how to systematically manage all the tribes as a single entity.

Throughout the 1800s, a series of legislative acts by the U.S. government adversely affected Indigenous people. The first major legislation was the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This act forced many Eastern tribes to cede their lands and relocate west of the Mississippi River to newly designated reservation lands, despite prior negotiated treaties. Forty years later, Section 71 was enacted which allowed Congress to use legislation to handle tribal matters instead of relying on existing treaties, and did not require tribal consent. With this shift, a new policy passed that forever altered the lives of Indigenous people, the General Allotment Act of 1887, known as the Dawes Act. This act manifested the idea that assimilation into European-American culture was the best solution for Indigenous people. Indigenous children were required to attend boarding schools, forbade Indigenous people’s cultural ceremonies, and dismantled existing reservations. Vast original tribal domains were divided and smaller plots allocated to Indigenous peoples while the remaining land was sold to non-Indigenous people. U.S. officials hoped the result from this act was that Indigenous people would adopt American culture if they were surrounded by it and forced to live within its practices. It was during this time that an Indigenous activist movement began. 

In 1928, the Meriam Report documented reservation life, and found that the U.S. government was doing a poor job. They were not protecting and providing aid to Indigenous people and their lands as promised through treaties. This report resulted in the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 that encouraged, and provided support for, tribes to adopt the European-American model of governance, such as adopting a constitution and codes of laws. Although this could have been an attempt to force the dominant political culture on the tribes, this Act provided a basis for tribes to make better lives for themselves and strengthen their relationship with the government.

During the 1950s, tribal politics shifted again. Although the Dawes Act failed, Congress still wanted to find a way to assimilate the tribes. The new approach proposed that Indigenous people be subject to the same laws, privileges, and responsibilities as any other U.S. citizen. For this to work, the government needed to terminate the tribes and their rights as sovereign nations and increase the role of state governments in tribal policy. More than 100 tribes were terminated in this process, and Indigenous people lives were drastically altered with no support. Many Indigenous people were angered by the changing policies of assimilation and seclusion, which helped create an Indigenous rights activist movement in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, governmental attitudes shifted again when President Richard Nixon declared an end to tribal termination calling it “morally and legally unacceptable.”

In Oregon, sixty-two tribes were terminated under the Western Oregon Termination Act which went into effect on August 13, 1956. Tribes did not have a say in what termination meant nor were they consulted for final negotiations. When tribal members were confronted with the termination of their tribes, many did not have any knowledge of what it actually meant, what their options were, or what they were to do. To most Oregon tribes, termination did not mean equal opportunity and freedom as the government had intended, it was a loss of funding for health care, education, social service programs, and their tribal voices. Poverty stricken families were placed at a disadvantage by having their livelihoods taken away.

One of the  people who have fought for their tribes’ re-recognition is Kathryn Harrison. Harrison began her political work with the Siletz tribe on the central Oregon coast working with fundraising. She was elected to the tribal council and became its secretary where she spoke to tribal identity in hopes of re-recognition of the tribe through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She left Siletz after they regained recognition in 1977 and became an alcohol counselor. In 1982, Harrison moved to Grand Ronde to work as a tribal enrollment clerk. She became a community organizer to gain support for re-recognition of the tribe and became a member of the tribal council. She connected her personal with the shifting U.S. government tribal policies, and why people should support the re-recognition of the tribe. Harrison networked with, and gained support from: city councils, chambers of commerce, and various women’s organization, as well as local and state newspapers to instill knowledge of the importance of tribal identity and recognition. Harrison made multiple trips to Washington D.C. to speak before Congress on the tribes’ behalf. Finally, on November 11, 1983, the Grand Ronde Restoration Act passed, and was signed by President Ronald Reagan on November 22, 1983.

After recognition was granted, Harrison began to work on restoring historic tribal lands into current reservation land and maintaining hunting and fishing rights for members. Other tribal political work included opening a substance abuse treatment center, and allocating tribal endowment funds to health care, education, elder retirement, and housing. Harrison helped to sign a gaming compact for the tribe, and Oregon Senate Bill 61, which protects cultural resources. Harrison retired from tribal politics in 2001 and is a respected elder. She has used her status to enhance the lives of her people through storytelling and her spirituality.

Another Oregon Indigenous women activist is Sue Shaffer of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians. She fought for the recognition of her tribe. Shaffer lobbied Congress and played a role in determining tribal developments concerning restoration and economic development, tribal organization, and governance. Her work paid off when restoration of the tribe was signed by President Carter on May 26, 1980. Shaffer held the position of Tribal Chairwoman from 1983 – 2010 and worked to provide many civic and cultural services. Shaffer has received many honors and awards for her political work including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from the Democratic Party of Oregon and the Women of Achievement Award from the Oregon Commission for Women.

A powerful Indigenous women activist who is honored on the Walk of the Heroines is Gertrude Bonnin, also known as Zitkala-Ša. Bonnin predates Harrison’s and Shaffer’s activist work having been active in the early 1900s. Bonnin’s activism began after attending the Carlisle Indian School. She criticized the school in its forced Christian belief system and punishment for practicing traditional culture. Bonnin took a less political approach than her successors; her activism centered on writing, public speaking, and remaining involved in professional societies. One of Bonnin’s most notable articles was entitle Why I am a Pagan, which explained her religious beliefs. Bonnin is described as a pluralist, from embracing a lifestyle with different ideologies and religious views while her main work focused on employment, land use and ownership, and tribal traditions. Bonnin’s main goal was to speak to her beliefs that went against the exclusion of traditional Indigenous knowledge in the new American lifestyle and landscape. Bonnin participated in the Society of American Indians (SAI), which she was elected secretary to in 1916, and cofounded the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) with her husband, serving as its president. She lobbied in Washington D. C., published books about Indigenous rights, and worked for Indigenous people’s right to vote.

There were many different factors and events that have taken place since the first settlers from Europe came that influenced Indigenous people’s activism. The back and forth legislation and perceptions by the new settlers is a main factor, which ultimately culminated in major frustrations amongst the Indigenous people. The role that women played is important and often overlooked by many historical documents. There is little public information about individual women that held important roles within the Indigenous community. It is important to get their work out into the public so people can acknowledge, and hopefully begin to appreciate, their contributions to Indigenous people’s civil rights.

Author: Tyanna Smith, Monumental Women Senior Capstone, Winter 2014

Further Reading

Carter, Nancy Carol. “U.S. Federal Indian Policy: an Essay and Annotated Bibliography.” Legal Services Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2011): 210-230.

Henderson, Melessa R., and Lauren Curtright. “Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.” Voices from the Gaps, 2004.

Leone, Bruno, et. al. Native Rights, Current Controversies. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Olson, Kristine. Standing Tall: The Lifeway of Kathryn Jones Harrison. Portland, OR: Oregon Historical Society Press; Seattle, WA: In association with University of Washington Press, 2005.

Riley, Glenda. Inventing the American Woman: An Inclusive History. Volumes 1& 2, 4th ed. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2007.