Humans, our civilizations, and our structured societies have been unquestionably marked by our relationship to land. Migration patterns are dictated by plate tectonics; a collision of the plates could devastate communities. The soil of a land, whether fertile and lush or rotten and stale, affects the recycling of nutrients, water regulation, life sustenance, and the structural support essential for constructing edifices. Where water falls back down to the land, or where bodies of water form near to it, determines human settlement. The climate of a land influences not only the clothes in which we dress ourselves, but also the way in which the human body is fashioned. The levels of melanin in skin and eyes correlate directly to our geolocations on the land. Land and quality of life are concomitant.
The land as a whole, this orb atop which we live and die, is attributed to benefitting the invisible, spiritual self, as well. The human desire to find purpose and meaning in our short time here is searched for in the land. The Earth has been personified and deified by countless cultures. The land, for many, epitomizes much more than a means to a product, such as food, shelter, tools, metals, or precious gems. Identity, and all in which it encompasses, is tied to a person’s relationship to land.
So, to own it, this communal Earth from which all life is nourished is one of the ultimate acts of power. Land-centered systems of governance, in conjunction with militaries, have existed for millennia, however. By controlling the land, a person has control over the tangible benefits and abstract connections that stem from it. Though these systems of land tenure and land centered governance were not totally universal, they were far from uncommon. All humans have a relationship and connection to the land that evolves (or devolves) over time.
The proposal and implementation of land ownership are symptomatic of the insatiableness of a particular primogenital and transcendent brand of power — male supremacy. From the seized lands come rich and advantageous resources, like raw materials, exotic foods and animals, and people. Globally, historically and presently, land has been one of the gauges by which men, either seeking power or attempting to maintain it, measure their dominance and the subservience of other people, but especially that of women.
Women have been disproportionately affected by the repercussions of male domination of land. Economically, socially, and politically they are stunted by the constructed monetary worth ascribed to land by men. The consequences are even greater when considering the hefty role that race, class, sexuality, ability, gender expression, and gender identity play.
In the old, global, land-centered systems of governance, it goes without saying that they were not inclusive of women. Women were not permitted to serve in armies and militaries; strict gender roles forbade such a transgression. This prevented women from ever possibly reaping the benefits — land and money — of military service of which men could take advantage.
Women were not given lordships to manage and doll out land of their own. Furthermore, a woman’s economic value laid only in her ability to work as a serf and/or her ability to birth sons. So, the woman’s economic condition and, essentially, quality of life, was forcibly tied to men…men she would die never knowing. Currently, this unfortunate circumstance has not changed for many women. As our world becomes ever more globally connected, as do the systems of oppression that enable male dominance. Internationally, the control of land — monetizing it, dictating border boundaries, colonizing it — is another tool employed by men to dominate and tyrannize women and their bodies. The United States, however, is particularly insidious due to its size and its influential role in global politics and economics.
When the lands that would come to be referred to as the Americas were colonized by the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English, they brought with them an ideology of heteropatriarchy. This idea that men were the movers and shakers of the world was only exacerbated by the staunch religiousness which permeated throughout their societies; their holy bible, and its misogyny, they regarded as divine truth, and their god, to no surprise, was male.
Fueled by their desire to expand their control of lands, and supported by their religious values and beliefs, they proceeded to throttle Indigenous peoples’ ways of life and subjugate them. After decimating 90 percent of the population, European men began to model this annexed land after theirs, implementing the groundwork for what Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill refer to as settler colonialism. They define it as “a persistent social and political formation in which newcomers/colonizers/settlers come to a place, claim it as their own, and do whatever it takes to disappear the Indigenous people that are there.”
The colonizers of Europe employed horrendous methods in order to murder and subdue Indigenous peoples, including biological warfare. Once they were no longer outnumbered by the people of the land, they proceeded to dominate the Indigenous peoples politically.
As their land came to be known as North and South America, new laws and practices, systems of racism, sexism, and oppression emerged. Emulating their own laws, and reinforcing heteropatriarchal gender roles, Indigenous peoples were further deprived of their connection to the land and to their culture and way of life. Indigenous women suffered incredibly. Like their male peers, they were stripped of their relationship to their land and coerced into assimilation. However, the newly enforced gender roles categorized them as second-class citizens within a second-class citizen group.
Before colonization, Indigenous women enjoyed life in their egalitarian societies, having an active role in the social, political, and economic decisions that affected their everyday lives. Now, in a colonized land, these rights no longer existed. On rare occasions in which Indigenous men could reap some small benefits from the governing body, such as a sliver of their land and “legal” ownership of said land, the same was not true or applicable to Indigenous women, unfortunately. Homestead Acts in the United States permitted the government, which was already established and operating upon seized and stolen land, to distribute an additional 270 million acres, chipping away further at the last bits of land Indigenous peoples had. The Dawes Act of 1887 further pushed back Indigenous women’s political, social, and economic autonomy, as Indigenous men were given ownership of lands. In order to survive, Indigenous women had to rely on men as European gender roles forced their hand. Additionally, these gender roles have contributed greatly to the sexual violence inflicted upon Indigenous women.
Settler colonialism — effectively, the control of land — has detrimental effects on Native peoples, but more so, in a pervasive manner, Indigenous women. Settler colonialism is not a time period, it is a structure. Structures necessitate maintenance, the way in which settle colonialism has maintained itself is multifaceted: through the theft of land from peoples, then by the killing of those people, and through the exploitation of slave labor. Additionally, the subtleness of settler colonialism has allowed for its continuance and omnipresence.
Indigenous women, as the prime targets of land control, have led the way in resisting this heteropatriarchal system, addressing the unique intersections that contribute to their experiences. We need to look to them to lead us in their liberation. When they are free, we all will be.