Kill the Wíŋyaŋ, and Save the Woman; Settler-Colonialism in Gender

(Disclaimer; In this essay, I attempt to pretend that I’ve studied gender seriously at any length within a colonial academic setting. I haven’t. I had a Women’s Studies 101 class about a year ago. I’ve also read about half of an Endnotes article entitled The Logic of Gender. This is all to say, I do not profess to be well-versed on the deep aspects of Gender Studies, Women Studies, Trans Studies, or any other Studies. Most of my knowledge comes from conversations about gender with friends in those fields. What I do profess to be is a Lakȟóta wíŋkte who is worried about trends that I’ve seen within Queer circles and through my discussions with people who work and study within Gender Studies. This essay is me voicing my concerns and proposing a wide-reaching and non-specific answer to those concerns.)

The last time I came out to a non-native friend as wíŋkte, she asked me what that meant. I told her that wíŋkte was one of the four genders that we have among Lakȟóta people where a person born wičháša decides that they are going to partially comply with the social roles of wíŋyaŋ, but that they are truly neither wičháša nor wíŋyaŋ because Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka gave them a spirit distinct from both and they have their own social roles that, although leaning towards those of wíŋyaŋ, are different. Her eyes immediately began to glaze over.

“Basically I’m a trans woman,” I told her. That she understood.

This basic interaction introduces us to the colonial nature of gender. Gender as a system is something that has been forced upon everyone. Simone de Beauvoir is someone to which most people in any field of Gender Studies is introduced, and in her work The Second Sex she explains the rise of gender in the West (and attempts to do so, with horribly racist consequences, in other parts of the world). Problematically, both de Beauvoir and those who have come after her assume that this system of gender functions in the same way in the Americas as it does in France. De Beauvoir, and so many settler feminists who use her work, either erase (gender in) Indigenous societies, or create a racist idolization of a continental matriarchal society in which women controlled men with the sheer force of their voice. The settler Marxist-feminist view of gender has looked to radically subsume Indigenous genders to class struggle and European views of patriarchy. So let us travel across the Atlantic to view gender’s true origins and manifestation in the northern bloc of settler-colonialism.

When the United States invaded Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, they ran into many problems. One of these problems is that Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people were living using a communistic kinship-based mode of production. The United States saw this as a problem for multiple reasons. First, a kinship-based mode of production is not capitalism. And what frightened the US even more; this wasn’t just a different mode of production, this was communism. When the United States had begun the “Sioux Wars,” settlers had spent around 250 years in a modal struggle (that is, a struggle concerning modes of production) in the Americas with Indigenous and Afrikan peoples[1]. For the ever expanding imperial-capitalist power that was the United States by the time of the “Sioux Wars,” there was no accepting a non-capitalist mode of production under which a people could live. But not only was there a difference in the mode of production, there was a difference in how gender was seen in that mode of production. For Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people, gender was not nearly as strictly imposed in a binary system as it was for European settlers[2]. There were divisions of labor along gendered lines, but people were free to choose with which gender they would comply and which division of labor they would take up. This system of choosing your own gender was not something that settlers whose goal was to impose capitalism on Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people would allow. And so they began the process of eliminating our genders.

The elimination of Indigenous genders was done in various ways. The first was by eliminating Indigenous people themselves. As Patrick Wolfe points out in his essay Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native this process of elimination can be carried out in many different ways. The colonial army and government can kill the Indian outright, or they can eliminate epistemologies, ontologies, genders, philosophies, and various other lifeways through assimilationist genocide. Both of these processes of elimination have been used by the United States to eliminate Indigenous genders on the land of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ nation. In 1930 the reservation superintendent on Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ Oyáŋke encouraged the police to pick up and imprison a wíŋkte. She was known to be one of the best seamstresses and craftspeople on the entire reservation, having made many dresses for people all around. But she broke the colonial gender roles that were set for all people living in occupied Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, settler or not. The breaking of these capitalist goals for gender was a heathen communistic tendency that had to be stopped in order to encourage and preserve the colonial patriarchal capitalism system. The police picked her up, threw her in jail, and cut her hair[3]. This is among the more violent (recorded) cases of elimination of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gender. Much of the time nowadays acculturation encourages people of non-western genders to fit within colonial patriarchal views of gender in Očhéthi Šakówiŋ society (or outside of it, a point we will soon discuss)[4]. In this way, we see that the gendered violence and oppression that Indigenous people face is different from that gendered violence and oppression that settlers face. But how so?

Let’s take a moment to look at how cisgender settler women on one hand and wíŋyaŋ on the other are oppressed. I don’t want to enumerate the multiplicity of ways in which oppression occurs in daily life, but rather look at the systems that oppress these two groups of people. Cisgender settler women are oppressed by a patriarchal capitalist system. This system ensures that capitalism is able to reproduce itself and function at its highest ability (which means the ability to best extract surplus-value from exploited workers). Without oppressing women, certain aspects of capitalism very quickly begin to unravel, and due to the weakness of capitalism, the whole system would crumble. The oppression of women is key to the maintenance of this system. Wíŋyaŋ also face this patriarchal capitalist exploitation that cisgender settler women face. But we must recognize that capitalism is secondary to settler-colonialism. Without settler-colonialism, there could be no base upon which the capitalism of the northern bloc of settler-colonialism (and moreover the world capitalism system) was built. Aside from the general oppression of settler-colonialism, what is the gendered oppression that wíŋyaŋ face? They face the erasure of Indigenous genders and the imposition of settler-colonial genders on wíŋyaŋ. This system seeks to completely eliminate any ability to express “wíŋyaŋ-ness” and to substitute that gender for that of “woman.” The elimination of wíŋyaŋ comes in multiple ways. The first is the imposition of imperial-capitalism upon Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people. No longer able to function within a kinship-based mode of production, our genders have their material basis in which they function taken away from them. The second way in which wíŋyaŋ is eliminated is through cultural means. If a wíŋyaŋ is raised in a society where she is taught to be a woman, the goal is to eliminate the Indigenous gender role and to replace it with a cisgender settler woman’s role. The surface goal of this is to make Očhéthi Šakówiŋ wíŋyaŋ into productive members of the imperial capitalist economy and society. Making wíŋyaŋ into women allows them to participate in the reproduction of capitalism until the settler-state completes its ultimate goal of eliminating all Indigenous people. The ultimate objective of this is to eliminate indigeneity in general and to legitimate the settler-society which has been built on Indigenous land. In summary, we could take the famous phrase, “Kill the Indian, and save the man” and make it, “Kill the Wíŋyaŋ, and save the woman.”

Marxists-Feminists analyze gender through class. And this makes sense, because all settlers, whether they are cisgender women, transgender, non-binary, genderfluid, and a host of other non-conforming genders, all suffer in life due to a patriarchal capitalist system which, in their minds, can only be undone through a revolutionary communist movement which seeks to overturn this system. This movement uses a class analysis as its fundamental building block upon which nearly everything else is set. But this class analysis of gender falls short for Indigenous people. Our genders are not oppressed on a class basis but on a modal basis. This means that Indigenous genders (and Indigenous people more broadly) are oppressed because the northern bloc of settler colonialism seeks to suppress and eliminate our modes of production that it deems dangerously communistic and in this way expand its imperial ambitions on Indigenous land. Our struggle against capitalism involves class-struggle. Indeed within Indigenous communities you can see struggles between the Indigenous bourgeoisie and non-bourgeois Indigenous people. It would be silly to not recognize the fact that, due to the influence of capitalism, we have a need to struggle upon the basis of class as do settlers to some degree. But it would also be silly to not recognize that the mission of settler-colonial society has never been to proletarianize Indigenous people, but rather to eliminate us. This means that class struggle is not the only means through which we struggle. It is clear to those who have properly studied the history of nations occupied by (settler-) colonial entities that the entirety of class struggle is based upon the struggle of mode of production. If the settler forces had not waged war on the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ nation, we would not have a need for a modal struggle. This modal struggle looks to defend ourselves not as proletarians from the onslaught of the greedy capitalists, but rather as a kinship-based people defending themselves from the settler-colonial patriarchal capitalist system forced upon us. The struggle to decolonize our land, our nations, our people, and in this specific context our genders, is a combined struggle of modal conflict and class conflict.

I began this essay by speaking about my experience telling a non-native friend of mine that I’m wíŋkte. When she didn’t understand what this meant, I told her that I was a trans woman. This reflects the mission of the settler-colonial state to eliminate Indigenous genders and therefore eliminate Indigenous lifeways. This also reflects the elimination of wíŋyaŋ in order to make them women. With this in mind, we now have to take out the time to look at the colonial gender struggle in settler-colonial societies. The attempt by trans, non-binary, genderfluid, and other non-conforming gender people to expand the settler binary to a trinary, quadrinary, and so on, up to the point of eliminating gender altogether, is not radical when seen through the eyes of someone who belongs to an Indigenous gender that 19th and 20th century settler anthropologists would call “berdache.” Why is this? All of these settler genders still accomplish the goal of eliminating Indigenous genders. A wíŋyaŋ becomes a woman, a wíŋkte becomes a trans woman, a blokȟáte becomes a trans man, and any other gender from any other nation can be put on some sort of gender that colonial society has given a voice (however marginalized). This is not to say that trans people, for example, should not be allowed to be trans because they are erasing Indigenous genders in being so, nor does it mean that people should not continue to explore and understand European derived colonial genders (and anyone who would step to such a conclusion immediately outs themselves as a reactionary). But it is important to recognize that these genders keep with the pattern of gender elimination that we previously explored in the wíŋyaŋ/woman example. A “radical” may say that a communist society should recognize all possible genders in existence. This recognition of genders does not deal with the fundamental eliminatory goals of settler-colonialism in regards to Indigenous genders. Even the goal of doing away with gender altogether is a colonial aim in that it means a continuation of settler-colonialism until the goal of total elimination of all genders is reached.

Decolonizing gender is the only way in which we can properly reverse the settler goals of the elimination of Indigenous genders. Decoloniality is of course a process which inherently requires anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and all the other “anti-”s and “pro-”s that leftists look for in their movements. Anything less than decoloniality of gender (or the many other fields where it applies) is reactionary politics. It is reactionary because it seeks to uphold the colonial gender system, no matter the array of genders that may be oppressed and eliminated within that colonial system. As long as the colonial system works, it is suppressing hundreds upon hundreds of genders within the northern bloc of settler colonialism alone. To those reactionaries who see the word “decolonial” and immediately think that I am calling for a suppression of all non-Indigenous genders, that is not the case. The goal is not an imposition of Indigenous genders, it is a liberation from the colonial system of gender in which we find ourselves. This decolonial liberation can only come from Afrikan and Indigenous states which decolonize gender through removing the material base and the superstructural elements through which Indigenous genders (and settler genders) are exploited. This means that we organize against settler-colonialism and the myriad of colonial structures it uses to uphold its colonial gender system.

It is only through decolonial politics that true liberation may be made.

(De)Colonial Glossary

Blokȟáte: An Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gender in which a person is recognized as having been born a wíŋyaŋ, but has taken on many roles of wičháša and some roles of wíŋyaŋ, making them blokȟáte. Under the colonial gender system, blokȟáte have been called trans men.

Íŋyaŋ Woslál Háŋ Oyáŋke: Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Očhéthi Šakówiŋ: A nation which occupies the land approximately to the west of Mnísota (the Minnesota River) and to the east of Ȟeyúškiška (The Big Horn Mountains). This nation is made up of two primary linguistic groups, those being Lakȟóta speakers and Dakhóta speakers. These two people when referenced as one are called Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people.

Wičháša: An Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gender which takes on the roles of hunting, building, making equipment for both previously mentioned activities, warring, among many other tasks assigned to the gender. Under the colonial gender system, wičháša have been called men.

Wíŋkte: An Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gender in which a person is recognized as having been born a wičháša, but has taken on many roles of wíŋyaŋ and some roles of wičháša, making them wíŋkte. Under the colonial gender system, wíŋkte have been called trans women.

Wíŋyaŋ: An Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gender which takes on the roles of gathering, making clothes, childcare, among many other tasks assigned to the gender. Under the colonial gender system, wíŋyaŋ have been called women.

[1] In this essay, I mainly focus on the modal struggle and eliminatory mission of settlers towards genders within the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ and other Indigenous nations. But it is important to realize that Afrikans, both on the continent and in the Diaspora, have been forced to struggle along the same lines as Indigenous people in the Americas. There is a common misconception among many people that the word “Indigenous” means “Amerindian.” This is wrong. We find Indigenous people all over the world. The Indigenous identity is not created through being an Indigenous person in the Americas struggling against settler-colonialism, but rather the Indigenous identity is created through struggling against colonialism anywhere around the world. Afrikans are just as Indigenous as Amerindians, and although I have made a distinction between “Indigenous” and “Afrikan” in this essay (reproducing the problem, I admit), that distinction ultimately obscures the commonality of Amerindian and Afrikan struggles.

[2] The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ gender system was a system comprised of four genders. It is important to note that there were significant differences in these systems of gender between Dakhóta and Lakȟóta people, and further differences within bands of those two peoples.

[3] Medicine, Beatrice. (2002). “Directions in Gender Research in American Indian Societies: Two Spirits and Other Categories” In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 3, Chapter 2), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.

[4] It is also important to point out that all Lakȟóta genders faced a similar sort of repression. This is not to say that wičháša or wíŋyaŋ have faced the same type of oppression as wíŋkte and blokȟáte. But it is important to note that wíŋyaŋ and wičháša have not been eliminated by being erased, but have rather been eliminated by being forced into western notions of man and woman. A type of erasure, yes, but not totally erased to the same extent as wíŋkte and blokȟáte have been. To reiterate, the entire system of gender that found itself within our kinship-based mode of production was ruthlessly attacked.

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