Courtesy Joseph Zordan

This past weekend, Nov. 4–6, marked the largest academic gathering of Indigenous undergraduates in the Northeast. The Ivy Native Summit is an annual gathering of Indigenous undergraduates, graduate students and academics hosted on a selected Ivy League campus each fall. One hundred and seventy-five students from more than 85 Indigenous nations gathered at Yale to discuss and learn about Indigenous feminisms.

The Ivy Native Summit is an educational opportunity and social event for Indigenous students. The stories and lives of indigenous peoples are often absent from narratives of American history, as if “history” began at the moment of European contact. Yale offers only a few Indigenous studies courses and has only given one Native American professor tenure. The Summit presents an opportunity for us to fill in the gaps, and to learn about issues facing our own peoples. Students came from schools across the Northeast, including Bowdoin, Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, McGill, New York University and Swarthmore College.

Each year, the theme of the Ivy Native Summit is chosen by the hosting student group. Inspired by a class taught by American Studies Ph.D. candidate Tyler Rogers, the Association of Native Americans at Yale chose the theme Indigenous Feminisms. The theme was particularly important to ANAAY because of the experiences of Indigenous women in the Yale Native community and the erasure of Indigenous women from the student movement last fall.

We designed the Indigenous Feminisms logo with the themes of the conference and Indigenous feminisms in mind. The official title of this year’s Ivy Native Summit, Indigenous Feminisms: Helping Each Other Grow, is inspired by the Three Sisters, an Indigenous method of companion planting corn, beans and squash. The Three Sisters, a hallmark of Indigenous knowledge, teach us that contributing our individual talents will nourish one another, as three sisters in a family would do: the corn stalk provides support for the beans to grow up and wrap around, the large squash leaves shade the soil and the beans pull nitrogen from the air, which is dispersed throughout. Similarly, each of the four Indigenous women speakers gave radically different but mutually reinforcing perspectives of Indigenous feminisms.

We discuss Indigenous feminisms in plural terms because it is predicated on the fact that our distinct cultures coexist, and that we as Indigenous people must embrace this coexistence. Our histories are shared, but feminism for a Kanaka Maoli woman means something different from feminism for an Anishinaabe Apsaalooke woman. My Kanaka Maoli feminism is informed by my genealogy, our oral traditions and chants, and my connection to the island’s nature. While my Anishinabe Apsaalooke feminism is influenced by my understanding of the land and sky, Apsaalooke language and the designs and ways passed down to me. Indigenous feminisms incorporate both of these perspectives, but moreso emphasizes the necessity of supporting each other in the practices of our respective truths.

Indigenous feminisms acknowledge Indigenous understandings of sexuality and gender. The second speaker, Professor Lisa Kahaleole Hall of Wells College, explains that these understandings are distinct and essential to combating the Western heteropatriarchy. Though we may not fully grasp each other’s understandings of sexuality and gender, we acknowledge and appreciate their fluidity. Dio Ganhdih, a queer Akwesasne Mohawk and Cherokee emcee and rapper, spoke about the heteropatriarchy, transphobia and homophobia she witnesses within her community. “We don’t talk about it in the longhouse,” she said. Understanding how we absorb and promote Western ideas of sexuality and gender is vitally important to creating spaces for the cultural fluidity and plurality we inherit from our ancestors.

The logo incorporates a moon, a symbol of feminine empowerment across Indigenous cultures, and specifically of mothers, grandmothers and fertility. Speaker Katsi Cook, an Akwesasne Mohawk midwife and women’s health advocate said, “the doorway into this world is a woman’s body.” Cook’s work in encouraging peer-based care for pregnant Native women represents a central theme of Indigenous feminisms — Native women, in recognizing that the settler-colonial state cannot properly care for them, care for each other. Brayden White, an Akwesasne Mohawk student at the Community Charter School of Cambridge valued Cook’s discussion of Mohawk protocol during pregnancy, particularly how “right from when the mother is becoming close to her due date to the options of places to deliver the baby to how the child is greeted when born is all traditionally oriented.” Cook, who has also studied the ways that water contaminated by industry affects pregnant women, connected the protection of Native women to the protection of the Earth: “Women are the first environment.”

At the Summit, students and speakers discussed the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protection of the environment. Students engaged in a 20-minute discussion about how their respective institutions have mobilized around No DAPL and how students hope to further support the movement. Each student then filled out a postcard to send to the Army Corps of Engineers and President Obama, asking for the immediate termination of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Ganhdih, who spent the past few months at Standing Rock and returned after her time at Yale, spoke of the unity the movement has created for Indigenous peoples across colonial borders. She also praised Indigenous understandings of queer identity at the protectors’ campsites with a specific “Two-Spirit” tent that serves as a place for queer Native protectors to gather.

In Kanaka Maoli culture, Apsaalooke culture and various Indigenous cultures, stars are central to our stories. In Hawaiian genealogy and origin story, Ho’oh’k’kalani (roughly, the one who puts stars in the sky), is the daughter of Papa and W’kea, Earth Mother and Sky Father. We are quite literally guided by the stars; the Pacific Islands were settled by seafaring peoples who exclusively used celestial navigation. Our logo is situated in the stars, because as Hall put it, the discussion of Indigenous feminisms “is not peripheral to Indigenous studies. It is central.” The decolonization project requires the uplifting of Indigenous women.

Navajo community activist Amanda Blackhorse said, “As a woman advocate, I was always attacked first as a woman and then as an advocate,” in describing the verbal violence she has faced as a result of her activism in changing the name of the Washington football team. Blackhorse’s experience reveals an important intersection of sexism and racism. The invalidation of her advocacy because of her gender exhibits the fact that Indigenous women don’t have the privilege of not being Indigenous feminists. Cook talked about the coevolution of Indigenous people with maize, or corn, which symbolizes social symmetry. In a sense, then, the Three Sisters also represent men’s roles in Indigenous feminisms.

Both Hall and Cook focused on the colonization of Native ways of relating to each other. European settlers characterized non-heterosexual romantic and sexual relationships as savage. Relocation broke Native kinship ties by partitioning collectively inhabited land into privately-owned parcels for heterosexual couples or single men. Notions of large, extended family-communities were replaced by structures of distinct and separate nuclear families. With the goal of bringing the extended family-community into our colonized modern realities, we replaced the Ivy Native Summit’s usual formal Saturday night dinner with a social. We wanted to restore family values — Indigenous ones. Native students attending various academic institutions and hailing from various Indigenous nations round-danced together. Drummers brought their children. Colonization attempted to break our forms of community for good. White hegemony told us that modernization meant separation, and that success meant leaving our homes in exchange for elite educations, but Indigenous peoples always seem to find each other. We built a new community.

Native women primarily organized the Ivy Native Summit and purposefully chose to center Indigenous women. As president and treasurer of ANAAY we organized many aspects of the Summit and coordinated the details. ANAAY also received incredible support from Native anthropologist, Yale College Assistant Dean and Director of the Native American Cultural Center Kelly Fayard (Poarch Band of Creek Indians) as well as Assistant Director Kapi’olani Laronal (Kanaka Maoli).

Akwesasne Mohawk student Alanna Pyke ’19 commented on the importance of a Summit on Indigenous feminisms, saying “It’s especially important to focus on the voices of Indigenous women because we are so often erased in mainstream media and society, and face difficult and unique challenges.” The constant erasure of Indigenous women makes centering ourselves a revolutionary act. If we don’t do it, then who will?