NOW Foundation Presents Panel on Indigenous Women at UN Event

March 20, 2012

On March 8, the NOW Foundation sponsored a panel addressing "Issues Confronting Indigenous Women in Rural USA." The panel was part of the parallel events of the 56th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which took place in New York City, Feb. 27-March 9, 2012. NOW Foundation's participation was made possible with a grant from the Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights.

Kathy Sloan, a National NOW Board member and a leader in NOW's Global Feminist Issues and Strategies Ad Hoc Committee, worked round-the-clock to organize the panel and was pleased to see women's rights advocates from around the world in attendance. In an inspiring occurrence of synchronicity, the panel took place on International Women's Day, and earlier that morning organizations from the global women's community marched around the UN demanding equality and justice for all the world's women and girls.

Tribal court judge Peggy Bird (Kewa Pueblo) moderated the panel, helping to put the issues into context. She opened the panel by honoring the Haudenosaunee people, on whose homeland the panel met. In fact, it was the Haudenosaunee women who taught and provided the inspiration for the first Euro-American feminists.

Marcella Giles (Muscogee/Creek), an attorney with the Indian Land Working Group, provided an excellent presentation on Indian land use, management and ownership, graphically demonstrating how today's continental United States was entirely indigenous in 1492 when Columbus arrived and how today only tiny pockets of indigenous land remain. Lisa Lone Fight (Mandan/Hidatsa/Sahnish), founder of Earth Lodge, followed with a presentation on indigenous women's intellectual property and her work as a scientist using remote sensing where she views images of her reservation that reveal overwhelming environmental destruction by mining companies.

Carmen O'Leary (Cheyenne River Sioux), director of the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains, proceeded with a discussion of the pervasiveness of sexual and domestic violence against Native American women, revealing the staggering fact that one in three indigenous women in the U.S. will be a victim at some point in their lifetime. O'Leary spoke about the great importance of non-indigenous allies in the women's rights movement acting in support of their Native American sisters. As an example, she discussed the work she's been doing to help pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, urging the U.S. residents in the audience to contact their congressional representatives.

Nichole Witt (Sichangu), director of White Buffalo Calf Woman's Society, gave a moving talk about how crushingly hard it is to be a Native American woman in the U.S. with ubiquitous sexual assault, rape and domestic violence, massive poverty and unemployment, and little to no support or assistance.

After the presentations, a vigorous discussion took place, with many questions from audience members who wanted to know what specific things they could do to help. So enthusiastic was the discussion that the panel ran nearly an hour past its allotted time.

A post-panel reception was held at Hunter College, sponsored by the school's Women and Gender Studies Program. In addition to the panel's own videographer, the UN CSW and Global Cultural Diversity Films filmed both the panel and reception, so the event will become part of the UN's permanent record.

NOW Membership Vice President Allendra Letsome was in attendance and reports: "I now know a lot more about issues Native American women are struggling with -- particularly disempowerment and violence. But these women know what they're doing. They don't need a savior to swoop in and take over; they just need our support."

Sloan hopes that this panel will be the springboard for a translation of the issues raised by the esteemed panelists into actionable items to carry out with the assistance and support of non-indigenous feminists.