MIAMI — Indigenous women across the globe face higher rates of murders, sexual assault and other crimes. Many have gone missing in their communities at a scale that isn’t seen among other groups.
The realities have served as motivation for a cadre of Indigenous women activists – many working internationally on issues of social justice, gender equality and the environment.
Three of those activists took part in a panel at Florida International University in Miami on Oct. 11 as part of “Indigenous Peoples Day” events across the campus. The student government association at FIU also recognized “Indigenous Peoples Day” on campus for the first time, to be held as an annual event the second Monday of October.
The panel – “Not a Statistic: Indigenous Women, Global Challenges” – was organized by FIU’s Global Indigenous Forum and its student club, the Global Indigenous Group.
The panelists included Betty Osceola, a Miccosukee Tribal Member and activist; Dr. Bina Sengar, FIU visiting Fulbright Faculty from India and expert in Indigenous peoples of India; and Dr. Luisa-Veisaga, a Quechua from Bolivia and FIU senior lab specialist and researcher in the biological sciences department.
Setting the stage
The panel was moderated by Dr. Michaela Moura-Kocoglu, an FIU instructor in women and gender studies.
“We rarely hear on the news about Indigenous peoples, let alone about Indigenous women,” Moura-Kocoglu said. “But when we do, we read about disturbing statistics.”
She cited statistics that Native American women are 2.5 percent more likely to experience sexual assault and rape than any other ethnic group in the U.S. Australian aboriginal women are up to 35 times more likely to experience violence, she said.
“Indigenous women are more likely to be sick, poor, illiterate and overwhelmed with too many unplanned children,” Moura-Kocoglu continued. “Indigenous women have become a statistic in mainstream news.”
It was against that backdrop that the three panelists were tasked to give their perspective about what their culture says about the importance of women and their opportunities within families and society.
Indigenous in Florida
Osceola, who is a member of the Panther Clan, also has connections to the Seminole Tribe as her late mother, Mary Billie, was an enrolled member. Osceola has siblings who are Seminole as well.
Osceola consults with the Miccosukee Tribe on environmental and cultural issues and she and her spouse also operate an airboat tour company within the Miccosukee Indian Reservation.
“We use the opportunity to educate people about our homelands, the Everglades,”
She said it’s important that the outside world understand the importance of taking care of the environment, “and to know our people are more than what is portrayed in Hollywood films.”
The ultimate woman
Osceola spoke at length about the importance of respect for oneself, for others and for the “Indigenous woman” who is at the center of it all – Mother Earth.
“When I talk about the world, I’m talking about our mother. In our culture, we consider the earth that we exist on our mother,” she said. “I’m always out in nature and surrounded by the most powerful woman every day and I get that reminder every day that the most powerful being that exists, we live on it.”
Osceola said one only needs to look to Hurricane Michael, which recently decimated Florida’s panhandle region, for an example of the power of Mother Earth.
“And also the west coast [of Florida] is seeing that power with the red tide,” Osceola said. “She keeps reminding us of her value.”
Osceola argues that everything on earth needs to work together to function correctly. She said that like the plights of Indigenous women, society is out of balance.
“What occurs in the environment is a reflection of what is occurring in you,” she said.
All three panelists spoke of the emergence of Indigenous women in environmental issues. Sengar called it eco-feminism, the idea that “the land doesn’t belong to you, you belong to the land.”
Sengar said the Chipko movement that took place in India in the 1970s is a prime example of eco-feminism.
Chipko was an organized resistance to deforestation and was led largely by women who would surround trees in the forest to prevent workers from cutting them down.
Osceola stressed that in Miccosukee culture, people are taught to revere women. She said it’s that kind of respect that will push back on the exploitation of Indigenous women.
“We’re taught that it’s the woman’s responsibility to pass on the knowledge of our people for generations and generations. And that’s a big responsibility, because the life in your tribe will cease to exist if the women cease to continue,” Osceola said.
Osceola said the most important value she can instill into any woman, regardless of their culture, is to value their power as a woman.
“Because you are the ones who are the future of our people,” she said. “The reason we exist is to make sure that the life of my people continue. It makes me feel sad when women feel ashamed or embarrassed that they’re a woman. Who we are as a tribe is passed down through the women,” she said.
Moura-Kocoglu said that through all the challenges, Indigenous women have survived oppression and genocide for centuries. She said they continue to remain at the forefront of movements for peace, human rights and environmental harmony.
Associate Professor in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at FIU, Dennis Wiedman, has been teaching at the school for more than three decades. He founded the Global Indigenous Forum at FIU about five years ago.
He said that along with an institution like FIU to support programs that address Indigenous issues, there are other positive developments in the culture as well.
Wiedman said one is that the United Nations now has a permanent forum on Indigenous issues and a declaration of Indigenous rights.
“And women’s issues are pivotal in almost every one of those communities,” Wiedman said.
More information about FIU’s program can be found at Indigenous.fiu.edu.