Terese Mailhot

For indigenous women the danger of exploitation is a constant threat, whether they are on the rez and off

It takes a community to exploit a Native woman. When the exploitation or assault of an indigenous woman is discussed there are comments blaming the woman, or the condition of Indian life, or they say something self-righteous—failing to see the irony in how awful people who can’t empathize appear to the public. Those sentiments, and those attitudes towards human life, are some reasons people can capitalize on our bodies. There’s animus towards us when we state publicly that we’re aware of the threats against us, or that we move through the world sometimes as profiled criminals—considering a man’s age, experiences, and behavior to assess our risk in interacting with him, or coming into his periphery. The pushback to our voices feels like its own conspiring—it’s own threat.

The threat of exploitation was always present in my life, even after I became a graduate student. There is a difference, though, between an adjunct college teacher’s level of exploitation and the super-exploitation indigenous women are threatened with when we experience poverty, or when we are between jobs, or post-partum with jobs and daycare, or between homes. Because of the lack of concern exhibited within the justice system, and the racial animus towards us in public, the dangers against us are more present and dangerous.

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On welfare, or homeless, or out of foster-care, or walking home from school along the highway—there was looming threat. Men and women were ready to capitalize on my desperation. The word desperation has been used to belittle people. Even using the word “poor” to describe a state I was in has sparked outrage from Native readers who tell me, “We’re not poor because we are rich in culture.” It’s a farce, or a silly game of semantics, where denying a woman’s desperation, or trying to guilt her for feeling it, seems done for the sake of cultural purity—that we are unbroken and strong. Well, you can be strong and desperate. Desperation is momentary, and some people’s lives are filled with the agony of those moments—where there could be one or two days of respite, absent of hunger, and their experiences are real and cannot be filled with our culturally rich geographic locations, or language, or ability to fish, or pick a berry, or make medicine—those theoretical ideas of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ should be spared for people who can afford the conversation.

When a woman is a hundred dollars short on rent or bills there are vultures ready. There are horrible people who exist inside and outside of our communities—along our highways—predatory and overt. And then there are the businesses that support the exploitation of women: websites to solicit human trafficking, hotels, bars, camgirl websites … I won’t delve into naming the whole communities that benefit from sex work but fail to protect the human lives involved. These businesses sometimes only turn a profit from us—from our bodies. Their profit is sometimes based on how deplorable our conditions are—they thrive on our victimization. It’s not a conspiracy theory, but the public often refuses to believe testimony, data, or hard-won truths that have prevailed within their justice systems.

When I was a hundred dollars short, I was lucky to have brothers. When they were short, I had a rez loan shark, who was more honest and gave more finite parameters on lending than any payday loan business, but it was just as dangerous. It was off the rez where I experienced the most predatory behavior—people who outright kept cash on hand to buy us.

Placing the onus on the victim, without looking at the self and when you’ve turned a blind eye, or when you’ve been complicit, is a shameful existence. Typically, shame spurs people into action, but sometimes it gives way to obstinacy and hatred. I’ve seen a lot of hatred for missing and murdered indigenous women, and for indigenous women who have been exploited. It takes more fury and bravery to indict the businesses and everyday people who benefit from exploitation. North America was founded on exploitation—on the idea that indigenous people were savages, and trying to convince people that the word, the ideology, the mythos of “savage” and “civil”—good and bad—winner and loser—it’s a tired trope and humanity is more complicated than binary thinking. Those binaries have willed people into thinking “capital” and “venture” is more valuable than human life, and that survival of the fittest is real, when these people have probably cared for a dying elder in their lifetime, or taken care of a child, or helped a family member in need, without thinking they deserve what they get for being weakened momentarily.

Terese Marie Mailhot is Saturday Editor at The Rumpus. Her book “Heart Berries: A Memoir” is forthcoming with Counterpoint Press and Doubleday Canada. She is a Tecumseh Postdoctoral Fellow at Purdue University.