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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Warrior Women The Story Of Red Power
by Lorraine Jessepe, Indian Country Today correspondent
credits: photos courtesy of Leya Hale
VERMILLION, S.D. – During the height of political unrest in Indian country during the 1960s and '70s, men such as Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt were the media-recognized leaders of Red Power, the grass roots movement marked by its activism and a resurgence of Indian cultural identity, pride and traditionalism.

But away from much of the media attention stood such women as Madonna Thunder Hawk, Lorelei DeCora, Janet McCloud, Pat Bellanger, Lakota Harden, and LaNada Means War Jack. These were just a few of the Indian women in the trenches of the Red Power movement.

Now, the untold stories of Native women activists will be documented in an upcoming film, "Warrior Women," a one-hour documentary to be aired on PBS. University of South Dakota Assistant Professor Elizabeth Castle, the film's writer and producer, eyes a 2012 completion date for the film, which is in pre-production. The project is the recent recipient of a grant from Native American Public Telecommunications.

Castle, of Shawnee descent, began learning about the Red Power movement some 12 years ago. The movement gained international prominence in 1968 with the founding of the American Indian Movement, in Minneapolis. Through activism and social protest, AIM addressed such issues as police brutality, broken treaties, Indian sovereignty and poverty. Among the defining events of AIM was the 1973 standoff with federal agents at Wounded Knee, S.D."It was a movement of family and community, and at the heart of family and community are women."

Drawn into the story of Red Power by its connection to family and community, Castle is out to preserve the knowledge and life experience of Indian women activists for future generations. Through oral history, interviews and archival footage, "Warrior Women" is bound to shed light on a once limited history of women's involvement in the movement. "Visual media is so important. That's one of the reasons this (film) had to happen."

Old stereotypes
During the Clinton administration, Castle worked as a policy associate in the administration's Initiative on Race Relations. There, she noticed not a single person on the nine-member advisory board was of American Indian descent. "They had absolutely no working knowledge of Indian country whatsoever."

Even today, Castle said a frustrating lack of knowledge about American Indians still exists. "It never ever fails to blow my mind."

The Western image of the Indian – a man on a horse with feathers and war paint – still dominates popular culture, and the Indian woman, with the exception of the "Indian princess," is mostly invisible, irrelevant and powerless. "We've gotten it wrong for so long," Castle said.

The media's focus on the men in the movement allowed Indian women the freedom to get things done behind the scenes, Castle said. "The white media wasn't going to recognize Native women's voice."

Castle, an assistant professor of American Indian studies, noted the many disruptive events that occurred in Indian country, not just in the 1880s, but in the 20th century: The massive loss of land and its spiritual impact, boarding schools and the policy of assimilation, Indian relocation and the termination era. She said many women in the movement were boarding school survivors and many, such as Wilma Mankiller, had a galvanizing experience that taught them how to direct their anger. "She (Mankiller) learned how to be an organizer on Alcatraz."

In the aftermath of AIM's occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, women carried on their activism. "This is such an unknown area of history," Castle said.

Many Indian women were at the forefront of looking at the connection between health and environment, said Castle, noting their involvement in the Black Hills Alliance, the formation of Women of All Red Nations, the fight against forced sterilization and the establishment of survival schools.

"It was a movement of family and community, and at the heart of family and community are women," Castle said. "Women are the story of Red Power."

Voice and accountability
Castle is guided by a concern with exploring ways that academic research could be of use to Native communities – a way to give back that would disrupt the historical pattern of removing indigenous knowledge from communities.

"It's really important for people to know that they're not your data," said Castle, who interviewed women over the course of 10 years. Some were urban, and some were rez. Some had college educations. Others had no formal education. "We are seeking to be as inclusive as we can be to allow people to speak their own truth."

In addition to the film's airing on PBS, Castle envisions screenings of "Warrior Women" at film festivals and South Dakota reservations. "We want the film to be viewed as widely as possible."

The film will be coming out at a good time, she said. "I think we have a global lack of knowledge on what it means to be indigenous."

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