Comments on Decolonizing Rape & #metoo


Race Sex Power Conference. Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL. April 7th 2018

Plenary II: Sexual Violence and Racialized Bodies: Re/Centering Creative Practices of Representation and Resistance

Comments on Decolonizing Rape and #metoo (Hayley Marama Cavino)



Note: A slightly modified version of these comments was shared at the conference. I express my gratitiude, admiration, and respect to co-panelists: Salamishah Tillet (University of Pennsylvania), Kebo Drew (Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, Maya Mackrandalilal (Community Services Coordinator), Rosamond King (Brooklyn College, CUNY). Photo credit: Keisa Reynolds.



Nga mihi nui ki a koutou katoa. Greetings and acknowledgments to you all.


I would like to extend my gratitutde to Natalie Bennett for convenning this panel—I’m humbled to have been included and to be speaking in such company. Thank you. I also want to express gratitude to Keisa Reynolds for all of her labor in making the arrangements for us to be here. Thank you Keisa. I am the daughter of a cleaner and line cook so I express my gratitude for the care show to us to include those that have cooked for us and helped in other ways seen and unseen. I want to also acknowledge my Kanaka Maoli sister Lisa Kahaleole Hall for connecting me to this space.


As an indigenous visitor to this territory I’d like to acknowledge the land and the people of the land to include the Illinois and Miami (me-ah-me), Potawatomi, Winnebago and all of the other people who’s ancestors have called this place home for generations upon generations. Greetings and acknowledgments to you. And with deep respect I feel I would be remiss if I did not also mark the ways in which the space created here over the last two days, for all it’s riches (of which there has been an abundance) is also paradoxically impoverished by the absence of the people of this land in the conversation. I just feel the need to mark that absence.


When I am not at home in Aotearoa New Zealand I live on occupied Onondaga Territory in what is currently known as Syracuse New York. So I would like to acknowledge the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Onondaga in particular, with gratitude. One of my jobs right now is to teach as contingent faculty in Native American & Indigenous Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies at Syracuse University. As a sidenote I want to speak the ways the academy is complicit in taking up the ‘erase and replace’ ethos of coloniality when indigenous knowledges and bodies are seemingly  always contingent, never core—we are barely surviving if we are even there at all.  That said, I’m speaking here today not primarily from an academic locaton but rather as a Pacific woman. I am the daughter of an English settler father and a Polynesian mother. My mother’s people are Māori (Aotearoa/New Zealand)– we are coastal people (Ngati Pukenga tribe) on my grandfathers side and mountain people (Ngati Whitikaupeka) on the maternal line.


So I am feeling today the challenge of having 8-10 minutes to try and tell a story. What fragments of a story will I tell?


I’m going to attempt to speak about sexual violence and indigenous people. I’d like to talk first about decolonizing rape and, if I have time, follow that up by sharing some brief preliminary thoughts on #metoo.


Decolonizing Rape


I need to further contextualize these comments by saying I speak of and from a raped mother, raped aunties and uncles, raped cousins, this raped body. I come from grandfathers and uncles and cousins who raped; and aunties, grandmothers and mothers who hoped, denied, and spoke that it was and wasn’t so. So that’s the place I story from. Technically speaking it was a dissertation—but in truth (and for the benefit of those surviving..... I said SURVIVING..... that process...and also those that refuse the cost and choose a different kind of survival) the work is not for the academy. I’m not speaking to you. It’s not for you. I was blessed to have a committee that let me write the way I wanted, and ancestors and whanau that made it happen. You might call the work autoethnography – we call it indigenous storywork – and us Māori call it pūrākau. Pū—the origin or foundation, the roots; rakau—the wood, branches and leaves. This is blood work. This is genealogy—ancestral work—facing forward into the past. This is long story. This is story as refusal—story that spills over the lip of the academic cup and flows wherever it needs to go.


When I started this work I sat with an elder at home who asked me ‘what happened?’. And I told “the story”. Basically I talked about who was raping who. And she stopped me. She told me that wasn’t the story and that if I couldn’t let that go I couldn’t do this work. Of my mother’s father she asked me: What happened to his people? How was this possible? So I no longer write about rape. I haven’t in a long time. I write about how rape is possible.


Decolonizing rape is about telling the truth about how it is possible. It’s about taking a full account of history and context. But critically it is about putting rape back into conversation with the land. Because the rape of bodies is made possible by the rape of the land. I defy us to think of an example where rape does not have the conquest of territory – in one form or another – as a pre-requisite. And to be clear – I have no interest in a romantic pre-colonial past. A number of years ago now I was a student of Southern African radical feminist scholar PatricianMcFadden—her Revolutionary Struggles syllabus lit my ass on fire – I have not claimed pre-colonial utopia since. The work I do now breaches the colonial divide. I tell old old stories of the rape and violation of my female ancestors by our men in order to precipitate inter-tribal conflict over territory and/or to broach agreements amongst men. Those are recovered stories and/or counterstories (stories that disrupt the hegemonic, heteropatriarchal versions settlers and some of our people continue to tell). I can not claim pre-colonial utopia without being willfully complicit in the silencing of my tipuna wahine—what I know to be true of their lives—and I refuse. I won’t do it. I have aroha/love for indigenous gender balance claims—but in framing them as aspirational (and damn it, being cool with claims that we were pretty damn good at actualizing it before white dudes in boats!) I’m holding space for counterstory.


So the pūrākau I weave is necessarily expansive and traverses a variety of terrains—it speaks our complex relationship to place because in order to story rape – it all matters. It matters that my grandfathers people had 200,000 acres of land stolen and were ‘gifted’ 98 back. It matters that some of our men were present as mining employees when the settler government dynamited our ancestors bones clean out of our sacred mother mountain. It matters that those bones are mixed up with the rhyolite rock they used to pave their roads and feed their infrastructure. It matters that three generations ago we were homeless and did to other tribes what had just been done to us. This is the story of our interwoven, inter-dependent rape—the land and ours. All of it matters. Tell the story.


Some other story I’d like to share here: excavating the influence of missionaries and settler marriage, the violence and shaming around our sexuality as Polynesian women, shutting down the frequently polyamorous nature of our intimacies... And, to the detriment of ALL of our people, the relentlessness with which they attempted to erase our memory of ourselves as always also takatāpui. That’s one of our words for queer. We were queer and we are recovering that memory and reconnecting to that genealogy in present time and space. All of it matters. Tell the story.


Decolonizing rape becomes praxis through story. I’m certainly not the first to hold space for indigenous storywork—I’m thinking about Sto:lo scholar Joann Archbald’s ‘Indigenous Storywork’ and Mvskoke legal scholar Sarah Deer’s ‘The Beginning and End of Rape’ as just two examples. Writing genealogies of violence that make clear the GROUNDED logic of rape is, I believe, a form of contemporary ceremony. In his book Research is Ceremony Cree scholar Shawn Wilson writes “If research doesn’t change you you’re not doing it right” (Wilson, 2008, p.135). Research/writing has a responsibility to heal.


One of the ways to enact this work as decolonial practice is through reestablishing and renormalizing storytelling in our communities—and I mean this in the active, creative, present tense—especially with our young people. For several years I’ve been teaching a scaffolded writing series to indigenous, settler and migrant young people that requires them to write their lives, their people, and encounter from their own social locations and places. The series, entitled Writing Lives on Land, is in conversation with and indebted to the established and groundbreaking work of my sister friend Dr Marcelle Haddix’s Writing Our Lives and Dark Girls projects. My citational praxis is purposeful here—I’m making visable the genealogy of this work—of indigenous brothers and sisters in conversation within and across territories and oceans—amongst ourselves and with other communities of color.


Indigenous Responses to #metoo


I want to finish by taking a moment to respond to #metoo. Despite and perhaps because of the work I do, I have found myself stubbornly resistant to using this hashtag and a full reckoning on why has just as stubbornly eluded me. So I share these words as thoughts in motion. And I assume the risk inherent in that. The ways that these transiting words might lead nowhere that we want or need to be. 


2006. Tarana Burke. CENTERS young girls of color in the conversation about sexual violence. In this room we either always knew this genealogy or we consider ourselves sat down and spoken to about it. So what I am NOT interested in is how #metoo circa 2006 was a call for inclusion. Rather I’m interested in how it was a call for specificity. If we understand #metoo as speaking Black specificity then I want to risk suggesting that subsequent white uptake and mainstreaming of #metoo can be a way of unhearing. Because to hear is to pay attention to the racialized specificities of Black Women’s experience of sexual violence and the ways whiteness is implicated in the perpetuation of the same. The ubiquity of #metoo circa 2017 flattens the very necessary specificity of Black experience. My refusal, as an indigenous woman, to take #metoo up with reference to our story occurs for a similar reason—I WANT and NEED specificity. I live there. I refuse precisely because the appropriated iteration of #metoo can not do the decolonizing work that we need to survive.


Please know that I am not here saying these words to belittle anyone who has used the hashtag. I’m not here for it. This is about the limits of the work we can ask of the hashtag now that it has gone viral. And it’s about the disproportionate consequences of those limits for people of color. For indigenous women, coloniality and struggles for territory are central to the explosion of violence against us. To be heard is to acknowledge this specificity. We are the missing and the murdered. Our bones are still being put under roads and inside infrastructure. We are scattered over ground.


Indigenous women have a long, long history of dealing with these issues. Plenty of indigenous women are also responding to #metoo. Just this week we premiered the brand new short documentary ‘An Indigenous Response To #metoo’ at Syracuse University. This beautiful, provocative, conversation-invoking film was shot at Awkesasne and was made by a current graduate student of mine – Michelle Schenandoah (Oneida, Wolf Clan) as part of her Rematriation project. You can find it, free, on Vimeo.


In closing I would like to suggest the work I see indigenous men and women doing on sexual violence is closer to #ustoo (if I HAD to hashtag it!). And it should be clear by now that this is not a request for inclusion. Rather the ‘US’ resists the colonial framing of rape as predominantly interpersonal, precisely because rape in indigenous worlds is frequently not an individual experience. Rather it is relational in its trespass against the blood—in the entirety of what that means. It is a whispering to past and future, a here and there, and amongst the now. It is always about somewhere. It is, and always will be, grounded—rooted in the story of place.