I took a trip to New York last fall and as we entered the National Museum of the American Indian to "use the bathroom", I noticed the disinterest among our group to actually learn the history bustling in the building. So, I started thinking. About yet another oppressed minority population in our country-Native Americans and Indigenous Women. And I learned that "indigenous" stretches far and wide outside of just the U.S. Indigenous populations comprise the entirety of our earth. And similar to black women, indigenous women suffer ugly realities all over the world daily. In fact, Cultural Survival notes that indigenous women and girls are murdered and disappear at an alarming rate. In efforts to learn more about indigenous populations, I reached out to Mr. Shaldon Ferris in South Africa, producer of Cultural Survival Indigenous Rights Radio. Welcome to Dialosophy, Mr. Ferris.
Q: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this with me. I wanted to do this Q&A to learn more about indigenous women’s rights because as a black woman, I’ve noticed it can be so .... easy to speak on our oppression as African Americans...and that’s not to take away from our oppression in America or in no way, shape, or form trying to “compare” oppressions. But I think sometimes we can forget about the people who also made the very backbone of our country to begin with. So I’d like to get started by asking what does it mean to be born “indigenous”? How do you perceive the indigenous female experience to be?
A: I was born in South Africa and I still live in South Africa. Being born Indigenous in South Africa is a privilege and an honor on a personal level. Because of Apartheid though, we did not even know that we were Indigenous - we were given this title ‘Coloured’- I believe this title might have been borrowed from the U.S - or maybe it was the other way around. This ‘Coloured’ title is still on all official documentation in South Africa, although Apartheid has ended 25 years ago. Early in the 1900’s, they just put all of us in the same category - people of slave ancestry, people of mixed heritage and people of Indigenous heritage. My heritage is that of the Khoi and San people - we are believed to be amongst the people who have been on earth for a long time - some figures suggesting over 100,000 years.
Q: What are the barriers and burdens that indigenous women experience? What do you believe are the reasons that these barriers and burdens exist?
A: I had to speak to some of my sisters to get all of the answers related to Indigenous women - I will break it down for you.
Indigenous women are amongst the most marginalized people on earth, because they have to deal with oppressive systems almost everywhere, and then on top of that, a largely patriarchal society. There are cultural and religious reasons for things being the way they are. A wife having to be submissive for instance - is referenced from the Bible, and misinterpreted. Gender based violence is at an all time high too - these are but some of the burdens carried by Indigenous Women.
Q: What would the world look like if gender equality goals were met? And not just for white women....or black women....but for ALL women?
A: I will answer for South Africa. Since the advent of democracy in South Africa, we have seen transformation happening in all spheres of business, government and elsewhere. White males are still largely in management positions, and there is definitely a long way to go - but transformation is evident. We do see more people of colour on television all the time, in sports, and behind the steering wheel of large corporates. Some are calling for radical transformation and understandably so - but I believe that 400 years of colonialism will not turn on its head overnight.
Q: How do you think current laws are being used to both empower and disempower indigenous people?
A: In a South African context, we are just starting to make inroads as far as the recognition of Indigenous Peoples is concerned. Although South Africa is one of the states that has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - we are not yet recognized as Indigenous Peoples - as Khoi or San People, as First Nation - as is in Australia for instance. It’s different here because we are all African - law makers are African and we have all suffered under colonial rule.
Q: What stereotypes exist about indigenous women? About Indigenous people and women who are queer, two-spirit, trans? Does anyone benefit from these stereotypes, and why are they upheld? What are the consequences of these stereotypes?
A:This is such a big issue all over the Indigenous world, that our next edition of CSQ is dedicated to it - I will share the link with you so that you can hear first hand.
Q: I’ve read briefly about the alarming number of indigenous women that were missing or murdered, especially in Canada. Could you elaborate on this? Is this still a prevalent problem? In what ways do stereotypes about gender and sexuality contribute to the problem of this violence against Indigenous women and girls?
A: At a journalism conference a few months ago, I got the chance to meet Connie Walker, who produced the podcast series called “Finding Cleo”, and we listened to her as she explained in depth the sad realities faced by Indigenous families in Canada, not only in the past, but also today. Indigenous folks from Canada are not the only ones who have experienced these atrocities - it is indeed shared by other indigenous peoples around the world. At the same conference we were introduced, for example, to the author of a story from Australia, called “Blood on the tracks”. This story chronicles an unsolved murder mystery of Mark Haines, an Indigenous Australian boy. Both of these podcasts are available online. Although Canada and Australia are worlds apart, these stories bare resemblance.
Q: In what ways do stereotypes about race and indigeneity intersect with gender and sexuality (i.e., stereotypes specifically about Indigenous women and girls, and Indigenous people who are LGBTQ)?
A: This once again is a question that CS has dedicated an entire edition of our quarterly magazine to. I will share the link with you.
Q: Okay. I’d like to shift just a little bit and then I’ll get to questions regarding health access. Could you talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What is the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People?
A:Its the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People that you are probably referring to. I will give you some text from un.org’s website to define this. Today, the Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. It establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples
Q: Now, before we go. Shaldon, I reached out to you because I read an article about indigenous women’s rights and noticed you are the producer of Indigenous Rights Radio. Tell us about what brought you to this position….your story. Also, tell us about Indigenous Rights Radio and how we can tune in.
A:As an Indigenous person who wants to be heard, I was instantly attracted to the idea of Indigenous Rights Radio. So as a producer, I am responsible for writing scripts related to Indigenous Peoples Rights, Interviewing Indigenous Peoples and finding creative ways of putting radio programs together, that is distributed all over the world to wherever Indigenous Peoples are found. We have a broad network of radio stations who we send our material to. Our material is produced in Spanish, English and Indigenous languages. Our programs are available at rights.culturalsurvival.org and is free to distribute.
Q: So, we’re coming to a close now. And I greatly appreciate you taking time of your busy schedule to shed light on indigenous women everywhere. We talked about a lot, and I would like to thank you for increasing my own knowledge about indigenous women. As I strive to be an advocate for vulnerable populations of women, my last question would have to be...What are ways that fellow women can support indigenous women rights?
A: It is important to understand our struggle. Nobody receives less attention then we do. On a global level, the people who care most about the earth are not acknowledged enough. Acknowledge us. Understand us. Know that we have been here, and we will remain. In a South African context, it is important to understand what Sarah Baartman went through, and why we needed to get her body back to South Africa. In Bolivia, there was the martyr Bartolina Sisa. Today, there are Indigenous women who stand up for causes that are of particular importance to us as the collective Indigenous population. Pua Case and Mauna Kea in Hawaii comes to mind immediately. If you cannot physically be with Pua and fight alongside women like her - talk about it, write about it, vlog about it. Awareness goes a long way in making our voices heard.
About Shaldon Ferris and Indigenous Rights Radio
When asked what the biggest issues he sees for Indigenous communities today, Shaldon says, “Recognition. I think what all Indigenous Peoples want is recognition. By nature we are not attracted to big houses and fancy cars, just a place under the sun where we can co-exist with mankind, with enough to live off; that’s really all we want. Our history needs to be taught in schools, on radio and television, so that people will understand us. We don’t necessarily want to fit in, we just need to be respected. It is important for organizations like Cultural Survival to exist, so that ways can be found to spread awareness about the similar and ever-growing plight of Indigenous Peoples around the world. The Indigenous Peoples of South Africa’s stories need to be heard; their languages, cultures, and rituals need to be celebrated and promoted. My role at Cultural Survival will be to relay these stories.”
Indigenous Rights Radio uses the power of community radio to inform Indigenous communities of their rights. With programming produced in English, Spanish, and a growing array of Indigenous languages, we bring the voices of Indigenous Peoples around the world into dialogue about the meaning of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, their common struggles, and their innovative solutions to the problems they face. An estimated 10 million Indigenous listeners in 76 countries receive content annually in 33 Indigenous languages through our growing alliance of 1,500 Indigenous community radio stations. Indigenous Rights Radio is the only worldwide Indigenous community radio initiative that provides access to important and critical information on Indigenous Peoples rights and other key international forum discussions that impact Indigenous Peoples.
You can read Shaldon's full bio here on Cultural Survival's website.
-Telling their Own Stories: Native American Stereotypes in Art (Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, 1998)
-Indigenizing Love (Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, December 2019)
-Crossing Borders: Indigenous Movement and Forced Migration (Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, March 2020)