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What it takes: Warrior women

Women’s Week 2020 celebrates the knowledge and power of indigenous women and their communities.

Every year, Women’s Week at the University of Utah includes events meant to spark conversations across campus around the varying aspects of injustice impacting those who identify as female and/or women in our community. During Women’s Week 2020, featured guest and keynote speaker, Madonna Thunder Hawk (she/her) presented at two screenings of  “Warrior Women,” a recently released documentary detailing the stories of Thunder Hawk and her daughter, Marcella Gilbert.

According to Merriam-Webster, a warrior is, “a person engaged in some struggle or conflict.” Experiences of struggle and conflict are far too easy to find among American Indian populations, yet in many American Indian languages, a word that translates to “warrior” doesn’t even exist.

“Women didn’t need a designation because it was a matriarchal society, so everybody knew who was in charge,” said Thunder Hawk when describing her people, the Oohenumpa Lakota.

The focus of the Lakota and other indigenous tribal nations was focused on survival—a goal that knows no gender or age. However, as citizens of a colonized culture forced to navigate and conform to a vastly different way of living while facing numerous threats, there was truly only one English word that came close to describing the candor and drive of women like Thunder Hawk—warrior.

During a panel following one of the Women’s Week screenings of “Warrior Women,” Franci Taylor, director of the American Indian Resource Center, urged attendees not to place American Indian people in history. She said American Indian populations endure the unique dynamic of almost exclusively being referred to in the past tense in textbooks and social studies classes even though they are contemporary sovereign nations today.

Thunder Hawk described her own story as “a lifetime of resistance,” beginning with a childhood which saw children, herself included, forcibly removed from their families and placed in government-run boarding schools. At a young age, she had already been confronted with extremely aggressive, violent pressure to conform. It was during this time that Thunder Hawk remembers beginning to question authority and not simply accepting things the way they are.

Another panelist, Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law, spoke of a largely internal struggle.

“My mother grew up in a society and community where she could pass as white,” said Kronk Warner. “She didn’t learn her language, her culture or traditions until she was much older. It’s therefore odd that I’m in a place where I desperately want my culture and traditions again.”

Kronk Warner is now taking steps to both accept her upbringing outside the culture and traditions of her Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa ancestors and to learn the language and customs as a way to reclaim that part of her identity.

Among these and the many other stories panelists shared, one crucial trait, pulled right from the definition of warrior, became evident: These women weren’t just experiencing these situations, they were deciding to actively engage the conflict’s source.

“The weapon we use today to be warriors is education,” said Shirlee Silversmith, director of the Division of Indian Affairs within the Utah Department of Community and Culture.

Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, chairperson for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, advocated for starting by truly understanding the history of the issues important to you.

“Our past mistakes are what get us, so if we don’t know the past, we will never figure out our future,” said Borchardt-Slayton.

Thunder Hawk, like many other seasoned activists for whom higher education never seemed a viable option, urged younger warriors to equip themselves with knowledge.

“The halls of learning are important because we need to be able to stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the world,” said Thunder Hawk.

According to Thunder Hawk’s daughter, younger generations are taking that task very seriously.

“Especially after Standing Rock, we have a whole new generation of activists now and they’re all colors and all ages,” said Gilbert.

She attributes much of this swell in numbers to common interest, particularly in preserving basic needs such as water sources and awareness around the fact that the number of missing and murdered indigenous women is on the rise.

With such fresh energy and determination beginning to take the reins, Borchardt-Slayton acknowledges, “sometimes the lights within us dim because of environmental factors.” But each panelist reminded this new wave of warriors to find strength in their ancestors and community when it feels difficult to keep fighting.

Thunder Hawk specifically emboldened the up-and-coming generations to “wake up and take over,” but to also hold one truth close no matter what: “Your ancestors are your strength and I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do.”