- Predatory Colonialism:Indigenous Women and the Violence of Sexual Objectification in the United States
In September 1954 the burlesque performer known by the stage name Princess DoMay told a reporter from the Columbus Citizen newspaper that "I'm a full-blooded halfbreed." DoMay's tongue-in-cheek declaration was equal parts sales pitch and cultural appropriation, but at the height of the Cold War no one seemed to care. Men, mostly white men, kept turning up at her shows and buying the magazines in which she appeared, always in provocative poses. DoMay's persona, contrived with her manager and husband, Doug Bonde, was a financially profitable fraud. She knew how to capitalize on racial and sexual stereotypes, parlaying her white privilege into a curated public persona as a racially exotic and sexually accessible Cherokee woman.
How did DoMay, and scores of other white women, get away with this fraud? What historical damage did it perpetuate? And how can an Indigenous feminist reading of the past illuminate paths toward sexual sovereignty and empowered women and girls within nurturing communities? This article addresses these questions by focusing on "redface" performers in twentieth-century burlesque and evaluating how Playboy magazine perpetuated predatory representations of women claiming to have Indigenous ancestry. Engaging in this type of historical analysis is traumatic and can be triggering [End Page 253] to some people, but it is important work because it helps to contextualize the enduring legacies of cultural stereotypes and their real-world, predatory consequences. DoMay's public image, or the representation of women asserting Indigenous heritage in the pages of Playboy, drew on what the Esselen and Chumash writer and poet Deborah Miranda calls the "squaw slut," a caricature that represented Indigenous women's sexuality as "savage," disordered, and promiscuous.1
The "squaw slut" imagery has a long history in North America. It is one half of a gendered and racist stereotype, inverting the image of the "squaw drudge," a staple of American popular culture that endured in Cold War era movies and novels during the late twentieth century.2 In stark contrast to her more provocative alter ego, the "squaw drudge" was an overworked Indigenous woman who routinely fell prey to physical exploitation and abuse at the hands of Indigenous men. Together, these stereotypes presented Indigenous women as either victims of male violence or wanton harlots willing to prostitute themselves and participate in acts of sexual hedonism. For centuries, settlers reused these toxic tropes to frame what they imagined was a tangled web of pathology in Indigenous communities. They ignored the multitude of ways in which Indigenous people—especially women and people with fluid gender identities—nurtured kinship connections, respected the bodily autonomy and spiritual value of other living beings, and sought to empower community members with knowledge of their collective past that honored ancestors and guided vibrant futures. Together, these qualities inform a decolonial ethic and give meaning to the term "sexual sovereignty," a concept that emphasizes the importance of Native nations having the legal powers to protect their citizens from the sexual violence directed at them by individuals from settler society. The ethos of sexual sovereignty also serves to empower Indigenous individuals to reclaim healthy sexual relationships free from colonial tropes and legal interference.3
The predatory nature of settler colonialism in North America worked instead to eliminate sovereign Indigenous nations and sever people from kinship communities. My use of the word "predatory" in the title of this article is therefore very deliberate. The word "predator" is derived from the Latin praedator, meaning one who seizes, or plunders, from others, and it is therefore an apt description of settler colonialism in North America and the [End Page 254] structures used to invade Indigenous lands and bodies.4 Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, European colonizers were at pains to justify their predatory practices: "savages," they argued, failed to make the land productive, and "heathens" needed their souls saved by Christian missionaries. By the time the United States formed at the end of the eighteenth century, the pornography of frontier violence and the voyeurism of settler representations of Indigenous bodies were all too common parts of American popular...