Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence

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In Chapter 6 of Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005), which is entitled “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence,” Smith makes the following assertion: “sexual violence…suggests that the violation of [physical and psychic] boundaries operates not on the physical but on the spiritual and psychic levels as well.” Here, this becomes very important to what Smith is offering about “spiritual appropriation,” particularly arising as a result of sexual violence. In my view, what Smith seems to touch on is the sense that sexual violence, as a physical act, enacts more than just a superficial or explicit effect on the victim but, more importantly, ravages a victim’s spiritual sense of self. When a victim recognizes their victimization through sexual violence, there arises an understanding that the victim’s spiritual awareness has been changed. For me, I see this as an understanding of the victim’s “being-in-the-world” –the Heideggerian notion that “being” is not construed simply or exclusively as a Kantian thing-in-itself, but, instead, that it is constituted “in-the-world.”

Smith’s concept of spiritual appropriation through sexual violence is rooted, first, in the knowledge of overarching power structures, changes in power paradigms between the victim and the victimizer, and the positionality of powerlessness. Of course, what makes Smith’s concept particularly resonate with me is the degree to which sexual violence experienced by Native peoples is not just bodily or physical, but is also tied to violence against the land, nature, and the environment. For Native peoples, the human body and the land share a critical dialectic with one another, one that is linked across an existential plane of understanding. In other words, Native peoples define their identities –the facticities of their “being” and their “being-in-the-world” –in relation to land in which they live. Smith agrees with this, arguing that “native spiritualities are land based –they are tied to the landbase from which they originate.” So, as Smith continues to rightly argue, “when the dominant society disconnects Native spiritual practices from their landbases, it undermines Native peoples’ claim that the protection of the landbase is integral to the survival of Native peoples…” In this, I find that Smith is making a very fundamental connection, a connection that is immensely valuable to re-understanding what sexual violence is. In other words, what Smith outlines is that sexual violence is not just a performative act against the human body, but one that can be related to nature. I find this to be pivotal to conceptualizing, as Smith offers in the title of her book, what “conquest” of American Indian people looks like.

Essentially, for the victimizer to truly victimize the victim, especially a victim that is a Native people, the victimizer must disconnect and undermine the Native peoples’ relationship with their land. What this means, of course, is not just physically ravaging the human body as a means of appropriating dominance, but ravaging the land. As I am sure Smith would agree, when the land of Native people is raped, pillaged, and plundered by a victimizer, a more intrinsic, more existential sense of self is also violated. As a result, the facticities of “being” and “being-in-the-world” become reconstituted into some of the following facticities of existence: “being-victimized,” “being-landless,” and “being-powerless.”

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