Indigenous Women – Sex and Conquest in the Colonial Era

Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers by Joane Nagel
Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers by Joane Nagel

Indigenous women became subject to the sexual attraction of colonial men almost immediately upon their arrival to the continent. Colonialists would describe indigenous people as sexually lewd, denigrating various practices, like the embracing of gender-nonconforming Two-Spirit people. Joane Nagel describes these relations as “cartographies of desire” which intermingled the desire for land with the desire for sex/women. This intermixing of indigenous and Spanish people would lead to a sizable population of people who ultimately became a new class in the colonial era known as mestizos.

Europeans traded their goods in exchange for sex with indigenous women, while simultaneously holding indigenous men and White women to a different standard. This arrangement allowed the men to forge commercial ties, express hospitality to indigenous people, and obtain spiritual power over the population as well. Nevertheless, the exchange of cultures soon led to the rape, forced prostitution, and enslavement of indigenous people:

The poverty resulting from forced Indian removals from homelands and the destruction of indigenous economy left many Native communities destitute”1

While men turned to thievery to survive, women engaged in prostitution. Colonial men profited from the disruption of indigenous life through the South Carolina Indian Trade. Beyond that, the treatment of indigenous people was made culturally acceptable through the erotic imaginings of the Indian captivity narrative.

These narratives depicted Whites as targets of indigenous sexually dangerous indigenous men. The dime novels thus helped place White masculinity as superior to that of indigenous people. Furthermore, the idea that indigenous people were dangerous helped justify the exploitation of Natives.

Depicting indigenous men as “strong” warriors implied that they should be killed. The narratives also helped refashion women as dangerous, thus justifying the rape and murders while concealing rampant mistreatment.

The perceived problem of White men engaging with indigenous women came with various social sanctions. Before independence from colonial rule, they were seen as disloyal. Afterward, some argued abstaining from sex with indigenous women ensured White security and morality. Others believed intermingling would lead to the improvement of the “Indian race.”

Mixed race people, in particular, occupied a position as middlemen who served the interests of White colonial rule. Ultimately, the embrace of miscegenation served as the precursor to reservations and forced acculturation through boarding schools in the 20th century. This reservation system then opened up the west to the settlement by Americans.

Thereafter White men integrated aspects of indigenous masculinity into their own in order to develop “American” masculinity as the society shifted from rural to urban centers. White men desired to be associated with the virility of Native masculinity, even dawning their cultural symbols during the Boston Tea Party. They also used indigenous symbols for their fraternal orders.

Through Manifest Destiny, the newly formed American nation reinscribed Americanness to Whiteness with the reservation system, simultaneously rendering Natives as symbols of a conquered past, particularly through Wild West shows and film. These shows depicted westward expansion as the inalienable right of Americans. Furthermore, they helped reinforced notions of Whiteness as civilized and indigenous people as savage, reinforcing American triumphalism by using the “Indian as a mirror in which hegemonic masculinity could gaze at itself.”

  1. Nagel 2003:70 
  2. Nagel 2003:81