The Urban Indigenous Woman: What Does That Even Mean?

What does it mean to be an urban Indigenous woman, and how does that impact our health, reproductive options and rights and access to care we need? It often means we are separated from our homelands, our cultures and even other Indigenous people. It means we are navigating how to rebuild those connections while holding onto whatever scraps of culture and tradition we can. It affects us because our needs and access to care look very different from on the reservation. It means our sexual assault rates and other demographic data points may not be counted in official numbers. It means many of our children who can “pass” due to light skin, or who are mixed and more in touch with other identities, do not consider themselves Indigenous. It means we are living and working in white-dominated spaces, and we are more likely to be in interracial romantic relationships. It means we may have found safe places to acknowledge we are queer, in gender and/or sexuality, but often those same spaces disrespect or appropriate our cultures.

Thanks to the Indian Termination policies and Indian Relocation Act of the 1950s, thousands of Indigenous people were forced to move to urban centers across the country from their reservations, an attempt to break us from ties to our families, cultures and traditions. Indigenous people are about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population and 4.3 percent of the Canadian population. These numbers are based on tribally enrolled members, however, so it leaves out those of us who are not enrolled due to adoption out of the tribe, disenfranchisement, increasing interracial marriage and other factors –  all of which are common amongst urban Indigenous people. Black Indigenous people, in particular, due to the history of slavery, rarely have the documentation necessary to be tribally enrolled. Without tribal enrollment, many of us find ourselves stuck in the Urban Indian Blues, whereby we lack community and access to our traditional ways, even as our identity informs our lived reality. Indigenous people are also the only people required to show such documented proof of enrollment to be allowed to self-identify as Indigenous, and because the option in demographic requests for “two or more races” usually does not allow us to specify which two or more, our numbers appear much lower than they truly are. Besides the convenience to the state of low numbers (i.e. lowered responsibility to tribes), this also means the issues faced as Indigenous women are not all uniform.

For Indigenous women, being away from our traditional family structures and communities leaves us feeling isolated and especially vulnerable during complicated times, such as when navigating romantic relationships, trying to make sexual and reproductive health choices, pregnancy/childbirth/parenting, dealing with a health crisis, mental illness, disability, experiencing discrimination and racism and struggling with abuse or sexual assault. We may, in fact, be more vulnerable precisely because of that sense of isolation. Sexual assault rates for Indigenous women are three times higher than for the general population – and that is based on reporting of assaults and documented Indigenous status, so we know those figures are low. If an Indigenous woman does not have family and community around her, not only is assault more possible but her ability to work through the trauma is compromised. In addition, existing support services may not be culturally competent for her needs and may further traumatize her.

The Urban Indigenous Woman faces unique challenges navigating identity, health and well-being. The Urban Indigenous Woman needs unique resources for self-care, empowerment and reconnection with her traditions. The Urban Indigenous Woman is me. I am a light-skinned Indigenous daughter of an urban Indigenous man and a light-skinned white and Black mother. I was adopted very young and raised by a white family in an urban environment. I am a single mother, a sexual assault and domestic abuse survivor with PTSD and a self-employed artist and birth worker after a lifetime of education and workplace discrimination. The Urban Indigenous Woman is me, and if it’s also you, let’s talk!