As the #MeToo movement surges on, elevating the national conversation around sexual assault and gender inequality, Professor Heather Shotton believes one crucial population is missing from the discussion.
“Thirty-four percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetime,” Shotton told her audience at the University of Akron, “the highest per capita rate in the nation. The fact that Native voices are absent from [Me Too] is part of the problem.”
Shotton’s delivery at the university’s Rethinking Race symposium was slow and measured, covering more than 400 years of Native American history in “Slurred Realities: Pocahontas, Misrepresentations, and Political Punchlines.” As part of the two-week forum, now in its eleventh year, Shotton was one of several keynotes centered on unraveling difficult conversations about race.
From debunking the myths fortified by the 1995 Disney classic to the arrival of Native costumes every Halloween, her talk was a visual feast of how unchecked stereotypes can color perception of an entire group.
Google “Native American women,” Shotton notes, and you’ll be bombarded with two types of images: one of the sexualized Native women, with come-hither eyes and a sexy pout, or historical portraits of women in traditional attire. “When we reduce indigenous women to nothing more than a costume or a cartoon . . . it skews our understanding of the real history. What would it look like if we shifted how we saw Indigenous women?”
As a citizen of the Wichita & Affiliated Tribes, Shotton, 41, spent the first half of her childhood in Davis, Oklahoma, a small town where she and her family enjoyed a tight-knit Native community. But when her family moved to Texas just prior to Heather’s junior high years, only three other Native students were enrolled. “There was often a black/white binary in my community,” she said. “So, you were either/or, and I wasn’t really either.”
When it came time for college, “Oklahoma was home,” she said. She received three degrees – including her doctorate – from the University of Oklahoma, where she currently teaches Native studies. In 2016, she was named Educator of the Year by the National Indian Education Association.
After her formal remarks, one student questioned how to become more informed about the issues facing Native populations. “I feel like the education many of us received was watered down,” she told Shotton.
Shotton chuckled before answering. “You’re right. It is watered down. Most of our histories were written by non-native people, so it’s a western, colonized perspective.” She urged them to read literature by indigenous authors and scholars like Adrienne Keene or Sarah Deer for an alternate viewpoint.
“Understand your place as an ally,” she cautioned the students. “Sometimes that means working behind and not taking up center stage.”