Sarah Deer, Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. - See more at:

The Feministing Five: Sarah Deer

Sarah Deer, Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. - See more at:

Sarah Deer, Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Professor Sarah Deer is one of the newest MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellows who were announced earlier this week. She is an incredible legal scholar and community advocate for Native women’s safety and health. Sarah is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.

Native American women living on reservations face one of the highest per capita rates of violent crime in the world, but are often left with horribly insufficient means of justice. Tribal courts are impeded by limited jurisdictional powers and authority, and lack of resources; and as such, it is very difficult to prosecute those who commit these horrible crimes. 

Sarah Deer, however, is using an arsenal of legal theory, law, and policy creation to envision creative solutions that combat these injustices. Whether it is refocusing assaults on Native women as a matter of international human rights to gain attention from the world or researching the traditional ways Native Americans have combatted sexual assault to gain inspiration for the future, Sarah continues to innovative against violence.

Thanks to the MacArthur Fellowship, Sarah will receive over $625,000 to continue her work and activism. We are so grateful for her work, thrilled about this recognition, and excited for her future.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Sarah Deer!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today, and congratulations on your MacArthur Fellowship! I’m eager to learn about your reaction when you discovered you won this incredible opportunity. What was running through your head? 

Sarah Deer: Well, it was very emotional and overwhelming, and then I wasn’t allowed to share the information. I found out a little over two weeks ago. The award committee is very, very strict about the surprise element. They said, “You can tell one person.” Fortunately, it was my husband, and he also works at the law school here. He was able to be here within seconds to pick my sorry, sad, overwhelmed eyes off the floor. I was verklempt, you could say.

SB: You are an esteemed legal expert and a community leader. Could you share with our readers a bit more about your work? 

SD: I identify as an indigenous feminist. For many years, that label didn’t resonate with many Native people who saw feminism as something for middle class, white women. Our issues as Native women are quite different. For me, my work in looking how laws affect Native women and centering legal analysis from the perspective of Native women is a feminist approach to the law. It’s woman-centered and necessarily requires a critique of the status quo.

My work on federal Indian law has been focused on violent crime, and that’s a little unique. In the scholarly field of federal Indian law, a lot of the attention has been focused–and rightly I think–on treaty rights, natural resources, and other sovereignty matters. When I started tiptoeing into academia, I brought something a little bit different and it was grounded in my work as a rape crisis counselor and a feminist. I brought a new perspective to the field of Indian federal law.

SB: Knowing that I was speaking to a professor today, I “did the reading” and I learned about your proposal for a Native woman centered model of adjudication to gender violence. What would that entail today? 

SD: I’m still working on my answer; maybe this fellowship will give me the space to articulate something more specific! One of the things that I know from looking at old archives of historical tribal life is that violence against women was not tolerated. It was not something that you could get away with. It was something that was dealt with immediately. What were we doing at that time that we aren’t doing now?

Tribes, by and large, have adopted the Western law and order model and have replicated a system that has harmed us immensely. But we have done it for reasons that make sense, or that made sense at the same, such as survival and legitimacy. But now, it’s time to rethink that. What would our systems look like if we did not have to follow the Western law and order model? It’s liberating to think that way, but it’s also very overwhelming.

If we could write rape law from scratch with none of the history and baggage of the American legal system, what would it look like? So the Native woman centered model is sort of like thinking upside down in a way, having to approach gender violence without the trappings or the baggage of the Western system.

I feel strongly that one of the things that we could do in tribal courts is to not only to provide an attorney for defendants, but also to make sure that every victim has an attorney. That is something that we wouldn’t be able to really do in the existing federal system because it’s not really set up like that. It’s not set up to allow victims that kind of leverage. We can do those things in tribal law because we are not bound by the structures or the rules of Western law.

We could put together a panel of elders, grandmothers in the community who could counsel and correct the behavior of people who are abusive. In many of our communities, it’s the elder women who really have the most power. What if we provided not just that cultural power, but the legal power as well? I think people would be held accountable in a more genuine way. So putting people’s voices at the center of our processes is exciting and innovative, but at the same time it is very traditional.

SB: When I thought about you and your MacArthur award, I reflected on how not only would would this make your legal work more influential, but more importantly, the wider public would hear about your root issue — how Native women are particularly exposed to gender violence thanks to federal and tribal complications. This is especially important, since as you and Lauren Chief Elk remind us,  the mainstream media frequently fails to cover this violence in your communities. 

Now that you have more readers learning about your work, what would you want them to remember? What should be their takeaways? 

SD: That is such a great question. I think if you are not familiar with tribal culture, traditions, nations, please, please educate yourself. There is so much good in our communities. Sometimes my work is focused on the negative, on the sad things about Native people. Sometimes that eclipses the story of our strength and resilience as Native people. I think it’s important to find those positive and inspiring stories about Native women so that we are not consistently hearing a stereotype and bad news. There are a lot of amazing books and websites to educate yourself.

It’s also really important to listen to Native women. A lot of times Native women are marginalized even in progressive politics. I would want people to make a space, and to allow us claim that space on our own terms. It’s a really important part of developing collaborative efforts.

I also want people to know that part of ending gender violence is thinking about the origin of gender violence. On this continent, the origin of gender violence came from Europe. If we can resolve and find justice for original women of this continent, that can then center all of the work around it. So we aren’t a special interest group–we hold that if we can resolve the harm and the trauma that Native women have experienced, we are on the right path to resolve it for all of us, for all women. To think of indigenous feminism in this way–that is something that I really want people to think about.

SB: What would you tell a young woman in your community who is inspired by your successes? 

SD: I talk to a lot of young Native women who have survived sexual abuse and violence. I always like to say, “You’re not obligated to make this your life work.” When some people start to address the harm that they have experienced, it’s exhausting. So if you want to go into music, physics, write short stories, do those things. You owe the world nothing. Your surviving is the best thing you can bring to the world.

I’ll tell you what happened to me. I politicize sexual violence and have for a long time, but then I battled breast cancer a few years ago. I have, sadly to say, no real interest to politicize that experience. Breast cancer is inherently political, and I could have jumped into that world, but it would have taken all of my time.

So again, you don’t owe the world activism on a particular issue just because you’ve experienced it. Don’t feel obligated and find what makes you happy! There are always ways to contribute! If you want to raise your child and not have a paycheck, you are doing the world a tremendous gift. Whatever you want to do, whatever your passion is, don’t worry about whether or not it’s making the world a better place; it is just because it’s something that you love to do.

SB:  And finally for our traditional last question. Pretend you are stranded on a desert island, you get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick? 

SD: For food, I’m going to have to say Sweetheart candy. For drink, I know this isn’t politically correct, but it’s Diet Coke. For a feminist, I really want to talk to Sarah Winnemucca. She was a woman who lived in the 19th century, and she was very outspoken. Sarah went to the President, and shamed him to his face. She told the truth about the sexual violence that she and her sister were facing as a result of violent settler attacks and the military. I doubt anyone was using the term “feminist” back then, but it would be so amazing to hear her speak about these issues. She was a badass and she was the first Native woman to write a book in the United States.

Suzy 1


 Suzanna Bobadilla is very very very grateful for her full year with Feministing. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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