Shainape Shcapwe, Native American Marxist-Humanist and Feminist


An Indigenous People’s Day Remembrance

by MHI
On this Indigenous People’s Day, we take the opportunity to remember and celebrate the life, work, and legacy of Shainape Shcapwe, the Native American Marxist-Humanist and feminist, who died 24 years ago. Helen Moore, a Yankton Sioux woman from North Dakota who was born in 1941 and blind from birth, took “Shainape Shcapwe” as her pen name.

Shcapwe’s political activism began with the Civil Rights Movement. She was part of a delegation of the Lakota people to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was later active in the Congress of Racial Equality. She was also active in the struggle for welfare rights. Shcapwe sought to make the cause of women’s liberation integral to the movements she was engaged in, and she insisted that Indigenous movements learn from and work with other freedom movements.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she was a frequent contributor to News & Letters, which was, at that time, a Marxist-Humanist newspaper, published by the Marxist-Humanist organization led by Raya Dunayevskaya. Shcapwe’s “Native American Speaks” column linked indigenous struggles in the US with those in Canada, Australia, and Latin America. She wrote about a wide range of Indigenous struggles and issues, such as forced sterilization, housing, environmental racism, fishing rights, land defense, criminalization, and exploitation of Indigenous labor in reservation factories and in urban areas.

Shainape Shcapwe’s journalism was not narrowly political. It was also theoretical and philosophical. She challenged the rejection of Marxism by American Indian leaders like Russell Means and Vine Deloria, arguing that what they were actually rejecting were distortions of Marxism they had encountered, but that this was not a good reason to reject genuine Marxism. In addition, she also challenged claims that Marxism is essentially Eurocentric. She argued that Marx’s concept of alienation was relevant to the marginalized status of women in the Native American movement. And she described the purpose of Marxist-Humanist thought and activity as “working out a philosophy for what we really want, especially what we want after the revolution.”

Here are a few of her articles:


Wanrow and Serena Cases Confirm Brutality Against Indians

July 1975

Yvonne Wanrow, a Colville Indian woman living in Spokane, Wash., faces the possibility of as much as 30 years in prison because she shot and killed the man who had more than once molested her children and those of a friend and neighbor. This man was known to the police as a child molester.

Mrs. Wanrow’s friend reported to the police that this was the same man who raped her seven-year-old daughter and gave her a venereal disease, and the police did nothing.

In Armstrong County, Pa., Norma Jean Serena, a Creek Shawnee woman, not only had her three children taken away from her, but was sterilized without proper consent. Her doctor told her that she shouldn’t have any more children for health reasons and that she could produce mentally retarded babies. But the hospital reported the reason for her being made infertile was a “socio-economic” one.

I know women on reservations who either were never told that they were being sterilized, or were frightened into having the operation by doctors who told them that any number of bad things can happen to them if they have any more children.

It’s also true on reservations that children are taken from their families, especially when the head of the family is a woman. They are placed in homes of white families and never know or see their mothers again. With some assistance, many of these families wouldn’t have to be separated.

What happened to Yvonne Wanrow and Norma Jean Serena should never have happened. There is nothing more natural than a woman protecting her children from harm. And the choice to be made sterile has to be a woman’s willing decision, and hers alone.

When I told a friend of mine about these two women, he asked me if my sources of information were correct. He acted as though these things couldn’t happen to people right here in the U.S.

To women who are either underprivileged or a minority, these things happen too often. Women from all walks of life are going to have to know that. Both Mrs. Wanrow and Mrs. Serena need help; you can write to the Yvonne Wanrow Legal Defense Committee, 2517 W. Broadway, Spokane, Wash. 99201, and for Mrs. Serena, the Patients Rights Program, 207 Oakland Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15213.


Native Americans Learn from Black Movement

November 1975

What I want to write about isn’t something that has made news headlines, but it can be as harmful to the movement as some of the FBI’s activities have been. I’m talking about racism. I don’t mean the hatred we feel toward the white man’s racism and oppression.

I was talking to an Indian friend about busing. He said that he felt that if Indians could send their children to school with white kids then they couldn’t object to sending them with Black kids. What a slap in the face! He was laughing as he said it, but it struck me as a completely negative attitude. He’s ignoring the whole history of Black people in the U.S.

Another Indian acquaintance of mine wrote that life in South Dakota is much worse than life was in Mississippi in the 1950s before the Civil Rights Movement. She admitted, though, that she’d never been in Mississippi at that time.

Some people feel, and that includes members of my family, that Native Americans have their own culture and life style, and that if we learn to live the traditional way we will be doing enough to keep the movement alive. That’s not enough. Learning the culture is an important part of the movement, but it is not the entire movement. It shouldn’t keep us from sharing our experiences with other oppressed people.

One of the main objectives of the American Indian Movement is to set up Indian Survival Schools all over the country. One of the main speakers at the fifth annual AIM Convention at White Earth, Minn., was a man who worked for the Federal Government. He explained how to get federal money to set up these schools.

Why didn’t they get someone who had helped set up the Black Freedom Schools in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement? They were started to teach people how to survive then. They didn’t use government funding. They used their own initiative to make these schools work. It would have been so much better to talk to people who knew what white oppression is and who have had experience resisting it.

When I was a teenager, Robert Burnette, who was then in South Dakota, encouraged Indians to take part in the Civil Rights Movement. It was at his suggestion that some of us took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. He felt that we could learn from the Black Movement. He was right.

I don’t mean that we always have to agree with each other, but we can learn from each other’s experiences. Exchanging ideas and taking part in activities can strengthen both movements. Black support at Wounded Knee and Indian support at Montgomery are examples.


Regina Brave Links Reservation Oppression, Black Urban Racism

December 1975

I first heard about Regina Brave when I read her account of the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973. It was in the pamphlet, “Black, Brown and Red.” I was excited about her description of the way people of all races worked and lived together. She wrote that both men and women shared in the decision-making as well as the work.

I looked forward to meeting her for almost two years. She is a spokeswoman for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee. Their headquarters are in Rapid City, S.D., a town near the Pine Ridge Reservation.

She was invited to speak at a big teach-in (Nov. 2-4) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During that same week she made several speeches in Detroit, reporting on important Indian developments.

On June 25, at about the same time as the shooting of the two F.B.I. agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Dick Wilson, head of the Tribal Council, sold about one-fifth of the reservation, to the federal government. This was done without the approval of the Tribe.

Regina feels that this was the reason the federal government wanted Wilson as head of the Tribal Council. Now that he has outlived his usefulness, the federal government won’t insure his re-election with the same devious tactics they used before. Elections on Pine Ridge will be taking place soon, and Regina hopes that this time one of the traditional chiefs will be able to win that election.

Regina said, “I had to leave the reservation to learn about racism. I moved to a suburb of Boston and lived with Black people. I faced the racism that they had to face with them. It was then that I really knew what racism was.” My experiences were the same as Regina’s.

Near my reservation. Fort Totten, N.D., there was a town of about 1,200 people. Those of us that could did most of our shopping there. We tried always to give the clerks the exact amount of the purchase. We knew that we would never get our change back if we didn’t.

What I’m trying to point out is how the isolated life on the reservation can dull some of the realities of the everyday injustices shown to the people. Regina said that it was the urban Indian that organized the American Indian Movement. When Indians were relocated to the cities, they saw other minorities fighting for their rights. They came back to the reservations and showed the people there that they didn’t have to accept racism and injustice as a way of life. Both reservation and urban Indians fought together at Wounded Knee, and at Shiprock, N.M.

Regina feels as I do that it will take the drive and enthusiasm of the urban Indian and the direction that has to come from the reservation Indian to keep this movement going.

One of the most exciting things she said was that she felt that the minorities had to become involved in each others’ movements. In this way, we can learn to accept and appreciate the differences in each other as well as the ways that we’re alike. It is the only way that we can help ourselves and each other in the struggle for the freedom that we all want.


Native Americans: 10 Years After Wounded Knee

May 1983

I would have to say that economically the conditions of Native Americans haven’t changed a heck of a lot. Indian fishermen in Michigan, like on the Bay Mills reservation, are nowhere. Many are on welfare, not fishing like they want to be. They were frozen out economically. And it isn’t just in Michigan. On my reservation in Fort Totten, N.D. a factory was started after Wounded Knee, with CETA programs and government contracts. They set it up to be dependent on war production. It was planned to employ about 400 from different reservations, making parachutes for the Army and shell casings. Now the contracts are being cut off and they are constantly in danger of closing down, with no private contracts. Only 150 workers are left.

The factory in Shiprock, N.M. that received so much publicity is the same way — it’s not nearly as big as it used to be. Even when it was hiring it was no good. I wrote about it years ago in N&L and called it “Sweatshops on the reservation.”

After Wounded Knee the government also started some housing programs, but the housing is like the projects in Detroit. It’s the cheapest kind of housing, and three years after they put it up for the factory on our reservation, it is falling apart. People are freezing in the North Dakota winter. They didn’t take into account the environment.

“We Will Fight for this Land”

Today people remember Wounded Knee. They will never forget it. But they are very careful now; they know where and when to talk. They are talking quietly among themselves on the reservations I know in North and South Dakota. They don’t just run off and do any old thing, but they are thinking and planning about how to change conditions, how to challenge the powers on the tribal council.

Eight years ago I wrote: “The most important accomplishment we have made is not that we have found ways to make the white man listen to us, but that we have gained a new awareness of our own strength and ability.” Today I feel that is more true than ever, because we are not ever going to put up with the kind of thing they tried to do in the 1950s, when they tried to get rid of the whole reservation system and move us to the cities — what they called “termination.” Watt and Reagan want to try that again, but they will have much more trouble than they did in the 1950s. Watt and Reagan are running a public relations campaign now, saying that there is “socialism” on the reservations, and hinting that termination of government aid is called for.

They are mistaken if they think we will just give up the reservations and leave. We will fight for this land, because it is all we have after America was stolen from us. In the 1950s they did “terminate” the Menominee and the Klamath, and they were working real hard to do the same on a lot of other reservations. People were willing to leave then and try it in the cities. My brother and I did. When we went to Chicago we had no idea what we would find. Today people know better; they wouldn’t go because there is nothing for us in the cities. They know what the conditions are.

When I remember Wounded Knee today, it isn’t the guns we had or the standoff with the FBI and the marshals. It’s how we organized ourselves and made Wounded Knee work despite the conditions of being under fire. It’s how decisions were made and people of many tribes learned to work with each other. The generation that grew up since Wounded Knee feels differently about being Indian, about our culture. They know the struggle isn’t over. Some of them are talking of getting real health care. Not the kind the Public Health Service brings to the reservation, but health care that considers people. The doctors we have now don’t understand us. You talk to them and they don’t hear what you are saying. Forced sterilization was something they could practice so easily because it wasn’t people they were dealing with, it was Indians.

Feminism in Our Movement

I feel that it is much easier to talk about racism and about sexism in the Indian movement than it used to be years ago. But there is still a real need for feminism. I’m so, sick of the way men often view women in our movement. It’s like: “We’re happy that you’re here. Make food, watch the kids, and that’s it.”

On my reservation women still have to struggle, and we are getting stronger about it. We had a tribal meeting last November, a very important meeting to consider what to do about the government’s offer to settle the suit we brought to get back the Black Hills. But they didn’t want women in the meeting. Then they said women could come to it, but only men could vote.

I was opposed to accepting the government’s money offer, and 1 wrote a letter about it. But they said women’s votes shouldn’t be considered because when the Fort Laramie treaty was signed in 1868, only men could agree to it. That was the way it was negotiated then, so they said that was the way it should be considered now. Many women protested and they had to let women participate. The offer was turned down and we are still demanding our land back.

Actually one of the most important parts of our movement today is in Central America. I just finished reading Guatemalan Revolutionaries Speak. It was so exciting, so impressive, to see what the Indian people have done in Guatemala to organize themselves and rise up against oppression. Very few people on the reservations today know about this. I wish they did. It made me want to be in Guatemala and see it for myself. What they did, bringing 22 Indian nations together is what we need now. We have learned to join together with other aboriginal people around the world, but we still can learn more from Guatemala. I would say that ten years after Wounded Knee there is still a long way to go for us to be free in our own country.


Indian Land Claims

June 1983

All the reservations of the Lakota Nation — in North and South Dakota, and in Montana — rejected the government’s offer of money to “compensate” us for the way the whites stole the Black Hills from us in the treaty of 1868. In each tribe we met, and each one said “no.” When we heard that the money would come out to $280, per person for the whole Black Hills, we said, “that’s insane!” But it isn’t just more money we want. We are through with just raising the ante, just asking for money. We want the land back — the Black Hills.

Now there is a response from President Reagan. He vetoed a bill passed by Congress to pay $900,000 for the Pequot tribe in Connecticut to buy back 800 acres taken from them. And he suggested instead that the Pequots be paid $8,091 — the value of the land when it was taken in 1856. This position is part of his racist backlash against everybody. It used to be that the President just signed the bill after the compensation agreement was made. Now he is saying: “we’re not a government for people like you”.

The backlash extends to the 17 tribally-controlled community colleges. These were set up in the last few years on reservations in the West. I know of one at Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock reservation. They hired Indian teachers and gave Indian youth a chance to take college courses. But now Reagan vetoed all federal assistance to these schools, trying to force them to close. Reagan said: “The federal government does not have a responsibility to support college-level Indian education.” This new action is the latest attack on our schooling, but he had already cut out nearly all scholarships for Indian students to go to colleges off the reservations. If Reagan thinks that by taking away money for education he can stop our resistance, he is fooling himself. We already know so much more than we did before the movement began, and we will not turn back now.


Indian Movement Needs Genuine Marxism

December 1985

When I was at the Fort Totten Reservation in North Dakota recently, people were talking about getting housing repaired so they could survive through the winter. The government had repaired some of the rundown pre-fab housing, but not enough. So people were talking about how to survive by living together in large groups in buildings in town like they did last winter despite opposition from the bureaucratic system there. Ever since last winter’s protest against cuts in food stamps for those living together, people are feeling they can deal with each other more, instead of looking to the leadership for answers or feeling isolated.

At the same time, I have been reading Marxism and Native Americans, edited by Ward Churchill. I thought about it in relation to life at Fort Totten. This book is supposed to speak to Marxism, but it doesn’t. It has a narrow view of Marxism, saying that Marxism is “Eurocentered” and only speaks to labor, so Marx can’t help us. And it has a narrow view of Indians, saying that all we want is to maintain our land. It says we have so little in common with other peoples and philosophies that we don’t need to deal with them.

For me, the best part of Marxism and Native Americans was the preface by Winona Laduke. She used to say in the early 1970s that we older Indians have been brutalized so much by the system, and the younger ones of us don’t want to take it anymore. They want to totally transform this society. But they can’t do it alone, she said. We have to look for others who want to change things. But she also said, don’t take other philosophies at face value.

Indians and the Left

Many people in the Indian Movement sought out Left groups to belong to in the early 1970s. People felt — and still feel — the importance of Marx’s philosophy. But some of us threw ourselves at different organizations in the Left, and got used.

Chapter 1 of the book is Russell Means’ speech at the 1980 Black Hills Survival Gathering, “The Same Old Song.” His criticism of “Marxism” is really a criticism of the U.S. Left movement based on his personal experiences. Means did at least one tour of universities with Angela Davis, trying to fundraise for both the Communist Party and the American Indian Movement. But when the CP and others started saying, if you want to work with us you have to speak our philosophy, there was a parting of the ways.

I see why Russell Means says what he does after the experiences with those groups. But that is not a good enough reason to not explore Marx’s own philosophy, and I don’t think Means really did. In the last few years people have been talking about Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks, the last known writings of Marx, written in 1881-83, which criticized the anthropological works of the time, especially with the 1982 publication of Raya Dunayevskaya’s book, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution. You can see more clearly than ever that it was not true that Marx was Eurocentered.

In Vine Deloria’s chapter, “Circling the Same Old Rock,” he says that as opposed to Marxism, the Native American Movement doesn’t deal with alienation because alienation is not within our culture. I want to disagree with that. Not long ago we were talking, and I asked Deloria if the way we deal with women in the Indian Movement isn’t a form of alienation, then what is it? So often the whole tribe will get together to work out what we want, and the women will contribute ideas as well as the men. Then what usually happens is the men will go off for the ceremonial rituals and work the decisions out in the tribal council.

Women and Alienation

Lately this has been changing some. One of the reasons Alice One Bear at Fort Totten is being listened to now is because she played such an important role during the protest against food stamp cuts last year. She organized people through her emotional appeal when she said that we can’t give in to a system that will kill us. Now she has more respect in the community.

I pointed out to Vine Deloria the first time I’d ever heard the phrase, “woman as force and Reason of revolution” was in Philosophy and Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya. I liked the idea of being thought of as part of a revolutionary movement in that way. So I think that sexism is one form of alienation that does exist in the Native American movement.

This relates to how Marx didn’t only talk about labor. In his Ethnological Notebooks, Marx discussed Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society. Morgan had looked at how men and women worked together in the Iroquois tribe. It was a form of equality, where women had a part in the decision-making process. But Morgan made it sound as if this equality was readily agreed to. I think the women actually had to make a point to say that they were the ones who knew what was going on at home with the agriculture, and the men needed to talk to them about problems at home before they went off to war.

In Marx’s notes on Morgan he pointed out that even though women worked within the tribe and had some place within the leadership, it was given to them by the tribal chiefs. It was true then and it’s true now. No matter how hard women fight for their rights, it’s still given by the men, and where it’s given, it’s only a privilege not a freedom.

Russell Means and Vine Deloria talk about how we would have to give up our own principles to ally with Marxism. The real problem is that we didn’t define our principles clearly enough for ourselves. Our idea of revolution has become too narrow. People who got discouraged are saying we’re just a land-based struggle, trying to keep our land, and have even rejected allying with other Third World struggles — yet who could understand us better than Africa?

Ward Churchill, as editor of Marxism and Native Americans, went a long way to justify not only for himself but for the rest of us why we can’t work with Marx’s ideas. To me almost no part of it really speaks to Marxism. At the same time, you still see people trying to figure ideas about how to survive, like at Fort Totten. Our reservation has gotten closer together, in presenting a force against the system that you can’t tear apart.

I think that Marxist-Humanism speaks to working out a philosophy, for what we really want, especially what we want after the revolution. In the past people have taken bits and pieces of Marx to suit the time, and wound up being misled, rather than really studying Marx. That can’t be the way anymore.


“Red Capitalism” Won’t Work on Reservation

May 8, 1987

The cuts in federal spending by the Reagan Administration have affected Indians living on and off the reservations dramatically in our everyday lives — from education and employment to health care and housing. I don’t know of any people as profoundly hurt by Reaganism as we have been, and we are trying to do something about it.

Dennis Banks and Peter McDonald

Lately though, I’ve been reading about and talking to people whom we have thought of as our spokespeople for the Indian Movement. Some have turned to the idea of private enterprise — people from different reservations getting together to create “Red capitalism”— as though that were the way to solve our problems. I am hearing this kind of talk from Dennis Banks. He is now saying that he tried militancy and it didn’t work, and that it’s time to see what he can do with private enterprise in the form of his company, called Loneman Enterprises. He says that he can guarantee employment for Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Then there is Peter McDonald, who just got re-elected as head of the tribal council by the Navajo Indians. McDonald says he’s going to fix all ills there by taking control of the Navajo’s mineral rights and dealing with Peabody Coal himself, so that the Navajo people can derive whatever good can come from that.

Who do they think they are fooling? To start with, they could spend a few minutes talking to workers at some of the auto companies here in Detroit to get an idea of how “wonderfully well” capitalism is working. Thousands are losing their jobs as the plants shut.

Fort Totten and Big Mountain

Closer to home, on the reservations, capitalism hasn’t helped us either. On my reservation, Fort Totten, a factory was opened in 1975 to get work subcontracted from the Army. It was subsidized by the government, including the minimum wages people were paid. The factory was meant to employ 500 people but at most only 235 worked there. Now the contracts have run out, and less than 100 people work there. This is on a reservation where 1,800 people need jobs and nearly everyone is on some form of welfare.

The “entrepreneurs” in the Indian Movement should listen to the people closer to home, such as the group of tribal elders who went with supporters to protest at the Peabody Coal headquarters in Arizona in February. These spiritual leaders have consistently said that Big Mountain is their sovereign land, not to be tampered with and not to be taken by the coal companies at any price. They don’t discuss “making deals” with private enterprise, much less laying their land open to industrial waste and destruction.

These elders often talk about working together to create a better society, where we can live together in harmony with each other and the land. But we know that dream can’t be made true living in this society. I can understand the desperate need to make jobs on the reservations so that we can survive, but we need less talk about expanding our horizons into private enterprise, and more discussion of fundamental change and freedom. No one but Dennis Banks and the press is fooled by “red capitalism”.



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