Native American families in Lakota Woman

Oppression and Identity Crisis in Native American Communities

Even if existentialism was at its height more than 50 years ago, minorities now face oppression on a variety of fronts that keeps them from making decisions that define who they are. Due to social unrest, poverty, and the loss of their traditional customs, American Indians today—who still reside in reservations—are experiencing an identity crisis.

The American Indian Movement (AIM)

Native Americans attempted to increase their prominence in the 1970s through protests, which gave rise to the American Indian Movement (AIM). Due to the multiple forms of oppression that exist in reserve centers, this minority community currently lacks any sense of identity. The scenario that the majority of Native Americans are currently facing is accurately depicted in Lakota Woman by Crow Dog. In Lakota Woman, Crow Dog presents several modes of oppression that endanger the self-awareness and survival of Native American families.

Existentialism and Oppression

In the development of the aspect of existentialism, philosophers agree that an individual is responsible for shaping their life through choices and acts done out of personal will. However, an individual is only in a position to express this aspect if they do not undergo oppression. In her memoir, Crow Dog demonstrates this characteristic quite clearly through the portrayal of the substantial cruelty that her community suffered. She says, "the life of an Indian is not held in great value in the state of South Dakota" (Crow Dog & Erdoes, 1991, p. 25). Clearly, the dignity of Native Americans was maimed and Crow Dog was arrested severally for the mere reason of being an Indian. Such forms of oppression prevent an individual from taking up a role that shapes their future. Most of the Native Americans still live in poverty and are afflicted by numerous problems such as lack of education that sets them back economically and socially. Individuals from such families find it hard to exist with other people socially.

The Oppression of Women

Through the portrayal of the oppression of women, Crow Dog depicts that women were not appreciated in the Native Indian community as well as the general American public. Most of the memoir is made up of Crow Dog's excursions around America trying to create awareness about AIM. Through this, she depicts that it is difficult for an American woman to have her identity as she is revered and misused at the same time. The struggle for personal identity in females is further masked by their race. A woman has to embrace her personal will but remain centered within the traditions of the specific community. In as much as the oppression of females has reduced, it is still evident even today and this affects the aspects of existentialism. In this case, it is not the individual that creates their identity but it is determined by their traditions or society.

The Impact of Cruelty on Self-Identity

Self-identity is a significant part of existence but it may be hampered to the extent where the self does not seek to have a character. Uniqueness normally disappears through oppression. Existentialism in Lakota Woman is further hampered through the existence of cruelty evident in social institutions thus endangering the identity of the Native Americans. The social institutions in Dakota created laws that allowed the justice department to put the Sioux through unimaginable pain. For instance, most of the Native Americans underwent sterilization and thus most families had few children. Crow Dog and Erdoes (1991) say, "for a number of years BIA doctors performed thousands of forced sterilizations on Indian and Chicano women without their knowledge" (79). The men experienced a lot of stress, they started drinking and their families suffered. According to Crow Dog and Erdoes (1991), the drinking problem was caused by the White Americans and they are the ones who benefit from this vice. She says, "People talk about the 'Indian drinking problem' is a white problem...make the profit on it and cause the conditions that make Indians drink" (Crow Dog & Erdoes, 1991, p. 54). Families have been destroyed and the Native American community lost its identity.

Power Disparity and Intolerance

Power disparity is normally a result of oppression and it leads to intolerance that impacts the society at large. The oppression that Native Americans were undergoing made them powerless and voiceless. Crow Dog had to fight hard to enlighten people on the existence of AIM. On the other hand, the White Americans expected the Indians to integrate into a new culture. However, this does not happen because the powerlessness among the Native Americans led to intolerance. The Native Americans failed to accept the new culture because intolerance hinders adaptation. Most of the time, it is the majority that come out as winners due to power disparity, and this explains the segregation of the Native Americans. Crow Dog and Erdoes (1991) say, "We cannot understand each other except by talking English, but through peyote we speak one tongue, spiritually" (102). Lack of acceptance of each other illuminated the existing power disparity and led to intolerance.

The Impact of Oppression on Native American Families

The Native American families in Lakota Woman underwent a myriad of oppression that impacted their self-identity or self-awareness. Oppression is one of the factors that causes power disparity and it hampers the development of self-identity as described in the concept of existentialism. Native American families today still live under poverty, lack of education and this affects families to a great extent. Through this memoir, Crow Dog presents the complicated and oppressed life of Native Americans and females today.


Crow Dog, M., & Erdoes, R. (1991). Lakota woman. New York: HarperCollins.

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