The Dishchii’ Bikoh’ Apache Group from Cibecue, Arizona, demonstrates the Apache Crown Dance. Photo by Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr CC

In recent years,  an increasing number of Americans are celebrating Indigenous People’s Day to honor those who suffered at the hands of explorers like Christopher Columbus. Social science research helps us understand the underlying gender and racial components of colonial settlement in the United States.

In what is now the United States, Andrea Smith argues that sexual conquest — the rape of native women — was closely tied to the conquest of land. Europeans perceived the indigenous people that inhabited the Americas as uncivilized. Ideas of white civility deemed native women as hypersexual and uncontrollable, unlike white women, whose perceived purity they could not match. These ideas of native women’s sexuality allowed for European males to rape native women without consequence.
Ideas about native men’s and women’s  inferiority were also important for white men’s identities. In the U.S., white settlers believed themselves to be superior to indigenous peoples, bringing enlightenment to an empty wilderness. White, male identity was thus closely tied to the control of land and ownership of property.  
Colonizers viewed land as a metaphor for women’s subjugation. Land – similar to women – was something to be taken and possessed by European men. For example, Europeans who colonized parts of Africa referred to the continent as “virgin land.” Just as virginity was used to describe young women who are perceived as pure and untainted by sex, referring to unconquered land as “virgin” reflects the European’s beliefs that it was also pure, untainted, and ripe for European colonization.