Examining the Labels: Settler Colonialism and ‘Toxic’ Masculinity

I am a strong Blackfeet woman, raised by a strong Blackfeet woman. My mother gave and nourished my strength. She made sure her children related to our Blackfeet roots. She took us to our reservation in Northern Montana, where she was born and raised, so we could know and connect to our extended family and our lands. However, my siblings and I were raised in a white community, moving wherever our first-generation German American fathers’ jobs necessitated. We enjoyed a good childhood.

Mother kept a very close eye on us, particularly when we were on the reservation. She inferred by her actions that some Indian men were not safe to be around. She clarified that sentiment with her words, “Stay away from him. He’s dangerous when he drinks, and he always drinks.” I do not recall ever hearing this off reservation. I discovered in my adult years that my Blackfeet grandmother has also carefully watched over her children in a similar manner and for good reason. With this information and an adult perspective, I began to wonder what this ideology of the dangerous Indian man instilled in our men and boys? Were we ourselves perpetuating the settler colonial construct of the ‘scary brown man’ and had we become so indoctrinated that we could not see past presumed danger and self-preservation to look for the root problems? I believe both idioms are correct and that we are contributing to the subjugation of our own people.

Over the years I have read many feminist Indigenous authors (including, but not limited to Sarah Deer, Audra Simpson, and Mishuana Goeman) and I remain impressed on how they address the abuse of Native women at the hands of settler society and Indigenous men. This is good and valuable work, necessary to address the violence perpetrated against Native women. Yet, the more I read the more I wonder what we, as Indigenous women are doing to recognize the settler colonial trauma our men continue to endure? As the mother of six children, five of whom are male, this has become an important, relevant, and urgent question to ask myself.

Looking deeper I discovered the abysmal statistics for Indigenous men. Rates of suicide, homicide, substance abuse, and violence by and against them are through the roof. According to the CDC 21.5 of every 100,000 Native peoples commit suicide each year, the vast majority of which are men (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). This is 3.5 times higher than other racial/ethnic groups (including white people). CDC data also reports that Native people are 2.2 times more likely to be killed by police than white people and 1.2 times more likely than Black people (Powell, 2021). I remain shocked and concerned with how closely these horrible statistics touch my own family. I think about my own sons and wonder why we ignore this information and continue laying the blame and label of ‘toxic’ masculinity solely at the feet of our men? Cree scholar Kim Anderson speaks out in support of research around Indigenous masculinity saying [that] “Our families are only going to be as healthy as our men are, too. Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to men who haven’t had as much of the focus” (Alexander & Anderson, 2015). I wholeheartedly agree with Anderson, understanding that healthy families are the best way for Native peoples to thrive.

The identity politics of dividing and ranking the needs of Native men and women has and continues to be an efficient way to divide and conquer – perpetuating the settler colonial agenda of eliminating the Indian. To heal and effectively reconstruct their own identity as Native men it is essential they receive help and encouragement from peers, families, partners, and communities. We can foster this process by hearing our men’s voices and recognizing their experience under the oubliette of settler colonialism. My own work as an anthropologist and scholar must promote and inspire this conversation while emphasizing the use of decolonizing methodologies.

If employing decolonizing methodologies were as simple as de-emphasizing Eurocentric research practices and knowledge while employing Indigenous practices and ways of knowing, it would already be happening with a vengeance at ‘progressive’ institutions throughout the United States and Canada. One stumbling block may be a lack of Indigenous and other scholars of color, for although there are many of us in academia the numbers are relatively few compared to our white contemporaries, and fewer still in academic positions of power. Decolonizing research is impeded by academia itself. White privilege, classism, and other ugly relics of settler colonialism continue to regulate our campuses, just as it regulates our nation. Working within our own Indigenous communities is an effective means to push back against the harmful vestiges of colonization within academia while illuminating Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and thriving.

Working and researching within one’s own community can be difficult and highly personal. How much of myself do I insert in the narrative? How do I position myself without talking over my participants? These questions are a constant struggle and a lot to ponder. Even the terminology is complicated. When I say masculinity am I referring to male, male-identifying, queer, or all the above? Some Blackfeet men refer to themselves as Indian, or Blackfeet, or Piikuni, and still others as Native. Everyone is a relative of some sort, thus my research is in many ways about my relationship with the Blackfeet Nation, but most importantly it is about what our men are doing and what support they need to live in a good way.

I take my family to the exciting Indigenous sport of Indian Relay where we see Native’s competing as strong, resilient, powerful, and loving family men. They travel the relay circuit each season with their partners and children, emphasizing a traditional practice that fosters a sense of unity and pride. I see relay and I recognize thrivance. I forget the ‘plight of the Indian’ and the other lies that weigh our men down. There are other practices that encourage healing and wholeness: language revitalization, education in tribal culture and practice, and the sharing of our stories. This all needs to be encouraged and explored. What else must we do to enhance healing? For our men to effectively reconstruct their own identity they must be supported.

As I write this, I am struggling to help one of my own sons to find his way in the world. Struggles are not confined to the reservation, nor is sympathetic community. My work with our men gives me courage and hope as I wish it does for others. As Indigenous peoples we have a great responsibility to ourselves, our communities, and our world. We must be diligent about protecting and nurturing our children and our communities, including our men, if we want to continue to grow and thrive.


Alexander, R., & Anderson, K. (2015). Indigenous Men and Masculinities. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, March 2). CDC. Retrieved from Suicides Among American Indian/Alaska Natives: cdc.gov/mmwr/columes/67/wr/mm6708a1.htm

Powell, T. (2021, June 2). Native Americans Most Likely to Die from Police Shootings. Retrieved from WUWM 89.7: https://www.wuwm.com/2021-06-02/native-americans-most-likely-to-die-from-police-shootings-families-who-lost-loved-ones-weigh-in

Dianne Baumann is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Idaho.