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  • The Continuing Struggle against Genocide:Indigenous Women’s Reproductive Rights
  • D. Marie Ralstin-Lewis (bio)

A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then, it is done, no matter how brave its warriors nor how strong its weapons.

Traditional Cheyenne saying

Women have always been the backbone and keepers of life of the indigenous nations of North America. Most precontact indigenous civilizations functioned as matriarchies, and women of those cultures did not espouse subordination to males, whether such males were Native or from the white/Euro-American culture. Considering their traditional significance in the continuation of Native cultures, it should not come as a surprise that European colonizers often targeted Native1 women. The assaults on Native women continue to be a goal of some descendants of these European colonizers.

Ironically, while middle-class white America applauded a newfound freedom over reproductive rights during the 1960s and 1970s, many policy makers and physicians targeted Native women for involuntary birth control and sterilization. Estimates indicate that, from the early to mid-1960s up to 1976, between 3,4002 and 70,0003 Native [End Page 71] women—out of only 100,000 to 150,000 women of childbearing age— were coercively, forcibly, or unwittingly sterilized permanently by tubal ligation or hysterectomy. Native women seeking treatment in Indian Health Service (IHS) hospitals and with IHS-contracted physicians were allowed neither the basic right of informed consent prior to sterilization nor the right to refuse the operation. IHS also subjected mentally retarded Indian girls and women to a contraceptive known as DepoProvera before it received approval from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1992.4

From 1970 to 1980, the birthrate for Indian women fell at a rate seven times greater than that of white women. This dramatic statistic indicates that the sterilization and birth control campaign was significantly more than an attack on women in general: it was a systematic program aimed at reducing the Native population, or genocide. The United Nations recognizes prevention of births in a target group as a form of genocide. Attacks on the reproductive capacities to indigenous women in the United States continue today through the use of chemical contraceptives such as Norplant and DepoProvera. The latest threat is a new form of nonsurgical permanent sterilization known as quinacrine sterilization.5

Was the IHS sterilization abuse prompted by individual racism among doctors? Were their actions a dying gasp of government-sanctioned eugenics in the United States? Or was it a reprisal for gains in indigenous sovereignty? Violations against the reproductive rights of indigenous women did not occur because of the efforts of any one individual or agency, nor can a single explanation or theory account for them. Rather, these violations resulted from sexism and racism, remnants of eugenics, population-control measures, and family-planning programs that drew large subsidies from the federal government. Complicating this situation are the unique political and social realities of indigenous peoples, who were often dependent on the federal government for health care while also demanding federal recognition of their rights to land and sovereignty.

This research examines the Native American and Euro-American cultures' differing views toward women and birth. It provides an overview of eugenics and how it used a combination of biological and racist rhetoric to justify offenses against Native women and their capacity to give birth. In addition, I assert that population-control ideas (ostensibly aimed at ending poverty) legitimated these offenses in the minds of many physicians who performed the procedures. Finally, I investigate the federal government's role in the genocide by examining evidence found in court cases, the Indian Health Service (IHS), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) records, and reports from Native American community leaders. [End Page 72]

Women—A Clash of White and Native Cultures

Traditionally, Native women held positions of esteem in tribal societies and were thought to be born with certain dispositions toward spiritual guidance, and so could offer important knowledge in many matters. As Paula Gunn Allen states, they held a responsibility to maintain the life of the tribe:

Women are . . . graced with certain inclinations that make them powerful and capable in certain...


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