Sterilization of Native American Women

Bruce E. Johansen
Ratical

On the phone, during long marches, occupying federal surplus property, in court fighting for treaty rights — wherever Indian activists gathered during the “Red Power” years of the 1970s, conversation inevitably turned to the number of women who had had their tubes tied or their ovaries removed by the Indian Health Service. This was, I heard one woman joke bitterly at the time, a “fringe benefit of living in a domestic, dependent nation.”

Communication spurred by activism provoked a growing number of Native American women to piece together what amounted to a national eugenic policy, translated into social reality by copious federal funding. (See sidebar) They organized WARN (Women of All Red Nations) at Rapid City, South Dakota, as Native women from more than thirty nations met and decided, among other things, that “truth and communication are among our most valuable tools in the liberation of our lands, people, and four-legged and winged creations.”

WARN and other women’s organizations publicized the sterilizations, which were performed after pro-forma “consent” of the women being sterilized. The “consent” sometimes was not offered in the women’s language, following threats that they would die or lose their welfare benefits if they had more children. At least two fifteen-year-old girls were told they were having their tonsils out before their ovaries were removed.

The enormity of government-funded sterilization has been compiled by a masters’ student in history, Sally Torpy, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her thesis, “Endangered Species: Native American Women’s Struggle for Their Reproductive Rights and Racial Identity, 1970s-1990s,” which was defended during the summer of 1998, places the sterilization campaign in the context of the “eugenics” movement.

No one even today knows exactly how many Native American women were sterilized during the 1970s. One base for calculation is provided by the General Accounting Office, whose study covered only four of twelve IHS regions over four years (1973 through 1976). Within those limits, 3,406 Indian women were sterilized, according to the GAO.

Another estimate was provided by Lehman Brightman, who is Lakota, and who devoted much of his life to the issue, suffering a libel suit by doctors in the process. His educated guess (without exact calculations to back it up) is that 40 per cent of Native women and 10 per cent of Native men were sterilized during the decade. Brightman estimates that the total number of Indian women sterilized during the decade was between 60,000 and 70,000.

Read More: Sterilization of Native American Women

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