The Forced Sterilisation of Native American Women in the 70s
The government removed the next generation from the tribes.
A Native American woman in Los Angeles walks into a doctors surgery and asks for a womb transplant. Her doctor had told her that her hysterectomy was reversible. Two fifteen-year-old girls go to a clinic in Montana to have their tonsils removed and walk out with tubal ligations. They are three, of thousands of women, who went into hospital for routine operations and left without their right to bear children.
Not just a Native American story, this has happened to many other cultures. In 1973 two African American sisters were secretly sterilised by a federally funded clinic. Anyone the federal government considered ‘immigrants or an undesirable type’ were sterilised forcibly. The US has made state-sponsored non-consensual sterilisation their business. It is their ultimate way to control a population of individuals they deem inferior.
The victims are numerous.
In 1976 the General Accountability Office (GAO) found four Indian health services were non-compliant at having adequate consent forms. They estimated that 3406 women had been sterilised without the required permission between 1973 and 1976. However, this report only looked into four health services out of 12. A more accurate estimate of the number of women affected is 25%, the highest estimate is 70000. Authors such as Lakota author Lehman Brightmanplacing the figure as high as 40%
How did it happen?
When Native American’s were forced onto the reservations in the 19th century, the situation created many health problems. By 1900, numbers had dropped to less than a quarter of a million. Infants and children were the worse affected. In 1916 the government estimated that three in five children died before reaching the age of five. The women’s response to this crisis was to bear more children. The historian Frederick Hoxie has argued that “only the maintenance of extraordinarily high birth rates saved one nation from dropping into oblivion.”
Meanwhile, the government had started a campaign to assimilate and Americanise the people. Having failed at killing them in the wilds, they began to destroy their culture. Language, clothes and spiritual practices were discouraged. Native healers and midwives were criminalised. Rituals such as ceremonial practice and coming of age ceremonies were driven underground or stopped altogether.
Treaties signed in 1871 had made the government responsible for the health care of tribal members. As the health in the reservations became worse, the government could no longer ignore the fate of the people. They started to build rudimentary hospitals that they encouraged women to use for childbirth.
By the 1950s, when the Indian Health Service (IHS) was formed, most Native women gave birth in these hospitals. The service is the primary federal health care provider for Native American people. The goal, it states, is to raise the health of the race.
The IHS provides a comprehensive health service delivery system for approximately 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives who belong to 573 federally recognised tribes in 37 states — IHS website
As IHS was being established, the government started to close the hospitals these people had come to rely on. The plan to remove federal services that only benefited Native Americans. Ultimately they were trying to remove any responsibility the government had for this race. On this, they failed.
The forced sterilisation of Native American women
Some of the forced sterilisation procedures took place in reservation hospitals, others in hospitals that governments paid to provide service to the tribal members. The reasons given for this practice was that IHS doctors believed that the majority of the women lacked the intelligence to use birth control effectively.
Women who went into hospital were operated on, some with the promise that the sterilisation was reversible, others having inadequate knowledge of what they were consenting to. Minors as young as eleven were sterilised. If the woman refused, then she was threatened with the removal of her welfare and health care.
Doctors would claim that this procedure improved the financial situation and quality of life for many families. Doctors for the IHS were underpaid and overworked; sterilising the women in the tribes reduced their workload. The federal government contracted doctors from other hospitals to perform more operations. All the doctors working for IHS were white middle-class men.
American Indian women were targets of the modern form of genocide — sterilisation. — Marie Sanchez, the chief tribal judge on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
If an Eastern European country were responsible for this genocide in today’s times, there would be a public outcry. Nations would be introducing sanctions until it stopped. Yet, largely this policy has gone unnoticed and unchallenged.
Native American culture centres around family; women are hailed as gods when they increase the tribe numbers. Many of these women who went through this ordeal are ashamed to talk about their cases. They hide the secret that they are barren, behind closed doors of depression and anxiety.
Many had complications from the initial procedures. Further medical treatment was not covered by their healthcare providers, just the initial sterilisation. Poverty-stricken and ill, they could not pay for the treatment to save their life, and many perished.
The federal government reduced the Native American populations, but Indians lost economic and political power with lower numbers. Their culture became extinct, sterilisation worked. No one has ever been made accountable for their actions, and it seems unlikely they ever will. They state this is due to the reluctance of the women to come forward; in truth, they have the evidence.
Are they still using this policy to deal with others they consider ‘inferior’, such as Latin Americans and Black women? Unfortunately, I think we may all know the answer to this question.
If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace. Treat all men alike. Give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow.All men were made by the same Great Spirit Chief. They are all brothers. The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it — White Elk
The federal government had no intention of sharing the resources of the land. Rather than fighting an honest war, they mutilated women to progress their agenda. Thousands of peaceful families were victims of this practice, and very little has happened to bring those responsible to justice. Once again, the plight of the Native American people has been ignored and forgotten.