Forced Sterilization of Native Americans

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Forced Sterilization of Native Americans

During the late 1960s and the early 1970s, a policy of involuntary surgical sterilization was imposed upon Native American women in the United States, usually without their knowledge or consent, by the federally funded Indian Health Service (IHS), then run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). It is alleged that the existence of the sterilization program was discovered by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) during its occupation of the BIA headquarters in 1972. A 1974 study by Women of All Red Nations (WARN), concluded that as many as 42 percent of all American Indian women of childbearing age had, by that point, been sterilized without their consent. A subsequent investigation was conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), though it was restricted to only four of the many IHS facilities nationwide and examined only the years 1973 to 1976. The GAO study showed that 3,406 involuntary sterilizations were performed in these four IHS hospitals during this three-year period. Consequently, the IHS was transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services in 1978.

During this and earlier periods, similar involuntary sterilization programs were being performed on other women of color, among them Chicanas of the Los Angeles area (Acuña 2004). It is estimated that by 1966, one-third of the women of childbearing age on the island of Puerto Rico had been sterilized without their ‘ informed consent.’ In addition, MULANEH (Mujeres Lationoamer-icanas de New Haven), a mainland Puerto Rican women’s organization, discovered that 44 percent of Puertorriqueñas in New Haven, Connecticut, had been sterilized by 1979. In Hartford, Connecticut, the figure stood at 51 percent. Women in Puerto Rico were also part of experimentation studies of the early birth control pill before it was released on the U.S. mainland.

Such sterilization practices are clearly a blatant breach of the United Nations Genocide Convention, which declares it an international crime to impose “measures intended to prevent births within [a national, ethnical, racial or religious] group.”Andrea Smith, in her book Conquest(2005), connects this use of “sexual violence as a tool of genocide”with early boarding school abuse, medical experimentation in native communities, and “the (U.S.) colonization of Native Women’s reproductive health.”According to Smith, “communities of color, including Native communities, ... continue to inform the contemporary population control movement.”Native women are targeted because their “ability to reproduce continues to stand in the way of the continuing conquest of Native lands”(p. 79). She found that the “Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) accelerated programs in 1970 that paid for the majority of costs to sterilize Medicaid recipients,”and that the HIS “initiated a fully federally funded sterilization campaign in 1970.”Dr. Connie Uri, a Cherokee/Choctaw medical doctor, was one of the first to uncover this mass sterilization, after a young Indian woman entered her office in Los Angeles in 1972 to request a “womb transplant”(p. 81).

Eventually, Senator James Abourezk, a Democrat from South Dakota, requested a study of IHS sterilization policies, which resulted in the GAO study. Smith notes, however, that “Native activists have argued that the percentage of Native women sterilized is much higher”than the 5 percent reported by the GAO. “Dr. Uri conducted an investigation of sterilization policies in Claremore, Oklahoma, and charged that the Claremore facility was sterilizing one woman for every seven births”(Smith 2005, p. 82). Smith illustrates how these abuses were carried on through experimentation with birth control methods, such as Depo-Provera and Norplant, which targeted Native American women and other women of color communities (p. 88).

There is also evidence that indigenous peoples of the Americas, and elsewhere, are being targeted for genetic engineering, particularly in the harvesting of their DNA genomes by geneticists who are in collaboration with corporate pharmaceutical interests. The indigenous women targeted are especially coveted human subjects in the genome research of ancient human origins. This is because it is possible to trace mitochondria DNA through the matri-lineal descendency lines, from mothers to daughters (Jaimes-Guerrero 2003, 2004).

Native women are also finding that by organizing with other women of color communities around these issues they can be more effective. The book Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organized for Reproductive Justice(2004) helps to link women from communities that have been targeted for sterilization campaigns and other medical experimentations. The book highlights women-of-color organizations that are making a difference in raising awareness of these issues, particularly in “ethnic minority”communities and populations. All of these organizations are working towards better health conditions for women of color, and they are challenging what they perceive as the racist, sexist, and class structures of U.S. society. U.S. history is viewed by many as being built on a legacy of “patriarchal colonization.”This stands in contrast to the traditional “matrilineal kinship”indigenous societies that gave women respect and authority as “clan mothers”in “pre-patriarchal and pre-colonialist times prior to the conquest of the Americas” (Jaimes-Guerero 2004).

The authors of Undivided Rights take a strong view on identity politics. They assert:

Contrary to broadly based critiques, which argue that identity politics fracture movements, we found that women of color organizations, by definin themselves through race and ethnicity, created spaces that nurtured their activism… . Whereas the larger society and the pro-choice movement marginalize women of color perspectives and concerns, these identity-based organizations validated their particular perceptions of reality… . Through this process, they developed culturally based styles of organizing and communicating and created focal points for action. Though not utopian, these spaces facilitated the imagining of alternative paths to achieve reproductive freedom. (Silliman et al., 1996)

This bridge between theory and activist practice exemplifies what can be called “activist scholarship.”

For Native American women and other women of color, the primary question is how one negotiates power on an unequal playing field. In continuing to dismantle the U.S. legacy of “patriarchal colonialism”put upon all women, women-of-color organizations are leading the charge for a bigger piece of the pie. By connecting their histories with the present, they seek a more egalitarian society and greater openness and freedom in the areas of gender-based reproduction, health, and well-being.

SEE ALSO American Indian Movement (AIM); Forced Sterilization; Genocide and Ethnocide.


Acuña, Rudolfo. 2004. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.

Jaimes, M. Annette, with Theresa Halsey. 1992. “American Indian Women: At the Center of Indigenous Resistance in North America.”In The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, edited by M. Annette Jaimes, Chapter XI. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Jaimes-Guerrero, M. A. 2003. “Global Genocide and Biocolonialism: On the Effect of the Human Genome Diversity Project on Targeted Indigenous Peoples/Ecocultures as ‘Isolates of Historic Interest.’”In Violence and the Body, Race, Gender, and State, edited by Arturo Aldama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 2004. “Biocolonialism and Isolates of Historic Interest.” In Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights: Legal Obstacles and Innovative Solutions, edited by Mary Riley, Chapter 9. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

———, Anne Waters, and Inez Talamantez, eds. 2004. “Indigenous Women in the Americas.”Special issue, Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy 18 (2).

Silliman, Jael, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena Gutiérrez. 2004. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Women of All Red Nations. 1975. Native American Women. New York: International Indian Treaty Council.

———. 1978. “Women of All Red Nations.”Porcupine, SD: WARN, We Will Remember Group.

M. A. Jaimes-Guerrero