November is National American Indian Heritage Month. As we celebrate the positive sides of Indigenous Nations’ histories, we must acknowledge that the U.S. government has both robbed Native Americans of their land and, through the policies of the Indian Health Service division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, made it difficult for Indigenous people to access quality health care.
Indian Health Service (IHS) was established in 1955 with the stated goal of improving the health care of Native Americans living on reservations. However, Indigenous women who came into IHS clinics for something as common as vaccinations were often sterilized without their consent. During the 1960s and 1970s, 25 to 50 percent of women who visited IHS clinics (approximately 3,406 women) were sterilized without their knowledge. Methods of sterilization included partial or full hysterectomies, and tubal ligations.
Bodily autonomy is about having the power to decide for oneself whether and when to bear children.
The IHS had a clear objective: population control (aka “genocide”). Census data collected during the 1970s showed that Native Americans had birthrates that were much higher than white communities. According to census data, the average American Indian woman had 3.79 children, while white women had 1.79 children. The 1980 census revealed that the average birthrate for white women was 2.14, while the birthrate for Indigenous women was 1.99. You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that this is a drastic contrast.
When President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law two years ago, it was a long overdue step to improve public safety in Native American communities — in particular among Native American women. Department of Justice data show that Native American women are more than two-and-a-half times as likely as other women in the United States to be sexually assaulted or raped. Another statistic that sets Native American women apart from other women in the United States is the likelihood that their victimizers will be non-Native men. While other women are usually attacked by men of the same race, 86 percent of reported sexual assaults against Native American women are perpetrated by non-Native men.
Most Native Americans depend on the Indian Health Service for health care; most IHS pharmacies don’t provide emergency contraception.
The feeling that this violence is inevitable is common to many Native American women, a feeling that some have attributed to the history of military outposts on Native American lands and sexual abuse in boarding schools. Historical factors aside, a contemporary jurisdictional dead zone has enabled the problem to persist. Tribal police on Native American reservations don’t have the authority to arrest or detain non-Native suspects. Those suspects fall under federal jurisdiction, but federal marshals are too small in number and too committed to other responsibilities to provide community policing on reservations. The situation of virtual amnesty for non-Native perpetrators has created a scourge that some have dubbed “rape tourism.”
The Tribal Law and Order Act was enacted to prevent victims of sexual violence from falling through the cracks by improving investigation and prosecution of sex crimes. A New York Times article from earlier this year reported that only 13 percent of the sexual assaults reported by Native American women lead to arrests, compared to 35 percent of those reported by black women and 32 percent of those reported by white women. The improvements that the Tribal Law and Order Act promises cannot come soon enough. Continue reading →