Affirming the Autonomy of Indigenous Women

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.

Myla Vicenti Carpio, a professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University, explains: Continue reading

For the Safety of Students: Five Questions for Mary Koss

Mary P. Koss, Ph.D.

With close to 300 peer-reviewed publications and a number of academic awards to her name, it’s hard to believe that University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Mary P. Koss once had to fight her way into the doctoral program in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her test scores put her head and shoulders above other applicants, but it took a tense meeting with the department head — in which she let a bit of profanity slip out — to finally get accepted into their graduate school. Clinical psychology was a very male-dominated field in the early 1980s, when she was starting her career, and that was all too clear when a colleague shared his idea for a study that would explore male undergraduates’ attitudes toward rape — by having models pose in varying sizes of padded bras and be rated for their desirability and culpability if raped.


The term date rape was first used in the news media 35 years ago this month.


From that conversation, though, came the seed of an idea that would soon set Dr. Koss apart from her peers. At that time, Dr. Koss was at Kent State in Ohio, still years before she joined the University of Arizona. She made a name for herself studying campus sexual assault by developing a survey that revolutionized efforts to gauge respondents’ experiences of sexual aggression and victimization, revealing a higher prevalence than previously thought. Her initial study was publicized 35 years ago this month, in Ms. Magazine’s September 1982 issue, in an article that also marked the first time a national news publication used the term date rape. Both Dr. Koss’ research and the introduction of that term to the national conversation were game-changers in many ways.

At the time the article was published, most rape-prevention programs on college campuses were relatively new and narrowly focused on the danger posed by strangers — the assailants waiting in alleyways, rather than the familiar faces in classrooms or dorms. Dr. Koss’ research, as well as the stories writer Karen Barrett reported from Stanford University and the University of Connecticut for the Ms. article, revealed that many cases of rape, especially those committed by the victims’ peers and acquaintances, were often ignored, denied, or misunderstood as something other than rape. The concept of date rape helped many people recognize rape — their own or others’ — that had been perpetrated by people known to the victims.

Greater awareness and understanding of the problem of campus sexual assault soon followed, but the 35 years since then have seen both progress and setbacks. In fact, as the anniversary of that historic Ms. article approached, news began coming from the Department of Education that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos vowed to revisit Obama-era policies that addressed campus sexual assault. A series of information-gathering meetings included a group that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seeks “to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors.” Continue reading

Looking Back at Loving v. Virginia: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark Case

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

When Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving started dating in the early 1950s, the idea that their relationship could change history could not have seemed more remote. When they decided to marry, Richard knew plenty of other people in Central Point, Virginia, had skirted the same legal barriers that stood in their way. Those Central Pointers had always been able to resume their lives afterward with no controversy or consequence. He and Mildred expected the same for themselves.


Loving v. Virginia upset one of the last strongholds of segregation.


Instead, Mildred and Richard would become the subject of numerous books and articles, a made-for-TV movie, a documentary, and a feature film, as well as the plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case that turns 50 today. Their reluctance and modesty, even as their legal battle took on national significance, were captured in what Richard told LIFE Magazine in 1966: “[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”

An Illegal Marriage

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter met in 1950, seven miles from Central Point, at a farmhouse where the seven-member Jeter Brothers were staging a bluegrass show. Richard loved listening to bluegrass. That night, however, it was not the performers, but their younger sister, Mildred, who captured his attention. Mildred was a few years his junior and known for being shy and soft-spoken. She thought Richard seemed arrogant at first, but her impression changed as she got to know the kindness he possessed. The two dated for several years, often spending time together at the racetrack, where Richard and two close friends won numerous trophies with a race car they maintained together.

What would have otherwise been a familiar story of romance in rural, 1950s America was complicated by race, at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched. Richard Loving was white, of Irish and English descent, and Mildred Jeter was black, as well as part Cherokee and Rappahannock. For Richard and Mildred, though, Central Point provided an unusually safe space, one that stalled the expectation that their relationship could invite legal troubles. Continue reading

Where Disproportionate Need Meets Unequal Access: Plan B in Native American Communities

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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