Counter to the Columbus Day stories that so many of us were taught in schools, the United States was not discovered in 1492. Rather, Indigenous people had been on this continent even then for at least 20,000 years. Today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a time for us to honor and reflect on the history and lives of Indigenous people.
Two ways we can do that is educate ourselves about the ways in which Indigenous people’s reproductive rights have been denied and support organizations that defend them.
To begin with, Native American children were forced to assimilate to Christianity by attending Indian boarding schools. Taken away from their families, hundreds of thousands of Indian children attended these schools between 1869 and the 1960. By 1900, at least 20,000 Native American children were torn away from their families and placed in boarding schools. And by 1925, that number tripled to over 60,000.
At boarding schools, students were stripped of any mark of their cultural identity. They were forced to cut their hair and wear uniforms and change their names. Additionally, students were punished for speaking their native languages.
Flogging, solitary confinement and the withholding of food were some punishments. Disturbingly, at least 53 burial sites in the United States have been discovered and over 500 deaths from at least 19 schools have been accounted for. As investigations continue, these numbers are expected to increase.
Such horrifying schools were run by both the federal government and churches. Last year, a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior explained that “the United States at times paid religious institutions and organizations on a per capita basis for Indian children to enter federal Indian boarding schools operated by religious institutions or organizations.” These boarding schools were often considered feeder schools to seminaries.
Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, created a model that was used by other boarding schools to “kill the Indian, save the man.” This included converting them to Christianity. As he once explained, “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indian in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”
In addition to these abusive schools, Indigenous women were forcibly sterilized in the United States. For example, between 25-50 percent of Native American women of childbearing age were sterilized by 1977. This was often done without their knowledge or consent.
For instance, two 15-year-old Native American girls who went to the hospital for tonsillectomies were releasedwith tubal ligations. Other times, women were pressured; Indian Health Services Plan and Medicaid recipients were offered subsidized sterilizations.
Native American women continue to endure abuses. For instance, one in three Native American women will be assaulted in her lifetime. This is 3.5 times higher than other ethnic groups in the United States. Non-Native Americans commit about 96 percent of the sexual violence against Native women. And yet, until recently First Nations were unable to prosecute non-Native Americans.
Additionally, 46 percent of Native American women are younger than 20 years when they have their first child. Reproductive autonomy demands not only access to resources to prevent pregnancy but also resources for raising children. However, one in three Native Americans lives in poverty due to systemic structures that increase the poverty gap between Native Americans and their white counterparts.
In spite of this, that same Indian Health Services Plan refused (and refuses to this day) to offer subsidized abortions for Native American women. This is due to the Hyde Amendment, which was crafted by the fervently Catholic U.S. Rep. Henry J. Hyde from Illinois. Passed with bipartisan support for nearly 50 years, the Hyde Amendment does not allow Indigenous people to receive affordable abortion care unless the state in which they reside covers the cost.
Indigenous people deserve reproductive justice, which includes safe environments, ample employment, and the ability to make their own reproductive decisions. I encourage you to take these action steps:
- Support Indigenous Women Rising, an abortion fund that is open to all Native American people seeking abortion care
- Support the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which defends tribal sovereignty
- Learn about the history of the land in which you reside. The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s home office in Madison, Wis., is located on ancestral Ho-Chunk land.