American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Women of All Red Nations

Women of All Red Nations (WARN) was formed in the middle 1970s "to address issues directly facing Indian women and their families" (Wittstock and Salinas, 2006). WARN has some notable alumnae. For example, Winona LaDuke, who ran for vice president of the United States on the Green party ticket with Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000, was a WARN founding member.

When the American Indian Movement (AIM) began in the 1960s, women members found themselves playing supporting (and, some asserted, subservient) roles. In 1974, at Rapid City, South Dakota, Native women from more than thirty nations met and decided, among other things, that "truth and communication are among our most valuable tools in the liberation of our lands, people, and four-legged and winged creations" (Johansen, 1998, 44). The formation of WARN enabled politically active Native American women to speak with a collective voice on issues that affected them intensely. At the same time, WARN members, with chapters throughout the United States, worked to support a large number of Native American men in prisons.

Members of WARN also form liaisons with non-Native feminist groups, such as the National Organization of Women, to advocate policies of concern to minority women. The group's main priorities include the improvement of educational opportunities, health and medical care (including reproductive rights), resistance to violence against women, an end to stereotyping, support for treaties, and protection of the environment, including campaigns against uranium mining and milling, a long-time threat to Lakota and Navajo women as well as men.

One critical issue raised by WARN is the widespread sterilization of Native American women in government-run hospitals, an extension of a eugenics movement aimed at impeding the population increase of groups believed by some in government to be poor and/or mentally defective. These programs had ended for most of non-Indian groups after World War II (Germany's Nazis having given eugenics an extremely bad reputation), but they continued on Indian reservations through the 1970s. Wherever Indian activists gathered during the Red Power years of the 1970s, conversation inevitably turned to the number of women who had had their tubes tied or their ovaries removed by the Indian Health Service. Communication spurred by activism provoked a growing number of Native American women to piece together and name what amounted to a national eugenics policy carried out with copious federal funding.

WARN and other women's organizations publicized the sterilizations, which were performed after pro forma "consent" of the women being sterilized. The "consent" sometimes was not offered in the women's language, and often followed threats that they would die or lose their welfare benefits if they had more children. At least two fifteen-year-old girls were told they were having their tonsils out before their ovaries were removed. The enormity of government-funded sterilization, as well as its eugenics context, has been documented by Sally Torpy (1998) in her thesis, "Endangered Species: Native American Women's Struggle for Their Reproductive Rights and Racial Identity, 1970s—1990s," written at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

No one even today knows exactly how many Native American women were sterilized during the 1970s. One basis for calculation is provided by the General Accounting Office, whose study covered only four of twelve IHS regions over four years (1973–1976). Within those limits, the study documented the sterilization of 3,406 Indian women. Another estimate was provided by Lehman Brightman (Lakota), who devoted much of his life to the issue. His educated guess (without exact calculations to back it up) is that 40 percent of Native women and 10 percent of Native men were sterilized during the decade. Brightman estimates that the total number of Indian women sterilized during the decade was between 60,000 and 70,000. The women of WARN played a central role in bringing involuntary sterilization of Native American women to an end.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Johansen, Bruce E. 1998. "Reprise/Forced Sterilizations." Native Americas 15 (Winter): 4, 44–47.; Torpy, Sally J. 1998. "Endangered Species: Native American Women's Struggle for Their Reproductive Rights and Racial Identity: 1970's—1990's." Masters thesis, University of Nebraska.; Wittstock, Laura Waterman, and Elaine J. Salinas. 2006. "A Brief History of the American Indian Movement." Available at: http://www.aimovement.org/ggc/history.html. Accessed May 16, 2006.
 

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