of very occasional, anecdotal reports in a few major
newspapers, the mainstream media generally ignored the wave of
sterilizations as it was happening. The first large-audience, detailed
description of the sterilizations was published not in the United States,
but in Germany. Torpy tapped sources of information in small, specialized
(often leftist or health-related) journals of opinion that, taken
together, sketch a history of the sterilization campaign. She credits
Brightman and the International Indian Treaty Council and others,
including Constance Redbird Pinkerton-Uri, for keeping the issue alive
enough to spark the interest of Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota,
which led to a General Accounting Office report and congressional
oversight hearings that eventually curbed the practice.
1974, some IHS doctors who were critical of the sterilizations
began investigating on their own. Pinkerton-Uri, a physician and law
student who is Choctaw and Cherokee, started her own inquiry after
complaints were lodged by Native patients against the Claremore, Oklahoma,
IHS hospital. Taking publicity about the Serena cases and what she had
found at Claremore, along with other pieces of evidence, Pinkerton-Uri
began calling Senator Abourezk's office. The office also had received
inquiries from Charlie McCarthy, an IHS employee in Albuquerque, regarding
sterilizations of Native American women.
followed the trail of Abourezk's investigation, beginning
with an intern in his office, Joan Adams, who took the initiative to
investigate whether Native women were being sterilized "without their
consent and under duress." This preliminary investigation convinced Adams
(and, later, Senator Abourezk) that further study was needed. Abourezk,
using Adams' research, then called for a GAO investigation.
describes the findings of the GAO report, which surveyed IHS
records in four of twelve Bureau of Indian Affairs regions: Albuquerque,
Phoenix, Oklahoma City, and Aberdeen, South Dakota. The study covered
only 46 months, between 1973 and 1976. (As of 1977, the IHS operated 51
hospitals and 86 health centers or clinics.) Within this sample, the GAO
found evidence that the IHS or its contractors had sterilized 3,406 women,
3,001 of them of child-bearing age (15 to 44 years).
the GAO study did not even begin to arrive at a total number
of sterilizations, opponents of the practice looked at the data in another
way, as a percentage of the women of child-bearing age in each examined
area who were sterilized. In Oklahoma, using the GAO study's numbers,
1,761 of roughly 17,000 women of child-bearing age were sterilized. In
Phoenix, the number was lower, 78 of 8,000; in Aberdeen, the figure was
740 of 9,000. They began to make a case that, with only 100,000 fertile
Native women of child-bearing age in the United States, the sterilizations
were putting a significant dent in the gene pools of many individual
Native American nations.
the threat to the Native American gene pool, Torpy
quotes Ms. Pinkerton-Uri:
A 200 million population could support voluntary sterilization and
survive, but for Native Americans it cannot be a preferred method of birth
control. While other minorities might have a gene pool in Africa or Asia,
Native Americans do not; when we are gone, that's it.
times, the battle over sterilization became localized and quite
heated. In response to Pinkerton-Uri's charges at the Claremore Hospital,
physicians threatened to close the facility. "In response," writes Torpy,
"an unidentified group of Native Americans pitched a tipi on the hospital
lawn alongside the American Indian Movement flag."
the mid-to-late 1970s, the sterilization program was well known
on the Native movement circuit. By 1974, Akwesasne Notes
reports describing sterilizations, and Native American women's attempts to
mobilize against them. As a Ph.D. student in Seattle who had become
involved in Native American issues (beginning with fishing rights), I
requested an airing of the sterilization program in The Nation
magazine that, in 1977, had allowed me a forum to present the first
nationally published account of Leonard Peltier's case. An editor at The
told me the magazine would publish the story only if I could supply
a written statement from the IHS that genocide was its policy. No
statement, the editor said, no story. I was unable to find such a tidy
admission, although I could see a wave of sterilizations as I combined the
GAO report's findings with case-study materials from my files.
1977, a class action suit had been initiated by three Montana
Native American women. The names of the three Northern Cheyenne women who
filed the class action suit were not released publicly out of fear that
they would be condemned by other Cheyennes. The class-action suit never
went to court, and never directly affected anyone other than the three
claimants. Attorneys for the defendants approached the women's attorneys
and offered a cash settlement on condition that the case remain sealed.
The women accepted the settlement.
about the same time, Marie Sanchez, the Northern Cheyennes'
chief tribal judge, conducted her own informal poll, and found that at
least 30 women she contacted had been sterilized between 1973 and 1976.
It was Sanchez who found two fifteen year old girls who said that they had
been told they were having their tonsils out, only to emerge from a local
IHS hospital without their ovaries.
account brings what became a general pattern down to a
Another woman who had complained to a physician about migraine headaches
was told that her condition was a female problem, and was advised that a
hysterectomy would alleviate the problem. Her headaches continued,
however, until she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
during 1977, the American Indian Policy review Commission
found the IHS lacking adequate policies, appropriations, delivery
services, and oversight for provision of health services to Native
Americans. Even in 1977, the rate of infant mortality on Indian
reservations was three times that of the general population in the United
States; the tuberculosis rate was still eight times as high. the average
life span of a Native American living on a reservation was 47 years,
compared with almost 71 years in the general population. The IHS seemed
to be short of personnel and equipment to treat many things, but the
agency always seemed to have enough doctors, nurses, equipment, and money
to tie fallopian tubes and remove ovaries.
the late 1970s, sterilizations continued at some IHS hospitals
despite protests and suits. Brightman visited Claremore's IHS facility
for six months during late 1978 and early 1979, collecting records for six
months, and found evidence of 81 sterilizations. Brightman later related
his findings as part of a speech on the U.S. Capitol steps which was
recorded and played for some of Claremore's nurses, who, according to
Torpy, "validated that sterilizations were occurring and with greater
Native women looked at the battle against sterilization as
part of a broader, older, struggle to retain their families in a
culturally appropriate context. The battle against sterilizations brought
back memories of having children taken from their homes, beginning with
the establishment of Carlisle School in 1879, to face a gauntlet of forced
assimilation in a factory model of education. In 1977, roughly a third of
reservation children were still attending the same system of boarding
schools that had become a principal part of the assimilative model a
century earlier. In 1973, 33,672 Native American children lived in
federal boarding schools rather than at home, according to statistics
compiled by Torpy.
women also were reminded of the many Native children taken
for foster care by non-Indians. In the middle 1970s, the proportion of
Indian children placed in foster care in Western states (compared to the
general population) ranged from 640 per cent, in Idaho, to 2,000 per cent,
in North Dakota. This disparity was diminished (but not eliminated) by
legislative measures beginning about 1980 which demanded that social
workers appreciate Native ways of raising children instead of assuming
that they were evidence of lack of parenting skills by Anglo-American,
many reservations today, Indian midwives or nurses advise women
on whether sterilization is appropriate. The number of births to Indian
women had risen to 45,871 in 1988, compared with 27,542 in 1975, according
to census records cited in Torpy's thesis.
though the cruder abuses of the sterilization wave in the
1970s seem to have abated, "Even today," writes Torpy, "there remains a
need for constant and close surveillance over physicians and health
facilities and health facilities so that all poor women and women of color
are allowed to make their own reproductive choices."