A Call for Native Bodily Autonomy

A Call for Native Bodily Autonomy


Words by Ruth H. Robertson

photograph by kali spitzer

Following the reversal of Roe v. Wade, as the conquest of Native women’s bodies continues, Atmos columnist Ruth H. Robertson urges us to join the fight for the reproductive rights of all, including Indigenous peoples.

For some, the historic reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973) by the Supreme Court of the United States in its recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson (2022)—and thus the end of federal protection for women’s reproductive rights under the U.S. Constitution—was jarring and unexpected. Even though all the warning signs were there, and a leaked draft of the decision told the public that it was about to happen, somehow, scores of Americans could not believe they really pulled the trigger.


Native womb-havers weren’t. Since the arrival of the colonizer, we’ve steadily had our reproductive rights ripped away from us. Our ability to give life to mighty red nations made us prime targets in their genocidal conquest of our bountiful Indigenous lands and bodies.


Thanks to the Dobbs ruling, abortive care, even when the life of the mother hangs in the balance, will not be available in large geographic regions of the so-called “Land of the Free.” The newly minted, right-wing-run Supreme Court denied that women’s reproductive rights were meant to be protected by the Constitution. Instead, with their tails firmly tucked between their legs, they left it up to the states, or voters, to address.


Meanwhile, those of us Natives who can get pregnant and who also live on Reservations have had to leave our homelands for such care this entire time. Members of federally-recognized Tribes have a Treaty right to health care. For us, medical attention takes place through the Indian Health Service (IHS), a chronically underfunded federal government operated health care system. IHS cannot perform abortions because of the Hyde Amendment, which restricts the use of federal funds to provide abortions. Oddly enough, while the Indian Health Service is unable to provide abortive care to Native citizens who need it, they took little issue with sterilizing Native women, whether they consented or not, for decades.


Native women had been speaking out about their forced sterilization for years, but no one listened. Then, in 1976, the Federal Government admitted it. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, between 1973-1976 (just three years) four out of 12 Indian Health Service regions sterilized at least 3,406 Native women without their permission. Women with a Tribal blood quantum of one half or more were singled out for sterilization. There was a court-ordered moratorium on sterilizing women aged 21 and younger, but they did it anyway. The Indian Health Service forcibly sterilized as many as one in four Native women and they kept doing it for decades.

While the Indian Health Service is unable to provide abortive care to Native citizens who need it, they took little issue with sterilizing Native women.

Ruth H. Robertson

I was 21 when I was sterilized by the Indian Health Service. I was born and raised on the Reservation to a white mother and a Dakota/Lakota Sioux father. I had been a teen mom, and mere hours after the birth of my second son, I was warned that I must have my tubes tied. I was made to feel guilty about being poor, accused of being hyper fertile, and told that I was a drain on society. Within hours of childbirth, crotchety nurses reprimanded me for having cried out during labor, and people in lab coats and suits said I was undeserving of receiving “free” healthcare. Just asking for a cup of ice post-birth meant I was viewed with contempt. Only a day after receiving the precious blessing of a new life, this naïve girl, with sincere doubt and reluctance in her heart, and having little understanding of her rights or the process, submitted to the procedure.


Afterward, I resigned myself to childlessness. Little did I know, the ancestors had something different planned for me. About a year later, I became pregnant again. Puzzled hospital staff studied my ultrasound with wonder, as my fallopian tubes, which had been cut, burnt, and tied, had evidently grown back together. While pregnancy post tubal ligation isn’t unheard of, it is rare. I gave birth to a daughter nine months later. But, this was an exception. Most Indigenous women who have been forcibly sterilized stay that way.


All too often, the argument over Roe v. Wade has been framed as a conversation about when life begins. In reality, what’s been and what remains at stake is the right of those with the ability to give life to determine what happens to our own bodies. My story isn’t about being pro-abortion or pro-life. It’s a call for bodily autonomy, a reminder that our bodies are sovereign, and that no one should control a person’s right over their own reproduction.

In pre-colonial times, Native women made their own health care decisions, including those involving reproduction.

Ruth H. Robertson

In pre-colonial times, Native women made their own health care decisions, including those involving reproduction. Our medicine people were knowledgeable in Native plant uses, and abortifacients were readily available to us. Childbirth was sacred, and women were surrounded by other women during labor as well as when the infant received the sacred breath of life.


My Tribe, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, released a statement after the Dobbs ruling. In many ways, they said it best:


“For the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (Nation), our Native women’s rights to reproductive health care are determined by traditional native law. Under our traditional law, Native women have individual autonomy over reproductive health, the viability of pregnancy, and appropriate health care decisions. Traditionally, our Native women made health care decisions concerning reproductive systems, pregnancies and the unborn through consultation with the Creator, elder women, medicine people and physicians. At our Oyate (Nation), that is the law today—after all, women know their own bodies better than anyone else.


The Creator gave the breath of life to the first woman and first man, freedom, and a sacred duty to Grandmother Earth. The Creator gave women the sacred power to bring new life to the Oyate (People), we respect the Creator’s sacred gift, and we respect our Native women’s individual autonomy.”


As the conquest of Native women’s bodies continues, as we are trafficked to oil fields, as one in three of us are raped in our lifetimes, and as many of us live in homelands surrounded by red states, we have no choice but to fight for our reproductive rights. Perhaps now, you will join us.

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