‘Amá’ and the Legacy of Sterilization in Indian Country

The story of sterilization of Native women is a history that has been overlooked for far too long.

[Photo: Jean Whitehorse sitting on a couching in her home.]
Jean Whitehorse, who is featured in the film Amá, entered an IHS hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, during an acute appendix attack back in the 1970s. A few years later, she found out doctors had performed a tubal ligation during the surgery. Tessa Angus

Jean Whitehorse had often heard her grandmother beg in the Navajo language for the return of her old name. One day Whitehorse asked the 96-year-old woman what her name had been.

“Her Navajo name meant ‘Many Children,’” Whitehorse said during an interview with Rewire.News.

Learning her grandmother’s name brought back the awful memory of Whitehorse’s unwanted surgery at the Indian Health Service (IHS) several years earlier. Whitehorse is one of many Native women who were victims of coerced sterilization by the IHS in the 1970s.

In Navajo culture, wealth is not determined by ownership of material goods, but rather by the number of children one has, according to Whitehorse.

“When I learned about my ancestor’s true name I realized I was supposed to have lots of children. But the government took that away from me,” she said. “I can never live up to my Navajo name, but I can tell people my story,” she told Rewire.News.

Whitehorse also shared her story in the recently completed film Amá, in which British filmmaker Lorna Tucker documents the history of the IHS’ sterilization program, a part of the U.S. government’s shameful neo-eugenics policies during the 1960s to late 1970s. Amá is the Navajo word for mother.

The story of sterilization of Native women is a history that has been overlooked for far too long, explained Charon Asetoyer, director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) in South Dakota. Asetoyer of the Comanche Nation is featured in the film.

“The long-term effects of the sterilization practices at the Indian Health Service are devastating to our communities. Women were ashamed when the power to give life was stripped from them. Women are considered sacred in Native cultures; they are the life givers. Many women drank themselves to death when they learned that IHS had sterilized them,” said Asetoyer.

“What happened at IHS was very much a part of eugenics. White doctors were empowered to do what they felt was best for our communities,” she said.

Fear that exploding populations, especially among the poor, threatened global survival helped fuel support for various family planning programs paid for by the U.S. government under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Under the act, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and other federal agencies administered family planning programming to the poor and indigent that blurred the lines between eugenics and contraception. Poor and women of color entering public hospitals were often coerced into signing medical forms agreeing to sterilization.

Tucker knew little about Native people when she first heard about the history of sterilization that occurred at IHS facilities. “Hearing about this affected me as a woman. I realized if my skin color were different, the same thing might have happened to me too,” she said.

Soon after beginning work on the film, she found it nearly impossible to find any survivors who would share their stories. “No one wanted to talk about this attack on their reproductive health,” Tucker said. It took nine years for Tucker to gain the trust of Whitehorse, who finally agreed to speak publicly about her surgery.

Whitehorse entered an IHS hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, during an acute appendicitis attack back in the 1970s. A few years later, she found out doctors had performed a tubal ligation during the surgery.

“I was trying to have more babies, but was having trouble getting pregnant, so I went to the IHS clinic. That’s when they told me about what they did to me,” she said.

Whitehorse has one daughter, born prior to the tubal ligation.

“I was in so much pain when I went in for the appendectomy; they gave me a bunch of papers to sign. They never explained anything to me; I had no idea I was giving them permission to sterilize me,” she recalled.

Ashamed, Whitehorse didn’t speak about the surgery until she learned about her grandmother’s lost name and her own legacy. “At the time, I thought I was the only one it happened to,” she said. “There was nobody to turn to, nobody understood, so I started drinking and neglecting my only child.”

“I think many Native women took the secret of their sterilization to the grave,” Tucker said.

Whitehorse also talks in the film about Native history from her perspective as a Navajo woman and Indian boarding school survivor: “Boarding school denied us our childhoods and heritage; sterilization was part of that ongoing U.S. policy of assimilation and elimination for our people,” she said.

Whitehorse, now 67, works as a librarian on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

In Amá, Tucker includes information found by a government investigation into the IHS sterilization practices.

According to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report in 1976 that reviewed the practices of four of the 12 then-existing Indian Health Service hospitals, more than 3,400 Native American women were sterilized at the four locations from 1973 to 1976. The investigation of sterilizations was initiated at the request of Sen. James Abourezk (D-SD), who served as chairman of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs. The report findings indicated that although there was no evidence of IHS failing to gather and keep patient consent forms on file, there were “weaknesses” in compliance. These weaknesses included documenting that patients were informed of the contents of the forms, lack of widespread physician understanding of regulations, and lack of requirements for informed consent when sterilizations were performed at contract facilities. According to the report, in 36 instances, IHS physicians violated federal policy against sterilizing mentally incompetent patients and patients under age 21.

The actual number of Native women who were sterilized at IHS facilities may never be known. Researcher Sally Torpy, who also appears in Amá, published her findings about the IHS history of sterilization in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in 2000. Because the GAO report only examined the records of four of the 12 IHS hospitals open during its research, Torpy wondered, “How many sterilizations occurred elsewhere?”

Co-produced by the Colin Firth and Ged Doherty film company Raindog Films, Amá was a labor of love for Tucker. “Amá is led by the Native women in the film. I was just the catalyst documenting their stories,” Tucker said. “When a community is in such pain, maybe it takes an outsider to nudge the story forward,” she noted.

Asetoyer hopes that seeing the film will help other Native women who were sterilized by IHS to come forward. “They may be relieved to know that they aren’t the only ones this happened to,” she said.

“I feel so much better since I started talking about the sterilization, like something bottled up inside me has been released,” Whitehorse said.

“Our young Native people have never heard about the sterilizations. It’s important for them to know what happened. We can’t let these events just drift into the sunset,” Asetoyer said. “They don’t teach this in school history books,” she added.

Amá producers are working to debut the film in the spring, when Asetoyer and Tucker hope to coordinate a series of screenings at upcoming gatherings in the Native community as part of the advocacy work of NAWHERC.

Asetoyer and Tucker hope that Amá will help launch a petition drive demanding a U.S. apology for the sterilizations. Some states, including North Carolina and Virginia, have issued apologies for their aggressive sterilization programs that targeted thousands of poor, disabled, and African-American men and women. Survivors continue to push for restitution.

In response to a request for comment by Rewire.News, Jennifer Buschick, director of public affairs at the IHS Headquarters in Washington, D.C., emailed this link to current IHS sterilization policies. According to current policies, sterilization procedures are prohibited if “the individual is: Under 21 years of age, or, incapable of giving informed consent as a result of having been legally determined to be mentally incompetent, or, institutionalized in a correctional, mental, or other facility.”

The IHS, however, has never issued an apology.

“Apologies or money from the government can’t give me my unborn children,” Whitehorse told Rewire.News. “I am just sharing my personal experience to feed that little light inside of me. Maybe it will help somebody.”