Reproductive Rights in Native America

From unjust Plan B restrictions to “condom deserts,” Native women face an uphill battle to protect their bodies.

by Jade Begay, Women at the Center

Indigenous communities are on the front lines of today’s biggest environmental emergencies including climate change, super-destructive tar sands oil extraction, and fracking. And while Indigenous communities are working tirelessly to protect their ancestral homes and their cultures, Indigenous women face some of the most urgent threats.

With the growth of fossil fuel extraction near tribal lands, there is a corresponding epidemic of sexual violence towards Native women. Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth explains the connection between these two forms of violence well:

Billboard near Killam, Alberta
“We are in a time of extreme extraction, as we grasp desperately for the last remaining deposits of fossil fuels to satisfy our addiction. This means extreme violence against Mother Earth, exploding her bedrock, pumping lethal chemicals into the water, removing entire mountaintops, and destroying our own habitat. This violence impacts Indigenous communities the most, especially women. Violence against the land has always been violence against women.”
Artist uknown - Indian Country

The shocking truth is that one in three Native American women will be raped during her lifetime, and Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S. As if these facts weren’t heartbreaking enough, Native women’s reproductive rights are compromised at every turn.

Andrea O’hare of Idle No More at a One Billion Rising Rally

The Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC), located on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, is a trailblazer in gathering data and pushing for change, especially around access to Plan B and other emergency contraceptives. NAWHERC exposed the fact that only 15 Indian Health Services clinics provide complete access to reproductive health services. Because of NAWHERC’s efforts, Plan B is now more widely available in Indian Health Services clinics; but progress is still far too slow to meet the needs of Native women.

Because Native women face a much greater threat of sexual assault and rape, access to Plan B is an incredibly important safety mechanism. Access can determine whether or not a woman decides to become pregnant, which can dramatically impact her range of opportunities in life. Because many Native communities are very rural, and the nearest pharmacy can be 100+ miles away, having nearby, free access to Plan B is crucial. Poverty is a significant challenge for many Native communities, so a woman or girl may not have access to a car, gas money, or the funds to buy emergency contraception over the counter, where it can cost up to $70. (Please click here to urge Indian Health Services to make Plan B more accessible for Native American women.)

Today, Charon Asetoyer, Director of NAWHERC, is working on a graphic novel with her team to help educate young women on dealing with sexual assault. The release of the novel is expected in January 2016, so please stayed tuned to learn more about NAWHERC’s brave and incredible work.


Elsewhere in Indian Country, young leaders are taking up the issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights. On the Navajo Nation, Keioshiah Peter (Diné) and Jake Skeets (Diné) have created the #RezCondomTour to promote safe sex and expression in Dinétah (Navajo Nation).

Keioshiah Peter co-coordinator of the 2014 Rez Condom Tour, greeting patrons at the Window Rock flea market.

In Dinétah, health clinics, grocery stories, and gas stations are few and far between. Dinétah is the size of West Virginia, yet there are only 10 full service grocery stores. These conditions contribute to extremely high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Native communities. American Indians and Alaska Natives are four to five times more likely to contract an STI than whites. This reality has inspired Peter and Skeets to distribute free male and female condoms, and help break the stigma around conversations about sex.

#RezCondomTour Flyer

What makes this campaign even more powerful is that Peter and Skeets have connected their messages to Diné culture and philosophy. They’ve related healthy sexual choices to concepts like Hózhó, which in its simplest translation means harmony and balance.

They’ve also created the mantra “#SexIsCeremony,” to talk about the sacredness of an individual’s body and how to protect it. #RezCondomTour is also harnessing the power of the decolonization movement, especially among young people, to resist colonial constructs that have oppressed Indigenous communities.

Teaching and supporting other members of their own communities, and weaving in Indigenous knowledge, sovereignty, and reproductive health, is an approach that resonates with many Indigenous youth. This approach may bring swifter change than clunky Indian Health Services policy reforms (though those are necessary too).

Art by Rebekah Elkerton