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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reclaiming Choice for Native Women (2009)




By Jessica Yee; June 25th, 2009 - Racialicious
I am Native. And I’m pro-choice. Many people seem to think this is an oxymoron – but to me, it makes perfect sense. I have unraveled much of the oppression I was forced to swallow and internalize over the years, which obstructed my ability to wholly see that concepts of “choice” and having “options” in our sexual and reproductive lives are really not new things at all. Moreover, I am entitled to advocate for choice from within my culture, which has always valued women’s choices and decision-making. First and second wave feminism did not “give” my people reproductive rights; in fact those of us in Native communities had them a long time ago. And how “pro-choice” identities play out in our communities now probably looks a lot different than what most people think.

Historically, in the Shuswap Nation we were and still are matriarchal. Within our Shuswap band, women were trained as midwives by grandmothers and elderly women. They were also trained in female ceremonies around the menstrual cycle, as well as the many powers of women and our development (from childhood to adulthood). Shuswap women used Native medicines to keep from becoming pregnant or to end a pregnancy. Pregnancy was ended if hardships occurred within family and community, such as shortage of food, long winters, etc. These hardships were things that could cause numerous deaths within the family and community and could not be prevented.
Shuswap Women had total control over their bodies. They were taught by women at an early age about roles and responsibilities as a child, youth, adult and elder.
--Wilma K. Boyce (Shuswap Nation) Canim Lake Band, Canim Lake, BC
Throughout history, many Indigenous women around the world have interacted with other Indigenous women through various women’s societies, which held respected positions of significant political power. Looking closer at traditional teachings and practices within First Nations, Inuit, and Métis nations throughout North America, it is evident that methods of family planning and birth control, including abortion, were performed as necessary procedures to ensure the health and welfare of communities which have women at its core. Although we are vastly diverse in terms of societal structure, whether matriarchal (e.g. Mohawk) or egalitarian (e.g. Inuit), it is clear that the right to govern one’s own body and take care of it they way we choose, is a foundational principle shared amongst us all.

My identity as an Inuk often comes into play when fighting for the right of choice. My identity as a woman is first and foremost when fighting for the right of my own body. If I intersect the two I will look at many factors to my decision. Inuit do not condemn abortion nor do they promote it. This is a choice we have as women. Our people are supportive because that has always been a part of our society, to be supportive in every decision there is.
I am woman and I own my choices, not the men in black robes who by the way are creepy to begin with…with their anti-slogans on Parliament Hill.
--Inuk woman, name withheld upon request
Choice is a critically important teaching which is sacred in principal. Yet this structure – in which the community is supportive of decisions made for the best interest of women and the community – is in many instances a far cry from where we are now. Although the debate between those who are “pro-life” and “pro-choice” won’t end as long as we live in patriarchal societies, this fight is a clear effect of generations of colonization and genocidal oppression – through which we are still suffering. Many of the values, practices, and traditions once held strong in our Aboriginal communities are now lost, and this most definitely includes the rightful place of our women to govern their own bodies.
For many nations, reproductive health issues were decisions made by the individual, and were not thrust into the political arena for any kind of public scrutiny. The core decision-making for Indigenous women takes place between her and the Great Spirit or Creator, whoever that may be for her. With the imposition of colonization and Christianity, which brought in cultural genocide and systemic assimilation, conflicting belief systems were forced upon our people to an extreme extent. Land was one of the major goal acquisitions of the colonizers, so women, who had ancestrally been head of families and land titleholders, therefore became the target to depose. Among other horrific atrocities that occurred throughout the centuries, this colonization erased traditional ways in which we exercised our innate rights over our own bodies to choose the number of children we wanted within our families, and shamed us into believing that talking about things like sexuality were wrong.

As a Cree woman in Canada, a healthy sexual identity was not part of my personal teachings growing into womanhood.
The one biology which distinguishes me from all others – my brown skin – haunts my ability to have true autonomy and agency when it came to a healthy sexual identity. It was much later; that I learned how colonization interfered with what information was transferred between my mother and myself regarding sexual health.
Today, I am clear, open and honest with my children regarding their body, their autonomy over it, and maintenance of it.
--Gloria Larocque, (Sturgeol Lake Cree Nation, Alberta) President of the KETA Society. Board Member of Options for Sexual Health

Very little is known in the present day regarding our historical understanding of women’s reproductive health, and with the widespread resistance policy makers display to making sexual and reproductive health a priority in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities, young people in particular are paying the price. While we know that access to abortion services are severely lacking in rural, remote, and Northern geographical areas where Aboriginal people are highly concentrated, we have yet to bring to the forefront the stories behind the lack of physical access, and the realities Aboriginal women face in seeking an abortion in places where she may face slander for doing what she as an Indigenous woman inherently has every right to decide for herself. It is not enough to say “services are bad” in these areas. Who are services lacking for and why?

As a person of Lakota and European descent, I have been raised in both worlds, but my strong tie is to my Native roots, being raised by grandparents for the first seven years of my life. I truly believe that “my body is my decision – as a woman!” Only I know what I can handle and it’s ironic that the medical profession has only recently started believing in that perspective.
Speaking with people that knew our traditions and ways of life, women had to make the sacrifice for the good of the tribe. Our people had only so much to live on during hard times, so some families had to make the decision not to bring a child into this world to suffer. We, as women, were not scorned for our decisions. The entire tribe knew the impact of those decisions and we did not fight about them. It’s ironic that “Western ideologies and religious concerns” have taken some of those very beliefs and turned them around on us.
--Diane Long Fox-Kastner, Lower Brule (Kul Wicasa Oyate) & Minneconjou (Cheyenne River)

This negligence has enabled coercive legislation and false mass assumptions about what Native communities believe. The Hyde Amendment, which in essence blocks low-income women and, often, women of color from having abortions, inspired similar actions to prohibit Medicaid funding of abortion to U.S. military personnel and their families, Peace Corps volunteers, federal prisoners, and Indian Health Service clients. Many of us raised the alarm and rallied together to take a stand against this total human rights violation, but who is listening? And more importantly, do we even have the total support of our own communities to continue fighting?

I think it’s important to open this debate to a wide audience of Aboriginal women. For me, personally, I know that there are seriously closed gatekeepers who threaten the very spirit of women who support abortion and women’s right to chose what goes on with their bodies.
Aboriginal women get pregnant under complex circumstances and their right to decide about their future must be supported with the best knowledge and options available. Teachings around their roles as mothers and life givers must be given in the contemporary context that we all live in, current and reflective of our past, present and future. The silence around abortion in our communities has made it taboo topic full shame and eternal damnation, and we have the opportunity to reclaim that space for our women to create safe spaces for dialogue and action based on women’s needs and women’s realities.
I want to be anonymous – isn’t that revealing of the circumstance?
--Name withheld upon request

Cecelia Fire Thunder, first female chief of the Oglala Sioux, was rumored to be ousted in 2006 when she publicly declared she would open up a Planned Parenthood Clinic on her reservation if abortion were made illegal in the state of South Dakota. Earlier this year, Run Bruinooge, new chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus in Canada, said that his “Aboriginal views” gave him a unique perspective conducive for his job to “protect the unborn.” And the tribal council of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa passed a law in October 2008 that would ban abortions on their land, even though many members say it was unconstitutionally passed during an illegal “closed-door” meeting.
I’d like to say that this is all a bad case of internalized oppression, and how quickly people forget or in most cases, had no opportunity to learn about. But as mainstream feminism simultaneously still does not acknowledge the origins of sex positive existence and matriarchy, this remains an unpopular uphill battle to wage, on all fronts.
They say that if we had our land; we wouldn’t have to depend on the system. I’d like to think of the day where we’ll not only get back Mother Earth to take care of her, but we’ll know how to work with our land once more to reclaim “choice” for Native women.

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