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Women’s Bodies Are No Longer Their Own. For Native People, They Never Have Been.


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Crystal Echo Hawk is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and the founder and executive director of IllumiNative, a Native woman-led racial and social justice nonprofit organization dedicated to building power for Native peoples by amplifying Native voices, stories, and issues. With guidance from IllumiNative Chief Impact Officer Leah Salgado, a citizen of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and an inclusion and culture change strategist, Echo Hawk writes in this op-ed about the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe and how it will impact Native communities—plus how we can help dismantle the invisibility, erasure, and toxic stereotypes that impact Native peoples today.

After the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade last week, eliminating the constitutional protection for abortion, many Americans became afraid about what other rights are at risk. The individual liberties dependent on the right of bodily autonomy impact our families, our loved ones, our access to contraception, and who we can marry.

That fear is already a reality for Native peoples.

In Indigenous communities, we believe that our bodies are sacred. They hold our histories, our knowledge, and our future. But since this country’s founding, the federal government has attempted to control Black and Brown bodies based on political, racial, and economic motivations. The U.S. has always viewed childbirth, children, and families of Native people as a threat. In response, they turn to oppressive policies. Starting in 1819, Native children were ripped from their homes and communities—abused, punished, and even killed in federal Indian boarding schools as a tool to break apart Native families. These assimilationist schools believed in the destruction of Native cultures and ways of life as an attempt to “civilize” Native people. The abuse didn’t stop after the schools closed in 1969. Between 1969 and 1974, which became known as the Scoop Era, Native children were removed from their homes and adopted out to white families. During that time, Native women were also being forcibly sterilized without their knowledge or consent in federally-run clinics across the country.

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Taking away the rights established in Roe is just another cog in the wheel of the oppressor that keeps spinning—one of the many ways the U.S. government continues to violate the sovereignty of Native peoples and our bodies. Make no mistake: Native women and birthing people will be disproportionately impacted by the Supreme Court’s decision.

Not only does the reversal impact abortion access, it also exacerbates and highlights the issues that make the need for access even more important. Native women, girls, and 2SLGBTQ+ relatives experience some of the highest rates of physical and sexual violence. One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, according to the Department of Justice. Access to abortion is a necessary, life sustaining, and, in some cases, life-saving procedure that is paramount to the safety of our community. With Roe overturned, 26 states are now expected to ban abortions. Many of these states—including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota—have some of the largest Native populations in the country, which puts our community on the frontlines of this crisis.

march on washington dc to protest supreme courts roe v wade reversal

Abortion-rights activists march past the Washington Monument on June 26, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

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In the panicked discussions since the Roe decision, there has been a new interest in if, how, and whether Tribes should be able to open abortion clinics on reservations as a way to ensure that all people have access to lifesaving, necessary reproductive care. The short answer is that it’s complicated. These conversations show the lack of knowledge and understanding of what Tribal sovereignty is, ignore the long history of broken treaties and fights for our sovereign nations, and disregard the legal loopholes that have created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Girls epidemic. Tribal sovereignty isn’t some magic remedy, it remains a politicized fight.

Just this week, the Supreme Court ignored legal precedent and issued a ruling in Castro v. Huerta that chips away at the ability of Tribes to assert their sovereignty over their land and gives states, for the first time, the ability to prosecute crimes committed by non-Natives on reservation lands. The non-Native pundits looking at reservations and seeing safe havens will find none. Besides, Native governments do not have the tools to fix a broken colonial system, because it is not our system. In our work to fight erasure and invisibility, it’s frustrating that Native peoples and Tribal sovereignty are remembered and recognized only when it benefits non-Natives.

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Native peoples are organizing to ensure that Native people living in states restricting access to reproductive care have the resources they need. We must stand with them. Non-profit grassroots organizations like Indigenous Women Rising, who are organizing to provide Native people with resources to access abortions and reproductive health services, are critical. But it should not fall on our shoulders to fix these colonial systems that have failed us over and over again. It is the responsibility of those currently in power to use the tools at their disposal to ensure that abortion access is not a privilege for a few, but a right for all. The decisions of the Court show the limitations of a system that was built on stolen land and stolen bodies. The people with the power and the means will always have access to abortion—and those people are overwhelmingly white. This decision disproportionately impacts Indigenous, Black, and Women of Color and that is where we must look first to provide support.

In many Indigenous communities, women are our hope and our future. Not only because women and birthing people have the power to bring forth the next generation, but because they shape them. This power stems from choosing when and with whom to bring life into the world—without explanation or apology. Our sovereignty and our people existed long before this country came to be and we will exist for time immemorial. No court, no decision will ever change that. This moment is one of many attempts to destroy our sovereignty. But, like generations before us, we won’t let them.

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