Forced Sterilizations of Indigenous Women

The sterilizations of indigenous women were either genuine mistakes or less direct means of the continuation of the extermination policy against the Indian Nations. At least three indigenous generations from 3,406 women are not in existence now as the result of either human error or intentional genocide. Were the sterilizations unintentional, negligible, or intended genocide? What would the indigenous culture and political landscape be now? One can only imagine, but the sterilizations like the relocations – were forced.

First, the forced sterilizations must be seen in the historical and the more modern context.

Leonard Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes. “Crow Dog.” pp. 6-7.

Only when we saw them building roads through our land, wagons at first, and then the railroad, when we watched them building forts, killing off all the game, committing buffalo genocide, and we saw them ripping up our Black Hills for gold, our sacred Paha Sapa, the home of the wakinyan, the thunderbirds, only then did we realize what they wanted was our land. Then we began to fight. For our earth. For our children. That started what the whites call the Great Indian Wars of the West. I call it the Great Indian Holocaust.

Native American Women and Violence

Native American women experience the highest rate of violence of any group in the United States.
A report released by the Department of Justice, American Indians and Crime, found that Native American women suffer violent crime at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average. National researchers estimate that this number is actually much higher than has been captured by statistics; according to the Department of Justice over 70% of sexual assaults are never reported.

Here’s a historical example of violence against a Native American woman during this general time, to complete laying the foundation.

Anna Mae Aquash

On February 24, 1976, Aquash was found dead by the side of State Road 73 on the far northeast corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation, about 10 miles from Wanblee, South Dakota, close to Kadoka. Her body was found during an unusually warm spell in late February, 1976 by a rancher, Roger Amiotte.[2] The first autopsy (reports are now public information) states: “it appears she had been dead for about 10 days.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ medical practitioner, W. O. Brown, missing the bullet wound on her skull, stated that “she had died of exposure.” [1]

Subsequently, her hands were cut off and sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington, D.C. for fingerprinting. Although federal agents were present who knew Anna Mae, she was not identified, and her body was buried as a Jane Doe.

On March 10, 1976, eight days after Anna Mae’s burial, her body was exhumed as the result of separate requests made by her family and AIM supporters, and the FBI. A second autopsy was conducted the following day by an independent pathologist from Minneapolis, Dr. Garry Peterson. This autopsy revealed that she had been shot by a .32 caliber bullet in the back of the head, execution style.[3]

The general historical foundation being laid, I now ask a question:

What would the population of indigenous people be now, approximately three generations after the forced sterilizations?

Genocide or Family Planning?

According to the GAO report, 3406 Native American women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four were sterilized between 1973 and 1976.

The Scythe and the Scalpel:

Dissecting the Sterilizations of Native American Women in the 1970’s

In the old days, genocide used to be so simple. Such things as biological warfare used to keep Indians warm with small pox infested blankets furnished by the United States government, and the only thing barren and infertile was the land set aside for reservations.In the 1970s, genocide became a little more complex.
Biological warfare invaded the reproductive rights of Native American women, making their wombs as barren and infertile as reservation land. The sterilization policies during this time perpetuated the genocidal tendencies that have made the eugenics movement a viable legacy of terror in the biological history of Native Americans.

Next, the specifics of who uncovered the forced sterilizations and why that conclusion was reached are vital. The dark moment of discovery came from a Choctaw- Cherokee physician named Connie Uri.

Kurt Kaltreider, PH.D. “American Indian Prophecies.” p. 71.

A Choctaw-Cherokee physician, Connie Uri, uncovered this program (large-scale sterilization) when she was asked by a young Indian woman for a womb transplant.

The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women

A young Indian woman entered Dr.Connie Pinkerton-Uri’s Los Angeles office on a November day in 1972. The twenty-six-year-old woman asked Dr. Pinkerton-Uri for a “womb transplant” because she and her husband wished to start a family.
An Indian Health Service (IHS) physician had given the woman a complete hysterectomy when she was having problems with alcoholism six years earlier. Dr. Pinkerton-Uri had to tell the young woman that there was no such thing as a “womb transplant” despite the IHS physician having told her that the surgery was reversible. The woman left Dr. Pinkerton-Uri’s office in tears. 1

Kurt Kaltreider, PH.D. “American Indian Prophecies.” p. 71.

She (Connie Uri) scoured the records of the BIA-run Indian Health Service Hospital in Claremore, Oklahoma, and discovered that 75% of the sterilizations were nontherapeutic. Many of the women did not understand the true nature of the surgery, thought it was a kind of reversible birth control, or even signed the consent forms while groggy from sedation after childbirth.

A Look at the Indian Health Service Policy of Sterilization, 1972-1976 by Charles R. England

The hospital records show that both tubal ligation and hysterectomies were used in sterilization. Dr. Uri commented: “In normal medical practice, hysterectomies are rare in women of child bearing age unless there is cancer or other medical problems” (Akwesasne Notes, 1974: 22). Besides the questionable surgery techniques being allowed to take place, there was also the charge of harassment in obtaining consent forms.

  In addition, Montana also had instances of forced sterilizations.

The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women

Two young women entered an IHS hospital in Montana to undergo appendectomies and received tubal ligations, a form of sterilization, as an added benefit. Bertha Medicine Bull, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, related how the “two girls had been sterilized at age fifteen before they had any children. Both were having appendectomies when the doctors sterilized them without their knowledge or consent.” Their parents were not informed either. Two fifteen-year-old girls would never be able to have children of their own. 2

Kutr Kaltreider, PH.D. “American Indian Prophecies.” pp. 71-72.

Following Dr. Uri’s lead, Senator James Abourezk initiated a federal investigation of the General Accounting office. The resulting report gave the results of a survey from four out of twelve regions with Indian Health Services hospitals. In a three-tear period, over 3,400 sterilizations were performed; 3,000 of them on Indian women under the age of 44. In not one instance were the women offered consent forms that met the federal guidelines and requirements. About 5% of Indian women were being sterilized –

The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women

Native Americans accused the Indian Health Service of sterilizing at least 25 percent of Native American women who were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four during the 1970s.

  Albuquerque, Aberdeen, and Phoenix also shared in “inconsistent and inadequate” medical forms. As was mentioned above, there was a federal investigation.

And Then There Were None

by Kamet Larson

Most of the 3,400-plus cases involved women who have been sterilized by Indian Health Service doctors (by specially hired physicians in one-third of the cases) — whether voluntarily or for reasons of medical necessity is unclear, since IHS records blur that critical distinction. Going through three years of files in four of the 52 IHS service areas, federal investigators could find no conclusive proof that the sterilized patients had given their fully informed consent as HEW (which operates the IHS) defines it. For “voluntary, knowing assent” HEW requires a description of what the surgical procedure or experiment is, its discomforts, risks and benefits; a disclosure of appropriate alternatives; an offer to answer questions; and an assurance that the patient is free to withdraw consent at any time without losing benefits. Forms on file in Albuquerque, Aberdeen, Oklahoma City and Phoenix were found to be incomplete on these basic points, inconsistent, inadequate, and “generally not in compliance with the Indian Health Service regulations.” Among the stacks of material looked at were physician complaints that preparing the required summaries of conversations with patients was “too time-consuming.” Had the IHS been as careless with its patients as with its own record-keeping?

What would the population of indigenous people be now? What would the indigenous culture and political landscape be now for indigenous people? 

I don’t know, but one thing is clear to me: the sterilizations, like the relocations – were forced.


“And…if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, ” he wrote, “we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi.” Jefferson, the slave owner, continued, “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them”. (Ibid)

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sterilizations in the 70’s

The following is a copy of an article by Joan Burnes which appeared in the Lakota Times last August 24th (1994).

– snip –

Emery A. Johnson, then-director of the IHS, told a congressional committee in 1975 that IHS “considered non-therapeutic sterilization a legitimate method of family planning… We are not aware of any instance in which such services have been abused.”

To conclude, this is a video Sigrid shared with me. It says what I want to say in this conclusion.

We shall live again.


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  1. winter rabbit

    Historically speaking. The Boarding Schools had been closed for about two decades.

  2. Pandoras Box

    I was in college – this seems, to me, like only yesterday and one wonders how this kind of crime/thinking was possible at that point. But, since it clearly was not only possible, but happening, I now wonder what else is happening right now that is similarly atrocious.

    a great tragedy

    I understand that Native American women are still extremely vulnerable to violent crime, and it is more or less “overlooked” by law enforcement in the areas where they live.

  3. Temmoku

    For years we were told that native Americans had a tendency toward alcoholism…that it was genetic. That their children suffered from a high incidence of fetal-alcohol syndrome and were a burden on society. That Native Americans were incapable of learning and were lazy (many people still believe this b/c I hear it a LOT from people I know in Wisconsin).There has been a concerted propaganda effort to eliminate Native Americans one way or another. To sterlize so many is not incompetency…it is Eugenics in action.
    How disasterous for our country.

  4. jeffinalabama

    I have been asking this question for 20 or so years, after finding out about the sterilizations, whether this was an attempt to further reduce an already-fragile population,or whether this was simply misguided.

    I am of two minds about it–one concernes the gross incometence of the IHS… well documented, I think, in terms of patient rights and its mission. From my uinderstanding, the IHS was where doctors  who could barely be licensed went to work. Also, wasn’t there a time when doctors didn’t have to be licensed to worh for IHS?

    The policies and practrices of the time by the government, also, were to encourage the end of the reservation system, and to  assimilate Native Americans. Thus, I think that actual government policy was the slow demise of the tribes and the people. The sterrilization, while connected, I think was a combination of (a) very bad medical practices, and (b) support for policies directed at the eventual elimination (perhaps extinction would be more appropriate) of Native Americans.

      These policies were addressed by the Carter Administration, were they nort? I do recall that the Reagan Administration was also in favor of assimilation (and the end of native americans as an ethnicity, either through assimilation or extinction) as well.

  5. winter rabbit

    I’d also say that the imcompetent hiring was deliberate. Remember Monica Goodling (sp) and all the incompetent hirings? One wouldn’t hire someone they thought wouldn’t do what they wanted. Know what I’m saying?

  6. snackdoodle

    What arrogance to even think Native Americans would want to be like us. How do you assimilate a people with substandard educations and limited marketable skills?  Where I lived in South Dakota no one really wanted the indians living near them, indians suffered from many of the same biases and bigotry as Blacks in the south and I have no reason to believe it was substantially different in other states with reservations. For generations the belief was the only good indian was a dead indian, that mind set was still part of the national thinking in the 70’s. No one was going to step forward and protect native women, for a country that no longer had the stomach for hands on face to face violent extermination, this was the perfect solution. And while it came to light in the 70’s it had been going on for 50 years, here and in Canada.

    It was the same thing with Black and Chicano women, forced sterilization was used against all these ethnic groups as little 20 years ago. All thru our history there has been a concerted effort to demonize minorities, blame the victim. A lie told long enough it becomes the new truth, these groups are lazy, stupid, alcoholics, savages and no one cares, anything done to them they either deserve or done for their own good.

    In all of it no one with the power to change things ever looked at real solutions. The reservation system wasn’t working because the reservations were hell holes. I am not advocating reservations, but there was a time when it might have worked but there was no value placed on the Native culture or that natives were first human beings. Substandard everything and the government and indian pockets to pick. The level of corruption in the BIA was staggering, they “lost” billions from the Indian trust fund, made sure there were shortages of necessities while they got rich. BIA is a series all on its own. These sterilizations were paid for by federal funds, no one would question and the money flowed. 

    Winter Rabbit, can you do a series on why Native American women experience the highest rate of violence? I don’t know how many people realize this kind of violence against women is not part of Native American culture and it is one of the saddest legacies of the boarding school system.

  7. winter rabbit

    What’s happened in the last year are a lot of suicides of youth in Lakota Country, Indian Health Care Failed, Land rights are beind lost more so, the pipeline, the Republican Steering Committee deliberately blocking everything relating to American Indians. Long list.

  8. Pandoras Box

    news cycle, we don’t hear about those injustices.

  9. winter rabbit

    I can’t say it’ll happen right away, but I will. That needs to be known for sure.

  10. terryhallinan

    indians suffered from many of the same biases and bigotry as Blacks in the south

    There is a strange disconnect.

    People claiming to be white, whatever that is, brag of their Indian heritage.  Not so their African heritage.

    At the same time, while there is much written about the sad plight of African-Americans, where are the stories about the poorest ethnic group of them all, a people who were hunted nearly to extinction after their lands were stolen?

    George Washington diverted some troops from the battle against the British during the War of Independence to wage a genocidal campaign against Native Americans.

    Things have improved somewhat since then but not as much as they might.

    I suspect the farce of reservations as sovereign independent nations should be ended but it is just a thought without any idea of what measures ought rather to be taken to improve the lot of a people who should not be in such a position.

    I would appreciate any thoughts, including any objections, by one who can think about such things.

    Best,  Terry

  11. winter rabbit

    It was deliberate genocide.

  12. snackdoodle

    to Native Americans. I do know in my family there is a lot of native blood and an almost universal inability to metabolize alcohol in the same way the general population can, so we just don’t drink. Alcoholism is something totally different, it is a disease, it is self medicating. You have only to know what it was before and what it is now to understand we have placed Native Americans in a hell on earth. How could any human being withstand that and not wish something to ease the pain, some escape from the inescapable. The other really nasty fact about Natives and alcoholism is BIA agents were the primary source of alcohol, yet another not so subtle way of destroying the culture. FAS is higher among plains indians, but other tribes it is identical to national average. It also depends a great deal on overall nutrition, malnourished mothers and babies are at far greater risk for FAS. It becomes a double whammy, poor diet fewer healthy infants even without alcohol being factored in. Infant mortality rates range from 6% (close to national average) to more than 11% per 1000 births, that number has not changed in 10 years, even tho it has dropped among othergroups particularly hispanic women.

  13. winter rabbit

    Many forget the American Indians were forced into slavery as well.
    Read this.

    I also recommend reading the American Holocaust by David Stannard
    Oxford University Press, 1992

    I don’t think the reservations should be ended. A lot of the sacred ceremonies that occur still happen on the reservations.

  14. snackdoodle

    being indian or even slightly indian. I happen to also be part Cherokee at least 7 generations removed, it was not something you bragged about. When my family came here about 1740 they settled in South Carolina near Cherokee lands. They also bought land that came with slaves. They knew owning another human being was wrong, so they freed their slaves, but the slaves had no place to go and their freedom was largely symbolic. What my ancestors did was marry into the slave families and into the indian families. We have always been proud to be part of a family who carries in their genes an amazing cross section of American history. 

    By the way, have you ever noticed the people who brag about being part indian never look that way?

  15. winter rabbit

    Is Choctaw Freedman. I wish I could get my friend to share their story.

  16. terryhallinan

    have you ever noticed the people who brag about being part indian never look that way?

    I don’t know what an Indian looks like.

    My father-in-law had to shave less frequently than some.  He credited his Cherokee great grandmother.  He looked like hell to me but what do I know? 

    I got told lots about those good Cherokees, as opposed to bad other Indians I guess.  A proud tribe, the Cherokees, without a doubt but I took them as warriors rather than peaceful sorts.  I was surprised my other Texas inlaws when we visited there much later mentioned laughingly the possibility that their great grandmother might have been one of the slaves rather than a “real” Cherokee.  Such a thought would have been verboten to my father-in-law I think.

    Roy Rogers look Indian to you?  Did to me.  You see Roy Rogers was close kin to my half-sisters. 

    Let me tell you the story of the Finnish Crow. 

    A man met one of my half-sisters for the first time and remarked that she was a Finn for sure.  He mentioned that he knew that because the Finns were the only people on earth that had a substantial number of brown-eyed blondes.  That was rather remarkable because our Finnish mother had blue eyes.  The only known ancestor of my half-sister with brown eyes was a Crow Indian. 

    The Finns got around a lot but never heard they visited the New World like the Vikings.  Of course the Crows could have moved around too. 

    Just never know about these things. :-)

    When you describe what an Indian looks like, I will be happy to discuss it.  Man oh man, if Indians looked much like the one Apache girl I met long ago, one might wonder why there are not an awful lot of Apaches around.

    As you perhaps know, the Finns reputedly came from Mongolia.  My Finnish mother looked the part of a classic Finnish beauty.  Her sister looked more like Genghis Khan.  Hard for me to figure these things.

    Take care, my friend.

    Best,  Terry

  17. Temmoku

    and there is also a link with diabetes. It may be that the two are genes located on the same allele and get passed along together….
    As you say,Scottish/Irish blood and Native American…so I got a double dose…(My drug of choice is Chocolate with lots of sugar, but I digress)….perhaps there is something linking the reputation and the genetics, but that is not a reason for extermination or sterilization.

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