Endangered species: Native American women's struggle for their reproductive rights and racial identity: 1970's-1990's

Sally J. Torpy, University of Nebraska at Omaha

A Thesis Presented to the Department of History and the Faculty of the Graduate College Univeristy of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts University of Nebraska at Omaha. Copyright 1998, Sally J. Torpy


During the 1970s, the majority of the American protest efforts focused on the feminist, civil rights and anti-war movements On a smaller scale, Native Americans initiated their own campaign. Network television periodically broadcast scenes of confrontation ranging from the Alcatraz Occupation in 1969 through the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973. The consistent objective was to regain treaty rights that had been violated by the United States government and private corporations. Little publicity was given to another form of Native American civil rights abuse — the abuse of women’s reproductive rights. Thousands of women and girls were unknowingly sterilized, including hundreds of mentally retarded who were injected with a drug that had not yet been approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Native American women represented a unique class of victims among the larger population that faced sterilization and abuses of reproductive rights during the 1970s. They had, and continue to have, a dependent relationship with the federal government which has put them at greater risk and made it difficult for them to gain public support and correct such abuses. Yet years of investigation, government hearings and court cases finally aided Native American women’s efforts to organize and address their needs, their rights, and their futures as the cultural forebearers of their race. This thesis analyzes the events that created national and international concern for Native American rights as individual indigenous cultures, and for their survival as a race. Oversight hearings, trials, news reports, investigative publications, and individual interviews with attorneys and Native American women reveal the devastating impact that these events have had upon the individuals, their families and tribal communities. Their struggle to obtain control over reproductive rights has led to a sense of empowerment consistent with the larger Native American effort to free themselves from control by institutions and individuals who know nothing about their unique cultures.