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Abortion bans continue to reinforce colonization of Indigenous people, community leaders say

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Indigenous community members at a panel event Thursday discussed what lies below the surface of recent abortion bans and how Indigenous people will be overwhelmingly affected.

Members of the Indigenous Community Center of Lawrence and State Rep. Christina Haswood (Navajo Nation), as well as her policy campaign team, joined together at Haskell Indian Nationls University’s Tommaney Library. They spoke candidly about the history of white supremacist violence against Indigenous communities and the direct effect abortion bans will have on them.

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“What we’re seeing right now is really the epitome of colonization — the government taking control and authority over our bodies and over women’s autonomy,” D’Arlyn Bell (Cherokee Nation) said.

The corner of the library where the panel was held has special meaning as it is a healing space dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), according to Tommaney librarian Carrie Cornelius (Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and Prairie Band Potawatomi).

The panel included Bell and Haswood as well as Robert Hicks (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Nixon Nevada), Moniqué Mercurio (Navajo people and Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nations), Sarah Deer (Muscogee (Creek) Nation), Wyomee Cooke (Diné), and Chloe Gunville (Mnicoujou Lakota). Sierra Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota) moderated the discussion as well as participated.

Each panelist brought forth perspectives, encouraging non-Native people to listen.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Panelists sit in a corner of Tommaney Library at Haskell, which is dedicated to MMIW and is a healing space.

‘How did we get here?’

American Indian Residential Schools were institutions in which Native children were forced to assimilate and stripped of their cultural identities. Children were often abused and sometimes killed, Deer said. 

Haskell University was once the United States Indian Industrial Training School, opened in 1884, and Haskell Cemetery today remains a cemetery for 103 Native American children buried between 1885 and 1943, a federal report found. The report also found that residential schools in the United States were responsible for the deaths of more than 500 students between 1869 and 1969.

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The history of violence against Indigenous women runs deep. In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. Indian Health Service (IHS) mass sterilized Indigenous women, forcibly stripping them of their ability to birth. 

A statement from the Indigenous Community Center released on the day Roe v. Wade was overturned says, “Throughout history the United States government has sterilized Indigenous women without their consent or knowledge, contributing to a long history of genocide against First Nations people.”

Deer explained that because of forced sterilization, many women who wanted children could not have them, making today’s issue about the right to choose and to have sovereignty over one’s body.

“For us, reproductive justice is not just about abortion, but the right to have children and the right to raise children and the right to have the resources to raise children,” Deer said.

A multigenerational women’s group called W.A.R.N. (Women of All Red Nations), founded by Lorelei DeCora Means, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Phyllis Young, and Janet McCloud, was created in the 1970s to give women space in Indigenous activism.

Mercurio added that Native tribes were supportive of women who sought out abortions. 

“As a Native woman, it has been taken out of our control since the colonizers came to this country. We have not had the opportunity to exercise our beliefs, our culture [or] the way that we were raised,” Mercurio said.

“I know a lot of tribes support women who decide and are being told through their bodies or through Creator that this may not be a viable pregnancy. Maybe something happened to her and there are ways and remedies that a lot of Natives used to naturally abort babies before colonizers came here, before there were clinics, before there was the morning-after pill. We had our ways, and those ways were ceremony, and abortion is ceremony.”

Effects of recent abortion bans on Indigenous communities

Panelists discussed the contradictions of the Supreme Court’s June 24 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, saying it comes during a national infant formula shortage, while the foster care and adoption systems are heavily flawed, while health care is not universal, while parental leave is not extensive and more.

Surrounding states, including Missouri and Oklahoma, banned abortion immediately after the court’s decision was released due to “trigger laws.” With a constitutional amendment on the Aug. 2 ballot, the right to abortion in Kansas is now at stake. If passed, the amendment would open the doors for the Legislature to enact a complete ban in the state.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Christina Haswood (Navajo Nation), Kansas State Representative for District 10, and Chloe Gunville (Mnicoujou Lakota)

Haswood voiced concerns of voter suppression, especially for young people of color, given recent Kansas legislation that has tightened voting restrictions.

“If people mistake you as an election official, it’s so vague for that reason, right, ‘up to interpretation,’ that you can risk a felony and that’s something that a lot of us young people of color feel that threat the most,” Haswood said.

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Cooke mentioned states with high Native American populations that may ban abortion, like Arizona, and the implications that will come for Indigenous people needing to travel across states to get those services.

“Those Natives from that area, those Native women have to travel to Colorado or anywhere that is accessible to them, and within those traveling times women could get stolen and they could also be raped, and it’s very important to keep that in mind with the safety of our women,” Cooke said.

Hicks also shared that Indigenous people continue to struggle due to Indian Health Services’ restrictive policies and that those living in poverty don’t have the resources needed to travel for abortion access.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Robert Hicks (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Nixon Nevada)

“… Indigenous peoples’ lives are at risk … This is something that is much more [deep] than what people actually realize,” Hicks said.

MMIW is a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of the pervasive issue that Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.

With support from the Indigenous Community Center, Lawrence’s MMIWG2ST (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Trans people) chapter is fighting against this epidemic.

Cultural appropriation

Panelists also discussed their frustrations with many mainstream pro-abortion-rights groups, which are often centered on white women. They called for non-Native people to reconsider how their messages may be further oppressing Native people and to stop appropriating culture.

Deer shared she has been appalled to see people on social media calling to set up abortion clinics on reservation, or tribal, land because “it’s exempt from state law.” Deer said it is “not that simple” as they have not consulted with Indigenous people nor do they know the history.

“Your idea is insulting, it’s a disrespect to sovereignty, and it won’t work …We are not ‘poof’ the answer to white people’s problems,” Deer said.

Mercurio shared her experience at a reproductive rights rally, where white people had red-painted handprints across their faces and bodies. That symbol is a cornerstone of MMIW and has sacred meaning to Indigenous people, Mercurio said.

“… It still angers me that these red handprints across these white faces started spreading across the crowd and all over their bodies, and it just broke my heart and I cried because of what those handprints represent and the people who don’t even know, don’t even hold a space, don’t have the capacity to understand and aren’t asking questions … They just see it and take it and I’m over it, so that needs to stop.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Moniqué Mercurio (Navajo people and Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nations), Indigenous Community Center board member

The need to mobilize and organize right now resounded amongst all panelists.

Deer recommended people donate to Indigenous Women Rising, a grassroots organization founded by Rachael Lorenzo, Nicole Martin and Malia Luarkie. The organization is “committed to honoring Native & Indigenous People’s inherent right to equitable and culturally safe health options through accessible health education, resources and advocacy,” according to the website.

Through the IWR abortion fund, Indigenous people in the United States and Canada can access financial assistance for abortion health care. Donations can be made using this link.

Donations to assist Kansans can also be made to the Kansas Abortion Fund.

Visit the Indigenous Community Center website for more information, resources and social media links.

All registered Kansas voters can vote in the upcoming primary, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof. Learn more about the Aug. 2 election at this link. Register to vote, double-check your registration and/or request a mail ballot at KSVotes.org.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times From left to right are Robert Hicks (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Nixon Nevada), D’Arlyn Bell (Cherokee Nation), Christina Haswood (Navajo Nation), Chloe Gunville (Mnicoujou Lakota), Moniqué Mercurio (Navajo people and Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nations), and Sierra Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota), all members of the Indigenous Voices and Abortion Justice Panel on Thursday, June 30, 2022 at Tommaney Library.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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