Sovereignty Lost

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Jen Deerinwater demonstrates the links between tribal sovereignty and what it means to achieve full reproductive justice.

This piece is published as part of We Organize to Change Everything, A collaboration between acclaimed socialist feminist magazine Lux and Verso. We Organize to Change Everything examines the fight for abortion from the 1970s to the present, bringing together the voices of clinic defenders, health care providers, and the networks of feminist activists helping pregnant people obtain care from Mississippi to Mexico. Contributors consider the intimate connection of abortion rights to forced sterilization and structural racism, incarceration and criminalization, Indigenous people’s sovereignty, transgender rights, and the growing threat of a white supremacist far right. Looking outside of the US to the Americas, the collection shows how US activists can draw inspiration, lessons, and strategy from the dynamic feminist movement across Central and South America.

Most importantly, this collection describes what a fighting movement for reproductive justice could look like—one that fights for the right to parent as we wish or not parent at all, and rejects the criminalization of anyone’s body.

I’ve supported abortion since I was ten years old. I noticed the adults that mistreated girls and womxn were overwhelmingly antiabortion, and I didn’t want to be like them. That’s no surprise, given that my youngest years were spent in a small town in Tulsa County on the now reestablished reservation of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Collinsville was a small, two-stoplight kind of town with a Main Street similar to many others I’ve seen across the so-called United States.[1] It’s an ultra-conservative, Trump-loving part of the country with many evangelical Christians and a long history of attempting to legislate the bodies and lives of those with wombs.

My first personal encounter with this came at fourteen years old after my boyfriend raped me. When my period was late, I was terrified that I could be pregnant. I didn’t know what I would do, but having a baby wasn’t an option. A friend’s mom bought a pregnancy test for me because I was worried, given how small my town was, that everyone would know if I bought one myself.

I had recently been hospitalized for attempting suicide and I came from a divorced family, which meant some people in this small town looked down on me. I also saw the way rape survivors were treated in the media: William Kennedy Smith, member of the famous Kennedy family, had been on trial for rape only a few years earlier and been rapidly acquitted of all charges, despite the testimony of multiple women and a rape kit. The survivor was first painted as a liar and then as a slut who got what she deserved. Given that I was a mixed Native child from a “broken home,” and had just been in a mental hospital, I didn’t think anyone would believe me, nor care. Thankfully my period returned and I didn’t have to worry about how I would access an abortion as a minor in rural Oklahoma—but that moment in time solidified my commitment to reproductive rights.

At fifteen, my step-dad accepted a new job in the dusty, cactus-spotted lands of Abilene, Texas. With a population of around 125,000, Abilene is the major urban area of this region of West Texas. Dallas is the nearest large city, roughly 180 miles away.

Abilene began as a stopping point for cattle drives and later became home to three private, ultra-conservative Christian colleges and Dyess Air Force Base. Sexual education, birth control, condoms, and abortion were not easily available, if at all. My high school sex ed consisted of our health teacher, a football coach as I recall, hanging a “True Love Waits” t-shirt on the chalk board. “True Love Waits” is the Baptist Church’s deeply misogynistic, anti-queer, and rape culture–oozing abstinence-only program that is fixated on female purity and virginity.

At my high school, I heard stories of unwanted pregnancies and secret trips to Planned Parenthood in Dallas or cases of or fears of contracting STIs. Thankfully, when I wanted hormonal birth control my mom made sure I had it, and being the research nerd that I am, I learned as much as I could about STIs, pregnancy, and prevention. Even if I had to steal them due to financial or privacy concerns, I always made sure I had condoms once I chose to become sexually active on my own terms.

I eventually escaped home and moved to the coasts. I grew, changed, and found a home of sorts in political movements, including the prochoice movement. I think this made it easier for me at twenty-six when my birth control failed and I became pregnant. I knew with unwavering certainty that I had a right to control my body and ultimately my life. Having that knowledge, though, didn’t make it easy.

I discussed the situation with my (by then) ex-boyfriend, and we were both in agreement with my decision to have an abortion. I would become part of the 25 percent of womxn in the United States who’ve had an abortion since Roe v. Wade became law in 1973. While my ex may have been prochoice and supported my decision to have an abortion, he only did so out of convenience for himself. He threw some cash my way and left me to deal with our problem on my own. He complained that I didn’t schedule the abortion at a time that was convenient for him. As if abortion was available on demand and it wasn’t my body going through it.

A friend went with me to Planned Parenthood, where we waited all day to receive the pills for the medical abortion, which I thought would be a less invasive and more private way to have an abortion. However, I didn’t fully understand that I was about to go through something akin to the process of giving birth. I was repeatedly instructed by medical staff to have someone with me, but no one explained why. I lied and said I wouldn’t be alone when I took the pills, because I was afraid I’d be denied an abortion. I couldn’t tell them that the father didn’t care enough to be with me. I was also struggling with the PTSD symptoms from what occurred when I was fourteen. I needed an abortion immediately and I would have said anything to get one.

Hours later, in the throes of extreme nausea and cramping, I wished he were with me. I didn’t want my ex back—he wasn’t a good person, nor someone that I would want to raise a child with—but I would have given anything to have him with me to get the glass of water I was too sick to get for myself. When I came to on my bathroom floor after passing out from the pain, I was utterly alone. He never called to see how I was after the abortion.

About a month later, I attended the annual protest that the Massachusetts-area affiliates of the National Organization for Women held to counter the Boston antiabortion protest. I thought I was prepared for the onslaught of demeaning, derogatory words that the antiabortion zealots use about people like me, but I wasn’t: a sign claiming abortion was manslaughter brought tears to my eyes. I dedicated my life to fighting for justice and a better world. Did these people not realize that I didn’t take having an abortion lightly and that I took every means necessary to prevent a pregnancy? Didn’t they realize that there was a (cis)man involved, and that the responsibility didn’t lie solely on my shoulders?

I was overcome by rage. Rage over the injustice of being called a murderer while my ex got off scot-free. He didn’t have to beg for a day off work, or go through hours of excruciating pain or weeks of bleeding. He would never be called a murderer, a slut, or have to fight for his right to control his body and destiny. He would never have to write an essay like this, and he would never feel enraged and frustrated over having to explain why he had an abortion. In a just world I wouldn’t owe anyone an explanation at all.

***

Despite my commitment to abortion rights, I didn’t see myself reflected in prochoice spaces. The people I was surrounded by were overwhelmingly white, hetero, able-bodied, ciswomen from middle-to-upper socioeconomic backgrounds. As I’m a multiply-disabled, bisexual, Native, Two-Spirit womxn these spaces often felt dismissive. Many of those people would feign concern over the privileged make-up of the prochoice movement, but wouldn’t do much to change it. I didn’t see the prochoice activists I met work in solidarity with oppressed people who were without abortion access, nor did I see their concern for those who lost their rights to parent entirely. Very few seemed to care that in the 1970s it is estimated that up to 50 percent of Native womb carriers were sterilized against their will by the Indian Health Service (IHS).

Created under the 1921 Snyder Act, IHS is a federally funded trust and treaty responsibility to provide healthcare for citizens and members of federally recognized tribal nations, which means our ancestors paid for this healthcare through the loss of their lives and lands. However, IHS has been used by the US government as a tool of genocide. The Claremore Indian Hospital in Oklahoma, where I went as a child, was notorious for forced sterilization. Stripping our womb-carriers of their ability to have children is the continuation of over five hundred years of misogynistic violence against Indigenous peoples, and an attack on tribal sovereignty and self-determination that uses our womxn as fodder. There are so very few of us left that it would take little to entirely eliminate us from the Earth.

Compounding the dire genocidal conditions that IHS’s sterilization caused is the reality that our children are continuing to be stolen from us and Native people are being denied the right to parent, which was exacerbated by Indian boarding schools. The boarding schools were created as part of a series of genocidal and white, Christian assimilationist policies known as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Atrocious acts of torture, sexual and physical assault, and murder occurred at these schools. A recent report by the US Department of the Interior on the federally funded Indian boarding schools found there were 408 schools in thirty-seven states or the then-territories of Alaska and Hawai’i. Unmarked Native children’s gravesites have been found at fifty-three schools. The investigation is ongoing, and as has occurred in similar investigations in so-called Canada, more gravesites will surely be uncovered.

Native children have been singled out for adoption into white, Christian homes in the foster system as well, effectively taking them out of Indigenous communities. The theft of our children was so extreme that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) became federal law in 1978. ICWA helps protect our Native children who are eligible for or enrolled in a federally recognized tribal nation from being adopted to overwhelmingly white, Christian homes. Before ICWA, 25 to 35 percent of all Native children were removed from their homes and 85 percent of them were placed outside their families and tribal nations even when safe homes with relatives were available.

Even with ICWA in place, many of our children are still stolen today, and our womb carriers’ rights to parent are still in question. Native people are up to four times more likely to have our children placed in foster care than non-Native people. Oklahoma, which has one of the largest Native populations in the US, reported in 2020 that Native children represented more than 35 percent of those in foster care, yet Native people only comprised 9 percent of the state’s population. It’s quite telling that many of those who want to overturn ICWA also want to overturn Roe, including Supreme Court justices Thomas, Alito, and Roberts (and most likely Kavanaugh and Coney Barret)—the idea, here, is a full-scale bid to control reproduction across the board. The Supreme Court will rule on ICWA in the 2022–23 session in Brackeen v. Haaland.

Not only has our right to have and parent our children been stolen from us, but so has our right to abortion. Roe didn’t grant abortions for all. Native people have a right to full healthcare at IHS, including reproductive healthcare, but under the Hyde Amendment abortions can’t be performed using federal funds except to save the life of the pregnant person or in cases of rape or incest. Despite this clause, though, abortion services are close to unavailable at IHS regardless of the circumstances: one study by Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center reported that between 1981–2001 IHS performed only twenty-five abortions, and that 85 percent of IHS facilities were noncompliant with IHS and Hyde Amendment regulations. Only 5 percent of IHS facilities provided abortion services onsite, and none of the IHS pharmacies kept Mifeprex (RU-486) for medical abortions. The study also found that IHS didn’t make referrals to outside abortion providers.

Because Native people are disproportionally more likely to live in poverty and to be disabled, many of us access our health care through Medicare or Medicaid, also subject to the Hyde Amendment. However, states can opt, and some do, to use some of their funds to pay for abortion for Medicaid recipients. And yet, even with three forms of federally funded health care supposedly available to me I have struggled to access even the most basic of reproductive health care. Most recently, I was a year late in replacing my IUD and suffered unnecessary pain as a result, because there weren’t enough providers that would accept Medicare and Medicaid to perform the simple procedure. There are also no IHS facilities in Washington, DC, where I now live, despite the agency being headquartered only seventeen miles away.

Compounding this reality is that thirty states, as well as the District of Columbia, have laws allowing the forced sterilization of disabled people. The 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell allows these eugenicist policies, but outside of the disability community this issue is rarely discussed in prochoice or even many reproductive justice spaces. This isn’t merely outdated legislation still on the books: in 2019 Iowa and Nevada codified the forced sterilization of disabled people.

All it would take is the stroke of a judge’s pen and I could legally be sterilized against my will. With the exception of North Carolina and Alaska, which have made forced sterilization of disabled people illegal, the law is unclear in the other seventeen states, so sterilizations might occur under guardianships. Guardianships, which garnered media attention when Britney Spears spoke of being forced to use long-acting birth control, is another way the system controls disabled people’s reproductive rights, and there are currently only three states that have banned the forced sterilization of disabled children.

To add insult to injury, as a resident of Washington, DC, I can’t use my Medicaid to pay for abortion outside of the Hyde Amendment exceptions. Many DC residents and elected officials support Medicaid-funded abortions, but Congress overrules this with a yearly appropriations rider in the Financial Services and General Government subcommittee. DC isn’t a state, so Congress has ultimate say over most facets of local government, and we have no voting representation in Congress. In far too many ways, my rights to reproductive justice have been stripped from me.

***

Today I awoke to a message from my mom reading, “Welcome to Gilead. Under his eye.” She’s never been particularly politically active, but she was enraged over the latest Oklahoma abortion ban. As I write this, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has just signed the most restrictive abortion ban in the country into law. HB4327 was co-written and sponsored by Oklahoma Rep. Wendi Stearman of Collinsville, the town where I grew up. Under this violent law, abortion is banned once fertilization has occurred except to save a pregnant person’s life during a “medical emergency” based on a life-endangering physical condition that could require specific medical tests to authenticate; or in case of a rape or incest that’s reported to the police. This law takes effect even while Roe still stands. It also allows individuals to sue abortion providers, clinics, and anyone else who has taken part in providing or helping someone to obtain an abortion.

The violence of this law is undeniable: when Stearman was asked if Oklahoma should be forced to financially provide for people forced to have children under this law, she said no. As reported in the Tulsa World, when Oklahoma Rep. Cindi Munson, a Democrat representing Oklahoma City, asked Stearman “If a young girl is raped by her uncle, she’s likely not going to go report to law enforcement … She’s not allowed seek an abortion under your bill, as I understand it. And you’re OK with that?” Stearman replied: “I am OK with that.

Given an earlier law that banned abortion at six weeks, two of the four abortion clinics in Oklahoma had recently stopped offering the procedure; when HB4327 went into effect, they all stopped. There are also concerns that this bill could lead to IUDs being outlawed, especially as other states, like Missouri and Idaho, are actively working to ban IUDs, which the antiabortion zealots falsely claim is an “abortifacient” (IUDs prevent fertilization of an egg, but they also stop the implantation of a fertilized egg).

Tribal nations as a whole are also needlessly under attack by the antiabortion forces. Governor Stitt recently commented that he’s monitoring our tribal nations to ensure that we don’t offer legal abortions on our reservations. Simultaneously, Stitt is waging a war against Oklahoma tribes and our treaty rights, and a ruling by the Supreme Court has yet to be made on Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, a case that could undermine sovereignty on our lands.

The point of Governor Stitt’s comment wasn’t based on any actual evidence from tribal nations, some of which have large conservative Christian populations, but was rather an attack on tribal sovereignty—just as the Goldwater and Cato Institutes have no interest or business in Native children’s affairs but support the overturn of ICWA in order to further weaken tribal sovereignty. It’s a similar approach that the antiabortion movement has taken that brought us here: they slowly chipped away at Roe at the local level and through the accretion of lawsuit after lawsuit, with the support of nonprofit organizations and for-profits.

The crushing weight of colonialism and the various forms of institutional oppression it brought to these lands has often left me feeling alone and overwhelmed. After all, my personal history is intricately intertwined with violent attacks on womxn and on Indigenous and disabled people, and a continued effort to control and eradicate us. But just as our ancestors rose against our oppressors, we resist now. Organizations like Indigenous Women Rising, an Indigenous health education and advocacy organization, has an abortion fund for Indigenous and undocumented people. Disabled womxn and people were quick to organize to ensure that disability justice is prioritized in our calls for abortion access. Many 2LBTQIA+ people have repeatedly stated that the end of Roe isn’t simply a ciswomen’s issue, but it touches everyone who is assigned female at birth. The resistance to the overturn of Roe has been vast, and I’m hardly alone in this struggle. But until tribal sovereignty is the law of the land, I will never have full reproductive justice. The colonizer’s court will never bring sovereignty.

Jen Deerinwater is a bisexual, Two-Spirit, multiply-disabled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and an award-winning journalist and organizer who covers the myriad of issues hir communities face with an intersectional lens. Jen is the founding executive director of Crushing Colonialism and a 2019 New Economies Reporting Project and 2020 Disability Futures fellow. Jen is a contributor at Truthout and hir work has been featured in a wide range of publications, including Rewire.News, In These Times, and Bitch Media. Jen’s writing also appears in Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century and the forthcoming Building Narrative Power for 21st-Century Social Movements and Crip Authorship: Disability as Method. Jen is the co-editor of the anthology Sacred and Subversive and is currently hard at work on hir own book.


[1] “So-called” is often used by Indigenous people in the US and Canada as a way to acknowledge that the land is older than the colonizing nations that currently occupy it and belongs to tribal nations.