Charon Asetoyer

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the late 1990s, Shoshone women began to perform once again a ritual dance of female strength and resourcefulness that they had not celebrated since the 1930s, following decades of forced removal from ancient lands, crushing poverty, loss and disease, when their people were forced off their ancient lands.

Now, Native American women are sharing another celebration of themselves.

This time, it’s the arrival of a health book, “Indigenous Women’s Health Book, Within the Sacred Circle.” The book, written and edited by indigenous women, encourages its readers to become active participants in their own health care. It is causing the same kind of splash that “Our Bodies, Ourselves” did in the mainstream United States back in 1969.

“The books are flying out the door,” says Charon Asetoyer, a member of the Comanche Nation and the executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes, S.D., which runs a food pantry, a battered women’s shelter and offers health information to women.

A first edition of only 1,500 copies of the 322-page anthology was published and announced late last year to Native American news outlets by the nonprofit, indigenous-led Center.

Now, despite limited publicity, the compendium of detailed guidance on everything from contraception to domestic violence to traditional herbal remedies is headed for a second and possibly third printing.

Health Outreach Bypassed Reservations

“I’ve been fortunate to experience wisdom from the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,'” said Katrina Maczen-Cantrell, a Shoshone health activist with Women’s Health Specialists, a feminist women’s health center in Redding, Calif. But she adds that it was seen by few women on reservations. “Native American women were often overlooked, there wasn’t a lot of outreach,” Maczen-Cantrell says.

“It’s an important, much needed book,” says Judy Norsigian, executive director and a founder of the Boston-based collective Our Bodies Ourselves. “Just as those of us in the women’s health movement were happy to see health books by black and by Latina women, it is wonderful to at last see a book like this geared to the health concerns of Native American women.”

Francesca Mason Boring, a Shoshone registered family counselor in Colville, Wash., helps explain the significance of the self-help medical book by talking about two Chickasaw sisters she knew when she was growing up. The women had been girls in the 1920s.

“Both the sisters taught all of their lives and never had children because they had been sterilized in Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools,” she says. “They were both lovely and lived to be quite old and few people knew what they had endured.”

Beginning in the late 19th century, Native American women suffered not only forced marches to reservations, but also the “Save the Babies” campaign of 1912-1918. During that era, federal agents took children from their homes, judging the impoverished women unfit for “scientific motherhood.”

“Various studies revealed that the Indian Health Service sterilized between 25 and 50 percent of Native American women between 1970 and 1976,” Jane Lawrence wrote in the Summer 2000 issue of the American Indian Quarterly. Complaints led to a 1976 General Accounting Office investigation, which documented widespread violations including inadequate consent and the sterilization of minors.

Protesting Against Sterilization Practices

Two years before that investigation, in 1974, indigenous women protested sterilization practices at federal hospitals on at least four reservations where uninformed women, including minors, had been deceived into consenting to the surgery.

In 1985, other women on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota gathered to fight another type of health assault on their community: fetal alcohol syndrome. It was that effort, in fact, that led Asetoyer to establish the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, the book’s publisher.

Asetoyer, the book’s co-editor, says Native American women need to further develop their sense of right to proper health care. She said throughout her 18 years at the center, indigenous women regularly reported inappropriate contraceptive care, such as federal personnel urging them to undergo tubal ligation (sterilization) well before age 30 or failing to tell them its effect is permanent.

“Many documented and undocumented reproductive rights violations committed against Indigenous women fuel the fire for the reproductive health and rights organizing done by the Resource Center,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “It is that same fuel that gives birth to this book.”

Indigenous Women's Health Book, Within the Sacred Circle

Asetoyer edited the book along with two women’s center colleagues, Dr. Katharine Cronk, a pharmacologist and neuroscientist working as a health advocate at the center, and Samanthi Hewakapuge, a librarian and information specialist.

Building Women’s Advocacy Skills

“What we’re trying to do is provide information so women have it at their fingertips, whether they’re an individual or working in a health program, to help build advocacy skills for women so they aren’t such passive players in the examining room,” Asetoyer says.

Among the book’s indigenous authors: Sarah Littlecrow-Russell (Anishaabe), a family law attorney and health activist in Amherst, Mass., wrote on Native American nutrition and weight loss, including recommendations of eating traditional foods such as wild turnips, yams and chokecherries; Willy Dolphus (Cheyenne River Sioux), a Cheyenne River Reservation-based victim advocate with the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault, reported on domestic violence, noting such acts were traditionally rare and severely sanctioned in Native American culture before European settlement of the country; Austin, Texas-based midwife Patricia Ann Salas (Chicana-Coahuilteca) detailed midwifery and how traditional midwives helped maintain the emotional and mental stability of the mother throughout pregnancy.

In a chapter on smoking, contributor Renee Bartocquteh (Eastern Band Tsalagi, North Carolina) wrote that pure tobacco was harvested traditionally for religious and medicinal purposes and never intended for daily or recreational use. Now, according to a Jan. 31 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of Native Americans and Alaska natives smoke, the highest percentage of U.S. ethnic groups surveyed from 1999 to 2001. The chapter says Native American women start smoking earlier than other ethnic groups.

“It is all about addressing barriers, whether it’s what a birth control method offers you or doesn’t offer you, where online resources are to help you,” says Maczen-Cantrell. “There’s a beautiful chapter dedicated to traditional knowledge, herbs and healing wisdom, and all of those combined really help build up a woman’s confidence in herself, in her life. I have a daughter, and three nieces. I look at them and think, ‘this is perfect.'”

Suzanne Batchelor has written on health and medicine for Medscape, CBS Healthwatch and the Texas Medical Association’s “Healthline Texas,” and for the national science series “Earth and Sky.”

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