SisterSong Native Women's Reproductive Rights and Health Roundtable Convenes

Whether in urban or rural areas, on U.S. reservations or reserves in Canada, Native women often lack adequate access to basic reproductive health care. Bureaucratic abuse and neglect, insufficient funding, high medical personnel turnover, and geographic isolation all contribute to this deficiency. Moreover, forced sterilizations, induced abortions, and the severance of families have also impacted Native women's health historically; a disturbing lack of informed consent regarding hormonal contraceptives, sterilization, and other surgical procedures persists today.

Ten years after the 1990 meeting, the Indigenous/Native American Mini-community of the SisterSong Collective convened a roundtable to continue addressing these and other social, cultural, and economic concerns affecting reproductive health in indigenous communities. From May 25-28, the SisterSong Native Women's Reproductive Health and Rights Roundtable sought to formulate strategies for implementing the initial Agenda. Furthermore, participants added three new amendments to the original document.

Dagner Thorpe, Sac and Fox, at the Roundtable.

Created in 1997, the SisterSong Collective evaluates reproductive health issues in specific minority communities, as well as among communities of women of color as a whole. The collective is comprised of 16 organizations, assembled into four "mini-communities" by African American, Asian American, Latina American, and Indigenous/Native American ethnic affiliation. Members of the Indigenous/Native American Mini-community include the Moon Lodge Native American Women's Outreach Project of Riverside, California; the Minesota American Indian AIDS Task Force of Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Wise Woman Gathering Place of Oneida, Wisconsin; and the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center of Lake Andes, South Dakota.

Cecilia Gomez, Chicana.

During the Roundtable, twenty women from California to Maine engaged in intense discussion over the meaning of each of the Agenda's provisions, at times offering suggestions for revision. For instance, women proposed broadening "sexual assault" as a reproductive rights issue to "sexual violence," while calling for programs that were not just culturally appropriate, but culturally competent.

Next, three dialogue groups were organized around the themes of the right to knowledge, education, and policy development on reproductive health and rights; the right to access reproductive health education and services; and the right to a broad set of reproductive health programs. These groups discussed actions that would implement the Agenda on the individual, family, and community levels.

Yako Myers, Mohawk/Anishinabe, of the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force.

Participants shared service, advocacy, and organizing experiences. At the same time, the Roundtable affirmed core values manifested through the Agenda such as:

  • the social justice principle that Native American Nations and First Nations have the rights to repair the physical, emotional, and spiritual damages to individuals, families, nations, and communities from the ravages of historical trauma inflicted by European colonizers;
  • and the fundamental human right of women to have quality of life and health, based on economic, social, and environmental well-being.

Points amended to the original Agenda during the Roundtable were:

    17. The right of Two Spirited women, their partners and their families to live free from persecution or discrimination based on their sexuality and/or gender, and the right to enjoy the same human, political, social, legal, economic, religious, tribal and governmental rights and benefits afforded all other indigenous women.

    18. The right to give birth and be attended to in the setting most appropriate, be it home, community, clinic or hospital, and to be able to choose the support system for our births, including but not limited to, Traditional Midwives, Families and community members.

    19. The right to education and support for breastfeeding that includes but is not limited to, individuals and communities that allow for regrowth of traditional nurturing and parenting of our children.

Proceedings and discussions from the Roundtable have been documented in a report, "SisterSong Native Women's Reproductive Health and Rights Roundtable: Moving Forward the Native Women's Reproductive Rights Agenda." For more information or to order a copy, please contact the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center.