Charon Asetoyer: “I took to heart the health issues of American Indian women”

by Chris Graef
News From Indian Country

Charon Asetoyer, Comanche, is founder and executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, a grass-roots women’s health institute on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, past executive director and founder of Native American Community Board, committee member of the National Minority AIDS Council and past board member of the Indigenous Women’s Network and the National Women’s Health Network.

In 1978, AIM orchestrated The Longest Walk from Canada across the United States to protest anti-Indian legislation that would abrogate treaties and to address the issues of American Indian religious freedom, the desecration of graves and the thousands of Native women who were being sterilized in a government program.

Sterilization abuse was uncovered when AIM absconded with BIA documents during their 1972 occupation of the building in Washington, D.C. The files revealed that 42 percent of Indian women had been sterilized.

“I took to heart the health issues of American Indian women,” said Asetoyer.

The federal Indian Health Service sterilized an estimated 25 percent of women between 15 and 44 years old during the 1970s, reportedly without consent and with little understanding of its permanence. In 1975 alone, 25,000 American Indian women underwent tubal ligations or hysterectomies at the hands of IHS.

In 1978, the women of AIM rose apart from the power struggles that were splintering the male leaders to bring their minds together toward restoring women’s sovereignty to mother the nations’ children. More than 300 women from 30 nations gathered at a meeting in South Dakota. The group emerged as Women of All Red Nations (WARN).

Asetoyer was among them.

“There always were a group of us talking about health and treaty issues,” she said. “Sterilization was one of the issues we were facing. Once we started looking at the issue, it brought us to other issues – fetal alcohol syndrome, violence against women, infant mortality.”

The women went back to the communities, walked the talk, rolled up our sleeves and got to work, she said.

Asetoyer earned a Bachelors of Arts degree in Criminal Justice and a Masters of International Administration and Management and looked at the history of Native women.

“Our rates of illnesses are over represented in most instances, compared to the general population,” she said. “It goes back to health. If you look at environmental justice, you have to look at women’s health – pollution in our soil and water and the correlation of birth defects.”

If you ever visit a Native graveyard, you’ll see the many children under the age of three, she said.

“You have to ask why, in a country of so much technology and health care, why so many Indian children buried so young,” she said.

The women organized and talked with other women in the communities. They brought elders together.

“When we started doing that, our elders started leading us down a path, back to tradition, back to midwifery,” she said. “We asked them what our women did to help our women stay healthy. We began realizing that women had a huge knowledge of healing, herbs and their body’s rhythms. Women knew how to decide if they wanted a family or not. We saw that we still had these things.”

“When we started doing that, our elders started leading us down a path, back to tradition, back to midwifery,” she said. “We asked them what our women did to help our women stay healthy. We began realizing that women had a huge knowledge of healing, herbs and their body’s rhythms. Women knew how to decide if they wanted a family or not. We saw that we still had these things.”

Coming out of the era of the 1950s and 1960s when practicing spirituality and midwifery and all the things women knew how to do were prohibited, many people were in fear.

“Our parents went through the boarding schools, corporal punishment, sexual abuse that occurred as punishment in boarding schools,” said Asetoyer. “To prevent their children from going through that, they decided not to pass along language and knowledge. There were many households where parents were fluent and yet the children don’t speak.”

Within the language is our way of thinking and our day-to-day way of responding to health or expressing ourselves, she said.

“The next generation grows up without those things and they are responding differently,” she said. “What we wanted to do, before the older generation was gone, was to know how did the mothers talk to them, the aunts, the grandmothers, those who did not experience boarding schools. We started documenting.”

Violations to inherent rights to be a human being were brought to the courts, the United Nations, health services and to all who violated the rights that were promised in the treaties.

“We demonstrated in the streets and through this evolution, we came out of the streets and went into the courtrooms and the classrooms,” she said. “We went back to the communities after the ‘60s and ‘70’s when we used everything from passive resistance to guerilla warfare. We went in and started to work in these different areas.”

Grew Up in California
Asetoyer grew up in California where she was involved in the 1960’s riots in San Francisco, civil disobedience and Alcatraz. There was a movement in the Bay area of Brown Berets, Red Guardians, Black Panthers, AIM, Farm Workers, all at the same time questioning what is going on.

“And stating that we’ll fight for our rights,” she said.

She returned to the Dakotas in the 1970s.

Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center has been in operation since 1985. Its first program addressed women and alcohol to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Some in the Movement thought we were nuts because we did a lot of partying and drinking and a lot didn’t want to talk about the consequences,” she said. “Nobody wanted to reach out and help women who were drinking during pregnancy. It was too complicated. It was too hard.”

Why were our children being born with special needs, she said. It goes back to seeing a nation in distress, seeing children being born without the potential to lead.

“With that, the government has reached its objective – it stamped out its resistance,” she said.

Once all that started to happen, they looked at the numbers of people affected by all the different health issues.

“I use IHS because I’m entitled to it,” said Asetoyer. “Our great-grandparents went through so much for it. I’ll do everything I can to make it better and constantly bring up its inadequacies and violations of treaty rights.”

Health is one of the stipulations we were promised in treaties, she said. They have not met that stipulation. It’s improved, but services are being reduced, causing death rates to soar, she said.

“Back in the 1960s, when everything came to the surface about sterilization abuses, the federal government passed a law that mandated a 30-day waiting period for a woman to decide if she wanted to be sterilized,” she said. “No one’s ever evaluated how effective the 30-day wait is. We hear women saying they were told that if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get their welfare.”

According to IHS’s family planning, Native women are supposed to have access to birth control, but options are decided by doctors and family planning services, she said. IHS doesn’t have standardized sexual policies in place.

“With the number of assaults against our women, it’s not acceptable,” said Asetoyer. “They could reduce the number of rapes by having standardized policies in place, providing forensic evidence.

“With the number of assaults against our women, it’s not acceptable,” said Asetoyer. “They could reduce the number of rapes by having standardized policies in place, providing forensic evidence. Right now it’s difficult to have rape conviction. IHS has a complicated witness appropriation process. Their staff who perform rape exams have to get permission from the federal government to witness. This process can go into some big dark holes. Cases are lost repeatedly.”

This is intentional on the part of HIS. It’s another way of carrying out human oppression where they could play a big role in helping, she said.

Rape leads to alcoholism, which is self-anesthetizing, she said, and IHS is doing nothing to approach this as a public health issue. Many of its facilities do not provide sexual assault exams because IHS contracts out to other facilities, meaning that a woman may have to travel more than 100 miles after being assaulted to have that test.

In Aberdeen, over representation among all – cervical cancer, because the human papilloma virus was purposely introduced there to study its effects. The area was sacrificed, said Asetoyer. In the 1990s, government health workers set out to convince mothers to give their children the hepatitis vaccine which, because of a trace of mercury in it to preserve its shelf life, causes neurological damage and resulted in an increase in autism among children. Tribal governments were bribed with grants to provide more health care but were not informed of its risks, she said. The Center for Constitutional Rights stopped the government from promoting its use without informed consent, but not before a lot of damage had been done to the children.

“Our communities are still being used as testing grounds,” said Asetoyer. “We do everything we can to inform our communities. Women today are a lot more aware.”

AWHERC also organizes around voter rights and getting people to participate in the political process.

“It will change all kinds of election outcomes,” said Asetoyer. “We’ve gained a place at the table. It’s important we’re there to know what’s going on before anything is implemented.”

The battles continue, she said.

“We have to stay constantly on top of things,” said Asetoyer.

 

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