Painting My Legs Red

Ruth Hopkins

During the 1970s, stories of Native women being forcibly sterilized began to emerge. In these cases, consent was absent. Some were manipulated and lied to in order for the government to gain access for sterilization. Young Native women living in poverty were told they would lose welfare benefits if they did not undergo sterilization so they agreed to have it done. In other instances, Native women were never asked permission when doctors raped their wombs with a scalpel. Others refused sterilization, but their reproductive organs were severed or removed anyway.

It wasn’t until 1976 that the Federal Government admitted to sterilizing Native women by force. During this era, poor Native women were often dependent on the Indian Health Service for medical care.

A study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that out of 12 Indian Health Service regions, four of them sterilized 3,406 Native women without their permission between 1973 and 1976, and even though there was a court-ordered moratorium on sterilizing women under the age of 21, it still happened 36 times in three years

Further research indicated that Native women with higher blood quantum were singled out for forced sterilization and as many as 1 in 4 Native women during this time was sterilized by the Indian Health Service without permission.


Most people, even Natives, seem blissfully unaware of this ghastly chapter in U.S. history. Forced sterilization is ugly, no doubt. Like all the rest of its dirty secrets, the Imperial state that claims absolute power over Native Nations and calls us its wards seldom cops to the wrongs it has committed against us. Doing so could mean having to rectify the fact that the last global superpower is built on stolen land formed of the very blood and bone of our murdered Native ancestors. You won’t find any of this in public school textbooks.

Some say we should move on. Yes, it’s 2016 — but while we wring our hands over niceties with the Feds, the cold, stark reality of the matter is that genocide is ongoing, not only through poverty and disease, but by forced sterilization.



  In recent decades, Indigenous women all over the globe have also been the focus of forced sterilization. In Lima, Peru, just last week, women painted their legs red and marched through the streets in droves to protest the forced sterilization of over 300,000 Peruvian women in the 1990s. Most of these women were poor, and Indigenous. The abuses were overseen by former president Alberto Fujimori. His daughter Keiko is now frontrunner in Peru’s presidential elections. She claims that only a few thousand were sterilized by force. These women have never been compensated by the Peruvian government.

I know the conquest of Native women’s bodies continues to this day in the United States as well- not only by statistics that show that one in three of us are raped in our lifetime, or that we’re being sexually trafficked to oil fields, but because I was forcibly sterilized too.

I was a teen mom. I used birth control, but I still became pregnant soon after having my first child. I hustled my butt off to make a way for us, working as a housekeeper and a blackjack dealer at the tribe’s casino. Nonetheless, I was still poor. I lived on the rez in the basement of a two-bedroom house with 13 other people. If I got to eat once a day, it was a big deal. Pampers are so expensive. After the birth of my second son, IHS told me that I should consider having a tubal ligation. Nurses used phrases like ‘hyperfertile,’ and while I wasn’t sure what they meant, I knew it had something to do with having two children so young, and that my maternal grandmother had 11 children, and my paternal grandmother had 8. I was made to feel bad about myself, as though I were a drain on society. People in lab coats and suits said I was lucky to receive free healthcare, and even asking for a cup of ice post birth earned me looks of distain. With doubt and reluctance, and just a day after going through labor, I submitted to the procedure. I was 20 years old. I still have the medicaid bill itemizing how much it cost to do this to me, right down to the probes, gauze and sutures.

What happened next was a miracle. Only a year later, I became pregnant again. Befuddled hospital staff examined my ultrasound with wonder, as my fallopian tubes, which had been cut, burnt, and tied, had apparently grown back together. I gave birth to a daughter, and I’m fertile to this day. The vast majority of Indigenous women who have been forcibly sterilized haven’t been so lucky.

Every time Natives voice concern about the dire issues we face, we are often told to “GET OVER IT.” What outsiders fail to realize is we cannot GET OVER IT when these issues are never addressed and while they still persist. We are still here, fighting. We are still being killed. They are still defiling us. We are still under attack, be it through drugs, pipelines, or laws that prevent tribal economic development. The NDN wars never ended.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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Sammy7's picture
Yours are powerful words, " We are still here, fighting. We are still being killed. They are still defiling us. We are still under attack, be it through drugs, pipelines, or laws that prevent tribal economic development. The NDN wars never ended", and respectfully heard.
turbojesus's picture
"Come back with your shield or on it" I often think of the blind justice balancing two shields. Which host outweighs the other, the city or posterity?
cheswain's picture
There is so much that I never knew about with the Indigenous community, but am not surprised. My goodness, we are less than 2% of this Countries population. Sammy7 is correct. The Federal governments war against NDN people doesn't seem to hve a foreseeable ending in sight. Disgusted.
Ray Evans Harrell's picture
Thank you for this. I'm sorry that you had to go through this. I've told this story for years in New York City and been looked at blankly, accused of lying, walked away from and lost work but that's little to what a woman has to go through to make sure that the Red continues. Wado, Thank you for what you do and speaking about this genocidal act of settler colonial idealism. REH
Ray Evans Harrell