Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

The Straight Dope on the Sterilization of Native Women

I alerted my correspondents to a claim with the following message:

Cecil Adams, who writes the "Straight Dope" column, has suggested that reports of Native women being sterilized were greatly overstated. You can check out his explanation and, if you wish, challenge it at Were 40% of Native American Women Forcibly Sterilized in the 1970s?

The following exchange ensued:


Here's the letters I wrote to the researchers at the Straight Dope, plus the one letter they've written back. I don't know if you're adding anything on your site on the subject, but feel free to use these if you wish.

Now I only hope we'll see a retraction and apology from Cecil in the near future.



Dear Mr. Adams,

Before writing your column claiming the number of Native women sterilized was exaggerated, had it occurred to you to consult with scholars who have investigated that matter at length before dismissing the numbers on extremely specious grounds? Jane Lawrence was a colleague of mine here at Arizona State who has now sadly passed on. But may I suggest you consult with Dr. Myla Vicenti Carpio (Jicarilla Apache/Pueblo), also at ASU, who did her thesis on the subject?

It's pretty obvious you don't know much, in the way of a background in current American Indian issues, or you would not have made such rookie mistakes. You claim Native population has gone up in spite of sterilizations, therefore the numbers must be exaggerated. Nope, if you knew what was going on in Indian Country, you would not have embarrassed yourself and tried to trivialize and minimize the scope of the tragedy of forced sterilization.

Native population numbers are going up primarily because more and more mixedblood people (and even people with a small amount of Native ancestry) are checking off Native on the census. Many people are no longer ashamed to admit to being Native like they were prior to the Civil Rights and Red Power Movements, where before such an admission would have invited much more derision as a drunk, a primitive, or a savage. Many predominantly white people with a small amount of Native ancestry also check off Native because they are searching for their roots and have a newfound pride in them.

There was also a *huge* push to get everyone Native counted at the last census which apparently escaped your notice. Up to 1/6 of the Native population has not been counted for most censuses due to Natives often living in remote areas of reservations or dangerous urban areas, in addition to a longstanding mistrust of outsiders. The push to get everyone counted used Natives to count other Natives, strenuous tribally sponsored searches of remote rural areas, and publicity which urged mixedbloods to check *only* Native on the census form, rather than two or more boxes as had been allowed by the census people in the past.

Please be more careful in the future. The damage you do by minimizing such a tragedy with your ignorance offends us as much as a column saying only one million Jews were killed by the Nazis would offend Jews.

Al Carroll (Mescalero Apache)
PhD program, American Indian History
Arizona State University


Hello, Al,

I helped research this column for The Straight Dope and was unable to find ANY evidence that such forced sterilizations occurred. The only "evidence" I found was anecdotal from a very few sources. Clearly there have been examples of US Govt. abuse and discrimination against minority populations in the US (Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Smallpox blankets, etc.). But I can't find any proof that this claim re. coerced or forced sterilization of Native women occurred. I tend to think that Native women, like women of other races, chose to be sterilized voluntarily when they were finished with their childbearing.

You gave some good info. for looking at population numbers, but did not address this other issue. Can you point me in the right direction to learn more?

Thank you.


Like I already said in my letter, check with Dr. Myla Vicenti Carpio at AZ State U. She's one of the foremost authorities on the subject and I'm sure she will take *strong* exception to your conclusions. If you can't get ahold of her, get her thesis through Inter Library Loan.

If you have trouble finding the obvious sources listed just in the first paragraph of my letter, that does not say much for the thoroughness of your search.

Within five minutes, I found these sources on the subject:

The Genocide of Native Americans: A Sociological View [link no longer valid]

Coerced Sterilization of Native American Women  (contains further sources)

A Look at the Indian Health Service Policy of Sterilization, 1972-1976  (also many sources)

Native America...Invisible, With Liberty and Justice for All

Web Culture and History Resources for American Indian Schools

And of course the article by my late colleague Jane Lawrence WHICH CECIL ACTUALLY CITED IN HIS COLUMN <<<<<<:

"The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women," American Indian Quarterly, 24:3 (2000), 400-419 (not available on the Net)

The incompetence the Straight Dope researchers have displayed on this important topic is frankly appalling and inexcusable. In addition to these sources, there are literally *hundreds* of news sources you could have found on this subject as well. This was a major scandal when Connie Pinkerman, a Cherokee physician, first exposed it back in the 1970s, with easily as much coverage as the Tuskeegee experiments received.

As far as "voluntary", again, it is very frustrating to have to deal with people who obviously have so little (if any) background or understanding of Native issues or history. The BIA and IHS have a long history of coercion of Native people. My understanding is that so-called "voluntary" sterilizations were generally done under threat of cutoffs of government benefits and the removal of custody of children from a household.

You may also wish to look at the forcible sterilizations of Natives done by the State of Vermont up to the mid 1970s.

Please do so, and never again make the disgusting mistake of accusing the hundreds of thousands of Native women who endured this of being either delusional or liars. It is sickening when you accuse victims of falsifying their history.

Al Carroll

Rob's comment
Cecil Adams and Al Carroll both make good points. Readers can decide for themselves which arguments are superior.

Meanwhile, here's a brief history of the eugenics movements. From the LA Times Magazine, 6/5/05:

Darwin's Engineer

By David Plotz

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, invented eugenics in Victorian England. His 1869 book "Hereditary Genius" counted and classified Britain's most accomplished men and showed they were very often related to each other. Successful fathers had successful sons. This, Galton claimed, proved that God-given abilities were passed from one generation to the next.

Galton named his new science eugenics, an invented word based on the Greek for "well-born." Galton's acolytes used eugenics to justify social stratification: If the rich are rich because they are endowed with natural abilities, then the poor must be poor because they are endowed with natural deficiencies.

The British talked plenty about eugenics, but it was can-do Americans who converted Galton's theory into practice. American eugenicists turned it into a wildly successful national crusade to save the American "germ plasm" and protect it from the blacks and dark-skinned immigrants they felt were multiplying so rapidly. In 1910, Charles Davenport opened the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., funded by members of the Rockefeller, Carnegie and Harriman families. Davenport and his assistants scoured America in search of the "unfit," including albinos, the Amish, epileptics, mental patients and criminals. University presidents, congressmen and good society everywhere embraced the creed. By the late 1920s, 20,000 college students a year were taking eugenics courses.

Eugenics assumed the trappings of a religion: Eugenicists proposed a Decalogue of Science—a revised, eugenic Ten Commandments. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, eugenicists battled to sterilize practically everyone they deemed weak in order to cleanse the gene pool—no matter that most of the supposed ailments were not genetic in origin. By 1917, 15 states had legalized eugenic sterilization. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court gave sterilization its seal of approval, and a majority of states mandated sterilization of the unfit in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, more than 35,000 Americans had been forced under the knife. Another 25,000 were sterilized before the practice finally ended in the 1960s.

German eugenicists were particularly captivated by American practices. They published textbooks based on American ideas, and Adolf Hitler read them and wrote fan letters to leading American eugenicists. The "science" of American eugenics helped Hitler medicalize and sanitize his crimes. He imposed draconian eugenics laws and sterilized 225,000 Germans during his first three years in power. When the war began, sterilization degenerated into "mercy killing"—the outright murder of tens of thousands of asylum residents. The eugenic murders were prelude to, and inspiration for, the Holocaust. Nazi enthusiasm for eugenics flourished even in the death camps, as Josef Mengele and others conducted barbaric experiments on twins and other unfortunates in the name of gene science. The Great Depression had fostered skepticism of eugenics in the U.S. Hitler's crimes sealed the case against it.

More on the sterilization of Native women
A History of Governmentally Coerced Sterilization:  The Plight of the Native American Woman

Related links
Highlights of the US report to the UN on racism
When did racism begin?

* More opinions *
  Join our Native/pop culture blog and comment
  Sign up to receive our FREE newsletter via e-mail
  See the latest Native American stereotypes in the media
  Political and social developments ripped from the headlines

. . .

Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

All material © copyright its original owners, except where noted.
Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

Copyrighted material is posted under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act,
which allows copying for nonprofit educational uses including criticism and commentary.

Comments sent to the publisher become the property of Blue Corn Comics
and may be used in other postings without permission.