Colonial Politics are Reproductive Politics: A Review of Brianna Theobald’s Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century

This year, a panel of experts on reproductive health in Indigenous communities gave a briefing to Congress asking for, among a host of other demands, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. The panel argued for more attention toward the effects of such restrictions on Native people amid a flurry of abortion bans that limit reproductive health care access across the United States.1 Because the Hyde Amendment bans federal funding for abortion, it disproportionately affects Indigenous people who use the Indian Health Service, a federal bureaucracy, for medical care. Native people are often forced to seek abortions in distant clinics, paying out-of-pocket for treatments that, according to their treaties, should be available on reservation land. Indigenous people’s persistent reproductive justice activism shows that reproductive health care is a significant issue for many of their communities. Nevertheless, as the Congressional panel argued, Indigenous people remain marginal at best in nationwide conversations about reproductive rights. Contextualizing these modern conflicts in a reproduction-centered history of colonialism and resistance, Brianna Theobald’s Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century aims to change that. If colonial politics are reproductive politics, as Theobald shows, Native people’s long fight for reproductive justice should be at the center of conversations about reproductive rights and health care access.

Cover of Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century by Brianna Theobald. (©UNC Press)

Through a series of chronological stories from southern Montana’s Crow Reservation, Theobald argues that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, biological reproduction was both a central component of settler colonial elimination strategies and a vital site of organization for Native women’s political resistance.2 Federal agents combatted Indigenous birthing cultures, used the medicalization of childbirth to surveil and discipline Native people, and enabled about 25% of Native women in the United States to be sterilized since 1970. For Crow women, the knowledge that reproduction was a site of colonial oppression inspired resistance movements and negotiations that, at different times, worked to move birth out of medicalized spaces or to reform those spaces to better serve Indigenous people.

This argument marks an important intervention into the history of reproductive health, a field which largely excludes Indigenous women from studies on eugenics, population control, and childbirth set before the late twentieth century.3 Theobald’s narrative shows that, in fact, Native women experienced colonial interventions into their reproductive lives much earlier than the 1960s, the decade when most scholars begin their histories of reproductive health restriction and activism in Indigenous communities. This new chronology reveals that exchanges between Native people and the federal government were formative both for later population control mechanisms used around the world and for the construction of a modern reproductive justice movement.

Theobald organizes her six chapters around continuity and change in Crow birthing culture since the late nineteenth century. In Crow society, the homosocial processes of reproduction fostered female solidarity and granted women high status in public life, garnering the ire of federal agents who realized that their desire to enforce patriarchy and settled agriculture required intervention into Indigenous people’s reproductive lives. Progressive Era “Save the Babies” campaigns, which aimed to limit maternal and infant mortality on Indian reservations and across the United States, serve as a key example of early efforts to establish access to Native women’s bodies and babies. While most historians frame the “Save the Babies” campaign as failed and incoherent, Theobald argues that it was central to twentieth-century Indian policy as a gateway to the medicalization of childbirth on reservations.

In the decades that followed, however, Indigenous midwifery and medicalized childbirth operated in parallel and sometimes intersecting ways on reservations across the United States.4 Some Crow women maintained traditional birth practices despite ongoing state efforts to eliminate them, while other Crow people preferred to use reservation hospitals for obstetric care. Theobald suggests that the relative popularity of reservation clinics does not illustrate an acquiescence to assimilation policy via an acceptance of Western medical practice. Rather, Native people expected reservation medical facilities to conform to their traditions and needs, and their expectations often forced these institutions to permit medical pluralism within their walls. This expectation became more difficult to maintain, however, into the termination era, the period between 1945 and 1969 when federal Indian policy worked to terminate the federal status of many tribal nations and grant states greater legal control over reservations within their borders. This policy threatened Indigenous people’s access to medical care on their reservations nationwide. Native people’s efforts not only to keep their hospitals, but to keep them on their own terms, speak to the complexities of colonial medicine in North America: the medicalization that Indigenous people often resisted as a method of surveillance and discipline nevertheless became an important treaty right that upheld their ability to survive and thrive on tribal land.

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, the first Crow woman to graduate as a Registered Nurse in the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons)

The book’s final chapter, “Self-Determination Begins in the Womb,” shows that earlier organization around reproductive health led Native women to explicitly link sovereignty and reproduction beginning in the 1970s. By this time, Indigenous activists had already developed a political grammar and organizational structure that articulated “an early vision of Native reproductive justice.” Activist groups like Women of All Red Nations (WARN) “advocated expanded conceptions of sovereignty” that encompassed both tribal self-determination and personal bodily autonomy as essential rights of Indigenous people.5 Reproduction on the Reservation closes with an epilogue that follows this reproductive justice movement into the present, following Native women’s continued efforts to restore traditional birthing practices in their communities and to establish access to full-spectrum reproductive health care on reservations.

Theobald has no trouble drawing a strong through-line in the book that illustrates a continuity of struggle for reproductive rights in Indigenous communities. In large part, this is due to Theobald’s methodology, which centers Native women’s knowledge. To tell more a more complete history of reproduction and colonialism in the twentieth century, Theobald uses the biographies of Indigenous women alongside a large oral history archive that, in part, is the author’s creation. This archive constructs life stories like that of Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, a Crow woman whose work and experiences exemplify and expand Theobald’s argumentation. Yellowtail was a Crow mother who had her children both inside and outside of Western medical facilities. She was also a nurse in Crow Indian Hospital, a victim of forced sterilization, and, later, a home-birth midwife. Yellowtail’s trajectory into reproductive justice work illustrates the need for scholars to recognize a longer history of reproduction and colonialism that explores the links between early twentieth-century Indian policy and late twentieth-century social justice movements. As Theobald argues, Native women’s stories “carry the knowledge that federal policies and practices sought to eradicate,” resisting declensionist narratives of colonialism and reproduction.6

Reproduction on the Reservation shows that reproduction was a central focus of settler colonial elimination strategies, but that countless Native women across North America fought back to ensure the survival of Indigenous birthing practices and to ensure their treaty rights to dignified health care. Theobald begins her book summarizing this history with the statement that colonial politics are reproductive politics.7 Yet, this book is at its best when Native women’s stories speak for themselves in a voice that transcends colonialism. Native women’s reproductive justice movements were far more than a response to colonization. They grew, instead, from the knowledge that “[i]n birth stories we carry the stories of our people,” from the insight that reproduction is and has always been central to Indigenous peoplehood.8

Notes

  1. I use the terms “Native” and “Indigenous” in this review. Neither of these terms is perfect because they collapse tribal difference into presumed common experience and interest. Therefore, I use tribal designations whenever possible. Return to text.
  2. The remainder of this review uses the term “woman” because it is the dominant term that Theobald uses in her book. Theobald might have used gender-neutral language and/or engaged with scholarship that problematizes this term, which would generate discussion around the federal government’s interference into ideas of sexual difference to reconstruct the Crow “woman” through childbirth practices. Return to text.
  3. See, for example, Barbara Gurr’s foundational book Reproductive Justice: The Politics of Health Care for Native Women (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), which presents a detailed treatment of reproductive justice movements in Native communities in the late twentieth century. Return to text.
  4. Theobald, Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 72. Return to text.
  5. Theobald, 147. Return to text.
  6. Theobald, 10. Return to text.
  7. Theobald, 4. Return to text.
  8. Theobald, 1, quoting Maria Campbell, a Métis elder, cited in Rebeka Tabobondung et. al., “Indigenous Midwifery as an Expression of Sovereignty,” in Mothers of the Nations: Indigenous Mothering as Global Resistance, Reclaiming and Recovery, eds. D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Kim Anderson (Bradford, ON: Demeter Press, 2012), 81. Return to text.

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