Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

October 20, 2020

Sterilization of Native women and lack of informed consent in medical experiments in boarding schools and IHS hospitals

Phoenix Indian School 1951.

With the coronavirus vaccine experiment underway on the Navajo Nation, Censored News examines informed consent and medical experiments on Native People

The sterilizations of Native women and lack of informed consent were exposed in 1976. Dangerous medical experiments were conducted in boarding schools and Indian Health Service hospitals on O'odham, Apache and Navajo without public knowledge.

By Brenda Norrell

Censored News

The exposure of medical experiments on Native Americans in Indian Health Service hospitals in the 1970s revealed the sterilization of Native women without their consent. Dangerous medical experiments on O'odham (Pima) were conducted, including the injection of radioactive fluid. Whiteriver Apache children were most often used in medical experiments without parental consent. Navajo children in boarding schools were used in medical experiments and a dangerous vaccine trial was halted at Gallup Indian Medical Center.

In a U.S. government document dated Nov. 4, 1976, the United States, under pressure, revealed some of these medical experiments underway in IHS hospitals of the U.S. government. Although it is not a complete list, it documents the sterilization of Native women, the role of drug companies attempting to profit, and the disregard for parental consent of Native children in boarding schools and IHS hospitals.

The report by the U.S. Comptroller was issued under pressure from South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk and the Children's Defense Fund.

The report came during a time when many Native people spoke their first language, Dine', O'odham and Apache, and little attempt was made to gain informed consent in medical procedures. It came during a century of U.S. boarding school brainwashing, which began with the kidnapping of Native children. In the abuse that followed, Native children were forced to speak English and were "re-educated." 

The alarming report shows there were 3,406 sterilizations of Native women carried out in the Indian Health Service hospitals in Aberdeen, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City in three years, 1973 --1976. Of these, 1,024 were performed at IHS contract facilities.

The report found there was no informed consent. Native women were never told that they had the right to refuse sterilization by IHS doctors in Aberdeen, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City.

The sterilizations included Native women under the age of 21.

Court order was necessary in an attempt to halt sterilizations on Native women

By court order in 1974, IHS was ordered to halt sterilizations on Native women under the age of 21 and those who were not mentally competent. It included the order that women were informed that federal benefits would not be withdrawn if a Native woman refused to agree to sterilization. The regulation was in place since July of 1973, but IHS had failed to comply.

Even after the court order, the sterilizations continued by IHS doctors, as documented in this report in 1976.

Medical experiments on Native people in the Southwest

There were also experimental medical procedures and unusual drug dosages found in 24 projects in the Phoenix and Navajo areas.

The report exposes how vulnerable children were used in medical experiments. In a controversial claim, the U.S. states in the report that the "Indian Health Service acts as legal guardian for the children while they attend the boarding schools."

Previously, little was known about vaccine experiments on Native people. Now, with coronavirus vaccine experiments underway on the Navajo Nation by Johns Hopkins University researchers and Pfizer, there are questions about informed consent and the risks.

One vaccine experiment is documented in the report that was halted.

A vaccine trial for pneumonia using Navajos was halted at the Gallup Indian Medical Center when participants became sick during the years between 1972 --1975.

The pneumonia vaccine was developed by Eli Lilly and the National Institutes of Health. Eli Lilly paid the Indian Health Service and the University of New Mexico to use its drug in medical experiments on Native people.

Now, about 45 years later, the same drug company, Eli Lilly, has halted its controversial coronavirus vaccine trials in October of 2020.

Dangerous medical experiments on Pimas

The U.S. report in 1976 describes medical experiments on O'odham (Pima) for the purpose of diabetes research.

An intravenous blood catheter was used to take blood samples. Cortisone and a needle muscle biopsy were administered. The procedures posed the risk of tumors and infections at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center in 1974, the report states.

In a separate cardiovascular study, an experimental radioactive element was intravenously injected into Southwest Indians at Phoenix Indian Medical Center in 1975.

Now, long-term studies are needed to determine whether cancer resulted from these radioactive treatments, which are also known as nuclear medicine.

The diabetes and cardiovascular medical experiments were carried out by the National Institutes of Health.

In Sacaton and Phoenix Indian Medical Centers, the pharmacists, as opposed to doctors, were also reported for diagnosing and prescribing medications.

Whiteriver Apache children used in medical experiments without parental consent

The medical experiment that most often lacked consent was carried out on Apache children at Whiteriver in Arizona.

The medical research in pulmonary disease in Apache children included painful and dangerous procedures, carried out without parental consent.

Trachoma research in boarding schools without parental consent

Trachoma research was carried out on Native American children in three boarding schools: Stewart in Nevada; Intermountain in Utah; and Tuba City in Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, 1967 -- 68 and 1972 --73.

The controversial statement in the report says that "Indian Health Service acts as legal guardian for the children while they attend the boarding schools."

The Proctor Foundation for Research in Ophthalmology, University of California,  stated that tetracycline is the best treatment option. However, the side effects were itching, diarrhea, loss of appetite and rash. 

Because of the lack of parental consent, Proctor halted its medical experiments on Native children in boarding schools under pressure from the Children's Defense Fund.

Informed consent is required when an individual is considered at risk, as stated in HEW guidelines, the report states. HEW is the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Informed consent requires that experimental procedures be explained, as well as the discomforts and risks. There must be a description of expected benefits, along with the disclosure of alternative procedures. Further, there must be an offer to answer questions, and instructions that the participant can withdraw at any time.

Drug companies also gave boarding schools on the Navajo Nation supplements which were distributed. This included dosages of vitamin C at Toyei and Greasewood and iron tablets at Crystal, Hunters Point and Lower Greasewood boarding schools.

Tylenol was given out at Gallup Indian Medical Center.

These studies were incomplete but showed Vitamin C helped with respiratory infections. Tylenol was reported to be safer than alternatives, the report states.

The report on medical experiments in IHS hospitals was addressed to Sen. James Abourezk, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, and in response to his questions about the Indian Health Service.

The letter was restricted when first written by the U.S. Comptroller General for the U.S. Accounting Office in November of 1976.

Jean Whitehorse on the sterilization of Native women

Jean Whitehorse, Dine', in this video interview, describes her personal experience with the sterilization of Native women, racism and relocation. Jean's story was recorded live at AIM West Conference in San Francisco in 2013 by Censored News. Jean's story was later told in the feature film Ama, now available.

About the author

Brenda Norrell has been a reporter in Indian country for 38 years, beginning as a reporter for Navajo Times during the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation. After serving as a longtime reporter for Indian Country Today newspaper covering the Southwest, she was censored and terminated. She created Censored News in 2006. She has a master's degree in international health, focused on water, nutrition and infectious diseases.


Our article today -- on the sterilization of Native women and medical experiments on Native people --  has a follow-up story.

After South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk pressured the release of documents in 1976, Abourezk discovered in the 1990s that the Denver police had been spying on him for years. Abourezk said he hadn't been in Denver in 15 years and didn't know why Denver police were spying on him.

Still when boxes of hidden files were discovered in a court case involving Denver police surveillance, Abourezk's name was there, along with the usual suspects -- everyone associated with AIM, Big Mountain and Peltier. These are known as the Denver spy files.

You can read more about Abourezk's contributions to Native American rights at the South Dakota Hall of Fame website. Here's a photo of Abourezk from the news files, complete with the usual biased media jargon during the stand at Wounded Knee in 1973.


Copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News, may not be used without permission.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It's hard to comprehend how this sterilization received approval without so much as receiving a notice from within who could have seen that this was psychological warfare for Indian women and violating the sanctity of the moral codes of those communities where the mothers came from--taking the life of a human fetus without the knowledge of the mothers.
This was America's holocaust in modern times and ranked right up there with the Third Reich's gas chamber killing of Jews.
The only difference was the massive sterilizations of Indian women were done in the 1970s in a country supported by the U.S. Constitution and all laws protecting the rights of all citizens.
There is no hindsight in this matter. It's too late for "they should've done this". The damage done to hundreds of Indian women, some who later took their own lives and suffered mentally. Tragic.
Don Decker, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Camp Verde Community-Arizona