History of W.A.R.N.
WARN is an activist group founded in 1974 that grew out of the American Indian Movement (AIM). WARN was pivotal in bringing attention to issues impacting Native American women, especially in regard to forced sterilization.
Women of All Red Nations (WARN) was a Native American women's organization. It was established in 1974 by Lorelei DeCora Means, Madonna Thunderhawk, Phyllis Young, Janet McCloud, and others. WARN included more than 300 women from 30 different tribal communities. Many of its members had previously been active in the American Indian Movement and were participants in the 1973 Wounded Knee incident. The inaugural conference took place in Rapid City, South Dakota.
WARN championed the health of Native American women, the restoration and securing of treaty rights, eliminating Indian mascots for sports teams, and combating the commercialization of Indian culture. They highlighted the high rates of health issues caused by nuclear mining and storage on Indian land, such as birth defects, miscarriages and deaths. They also expressed concerns about forced sterilization of Indian women and the adoption of Indian children by non-Indians.
A 1974 WARN study reported that, during the 1970s, 40–50% of interviewed Indigenous women believed they had been sterilized, although a subsequent study indicated this estimate was too high. Estimating the prevalence of sterilization is difficult, as the population did undergo growth during this period, while many of those who underwent the procedure already had three or four children. As a result of the efforts of WARN to bring attention to these practices, in 1979 regulations governing sterilization were issued by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. In 1980, WARN issued a report indicating a statistical correlation between the high levels of pollution on Pine Ridge Reservation and an increased incidence of birth defects, abortions, and cancer. This region had been used for uranium mining, served as a military gunnery range and had been subjected to herbicide and insecticide contamination from off-reservation farms.
WARN’s transnational coalition understood that Indigenous women “face the problems of forced sterilization; our children are being taken from our families and tribes; our culture is being destroyed; our treaties, which are the basis for our very survival, are being declared invalid by the U.S.; our young are being attacked through the racist education system imposed on us; our resources are being ripped off . . . The more we get our message through to the people of the world, the more difficult it will be for the U.S. to ignore its treaty obligations with us” (“let this be a WARNing,” off our backs, December 1978, p. 9).
WARN saw expanding and honoring the rights of Native women, their families, and land as crucial in the fight for Native sovereignty. They intervened in custody battles, campaigned against mining practices that contaminated reservations, having horrific effects on the health of the environment and its inhabitants, and collected testimony from girls and women who had been sterilized without giving their consent.
In the 1960s and 70s, Native American women were targets of federal policy aimed at population control, a eugenicist desire of the settler state to prevent the reproduction of future generations of Native Americans (and women of color and poor women more broadly).
Many Native women would enter a hospital for one procedure and leave with a hysterectomy. Some would give birth and days later find that a hysterectomy had been performed. Informed consent was neither enforced nor practiced; if consent was obtained, it was often coerced, with healthcare providers making threats to take away children of women if they didn’t consent. One place WARN made this epidemic public was in “The Theft of Life,” an entry in their undated newsletter from the late 1970s. WARN’s efforts are credited with helping to bring new federal regulations to sterilization in 1979.
“The Theft of Life,” WARN Newsletter n.d. 13-16. Reprinted in Hearing Before the United States Commission on Civil Rights – National Indian Civil Rights Issues: Hearing Held in Washington, D.C. March 19-20, 1979. 23-26.
Full document was obtained on HathiTrust
Laura Brigg, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption (2012)
Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005)
How To Support W.A.R.N. and the work of #WARNRidesAgain
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Corine Fairbanks is a writer, educator and activist. As a spokesperson for Native American rights, Fairbanks is currently one of the Lead Organizers for the American Indian Movement of Southwestern Ohio. She was formerly the Director of the American Indian Movement of Southern California.