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Tribal Land Is Suddenly at the Center of the Fight for Abortion Access

Oklahoma's governor is warning tribes about "setting up abortion clinics" on their sovereign land.

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Across the country, Republican governors are champing at the bit to end abortion rights in their states once Roe v. Wade falls. And in Oklahoma, the state with the second highest population of Indigenous people, Gov. Kevin Stitt is taking this crusade a step further—threatening tribes that continue to offer abortion care on their sovereign land.

“Oklahomans will not think very well of that if tribes try to set up abortion clinics,” Stitt said in a Fox News interview on Sunday. “They think that you can be 1/1,000th tribal member and not have to follow the state law.”

In fact, as Rachael Lorenzo, executive director of Indigenous Women Rising, has told Jezebel, abortion has always existed in Indigenous communities. “We were already raising our families the best ways we knew how, and we knew based on the circumstances we were in—through famine, drought, whether it was time for migration—when it was not time to expand our family,” they said. “It was just since 1492 since Columbus and his dumb ass arrived at this part of the world, that was the beginning of the removal of our bodily autonomy.”

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Gov. Stitt clearly did not get the memo that Indigenous communities and tribal governments “transcend the two-party system and are older than the US,” Lorenzo told me in a second interview this week. “You know, the tribes in Oklahoma are super liberal. They go to Washington, D.C. They talk to President Biden at the White House,” Stitt told Fox.

Stitt has notably signed a total abortion ban in Oklahoma that would go into effect when Roe is reversed, on top of a Texas-style, six-week ban, enforced by citizen surveillance and costly civil lawsuits. That Stitt has now all but declared a notably very illegal war on the political and bodily autonomy of Native American people is jarring, but not surprising. The bodies and reproductive decisions of Indigenous people have always been policed by the U.S. as part of this country’s enduring, indelible legacy of colonialism and white supremacy.

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Throughout the 20th century, at the height of the eugenics movement, Indigenous people were disproportionately targeted with forced sterilization efforts by the US government. Prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, nearly 25 percent of Native American youth were separated from their families and placed in the custody of the state or in foster care, as a transparent extension of the United States’ decades-long attempts at cultural genocide through kidnapping and violently forcing assimilation onto Indigenous children.

Today, this violence persists through the extensive policing of Native American women and pregnant people for their pregnancy outcomes. Last October, Brittney Poolaw, a 21-year-old Oklahoma woman and member of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter after losing a pregnancy in her second trimester, allegedly due to substance use, and was sentenced to four years in prison. Her conviction came just a few years after Oklahoma’s attorney general announced heightened measures to prosecute pregnant people who are alleged to have used criminalized drugs, resulting in the disproportionate targeting of Indigenous communities. These measures were to be enforced by weaponizing felony child neglect and “fetal homicide” laws, which were designed to protect pregnant people from domestic violence—not punish them for pregnancy loss.

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Abortion bans and pregnancy criminalization are essentially modern forms of colonization, Lorenzo tells Jezebel, and Stitt’s threats to subject sovereign Indigenous communities to his laws of forced birth are entirely illegal. But some liberal reproductive rights advocates’ responses to Gov. Stitt’s threats—namely, calling for tribal land to become abortion havens for non-Indigenous people—have also prompted IWR to warn against white and non-Indigenous Americans turning to Indigenous communities to save them. “Our lands are not just places to skirt laws,” Lorenzo said. “I get how well-meaning people are desperate to protect access, but we’re failing to acknowledge whether or not tribes have the power and resources to be sued.” Lorenzo added that opening tribal land to non-Indigenous people for abortion access is something tribes should talk about internally “as sovereign nations.”

They also note that there are a number of risks involved with increased presence of non-Indigenous people on tribal land. “One of the factors that contributes to the many, many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is that many of our abusers and predators are non-Native people, who know and take advantage of how tribes often don’t have the legal standing to charge them or to prosecute them.”

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Then, of course, there are cultural differences that are disrespected when non-Indigenous reproductive rights advocates try to use tribal land as a “quick fix” for abortion access. “We have a saying colloquially, of ‘Indian time,’ which means it happens when it happens, and when it happens, that’s when it’s supposed to happen,” Lorenzo said. “In western culture, there’s such emphasis on urgency and needing a quick solution, which is just not how Native communities operate. Our land isn’t just a place to avoid laws without taking into consideration that individual Indigenous community’s views about justice, connection to land, birth, death, health of pregnant people.”

Lorenzo is right: Indigenous communities can’t be subjected to greater state surveillance, persecution, and criminalization so that non-Indigenous people can come to their land to get abortion care. Due to a lack of economic investments in tribal land, as well as the Hyde Amendment, which bans the Indian Health Services from funding most abortion services, access to tribal health care including abortion has long been severely strained. Yet, until right about now, white and non-Indigenous advocates have long erased or de-centered Indigenous people in mainstream reproductive rights activism.

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Stitt’s threats against Indigenous abortion access are a harrowing reminder of who is most impacted by state reproductive oppression. “It’s clear Stitt willfully knows abortion is one way to limit tribes’ sovereignty altogether, and considering about half of Oklahoma is tribal land, there’s a lot at stake,” Lorenzo said. Simultaneously, the sudden centering of tribal land in the fight for abortion access is also a reminder of the shortcomings of white, non-Indigenous-led reproductive rights activism, and the importance of following the leadership of Indigenous activists and pregnant people.