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Groundbreaking Study Shows Indigenous People In N.M. Support Reproductive Freedom

Krystal Curley is director of Indigenous Lifeways, a partner on the new study.

The confirmation of conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday raises concerns about preserving access to abortion and other reproductive health care. A new survey of Indigenous people in New Mexico found a vast majority support reproductive freedom and peoples’ right to make health care decisions without government interference. Krystal Curley, who’s Diné and the director of Indigenous Life Ways, a nonprofit that works with communities impacted by uranium mining as well as violence against women. She says the report released this week is the largest known study of Native Americans’ views on reproductive health care.

KRYSTAL CURLEY: This was done during March and April, and they were able to survey about 302 indigenous folks: men and women and from our two-spirit communities. So this is historical. This is groundbreaking. Usually, for studies for Indigenous communities, we're always like guinea pigs, whether it's birth control or sterilization, even using our land as a benefit for Americans with the national sacrifice zones that we currently live in within Diné communities. For so long, our stories have been told by outsiders, and from all of that misconception, we get racism, and we get stereotypes, whether it's like alcoholism, or there's poverty or all these negative things. This one actually highlights and promotes our culture. One hundred years from now, we're going to look back at studies like this and be like, ‘what was our grandma's going through at this time, with reproductive justice, with gender justice, with domestic violence and sexual abuse?’ This highlights all of that, that we're going through.

KUNM: What are some of the findings that stood out to you most?

CURLEY: With this study, the political backgrounds, it's both Republican and Democrat. With all of those different views politically, we come with a common value of knowing that Native American women should have the decision making power for their families for health care. And that's across the board, about 89% of people polled strongly agreed with that statement. That is a part of our society that we live in. And a lot of indigenous communities in New Mexico are matriarchal. We always go to our grandparents or our mothers and aunties and our sisters to figure out what's the best decision for everyone.

So this is something I hope is a blueprint for other indigenous communities across the world. They can use studies like this and really bring that decision-making power back to women, and also create policy change. That's the ultimate goal.

KUNM: What are some of the biggest barriers that people you surveyed faced in accessing reproductive health care in their communities?

CURLEY: Our biggest barrier is transportation, whether our vehicles not good enough, or we need gas money, or we don't even have a vehicle. Or just like right now, what we're experiencing is a snowstorm. For Navajo Nation, about 80% of our roads are unpaved.

About half of our folks surveyed, were under $30,000 income. You know, there's so many barriers, we don't have enough jobs, there's not a lot of opportunities.

I think the other fact that really resonated with me is that about 62% of folks didn't know about the Hyde Amendment. And that's something that affects Indigenous communities, because a lot of us rely on the [federal] Indian Health Service. And the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding for abortion. So when our families have to go through a situation where they do want an abortion, they may have to go off the reservation to get that service.

KUNM: I imagine there are a variety of opinions about reproductive health care among Indigenous folks, like all folks. Is this a debate that comes up on its own among tribal communities? And how is the conversation similar or different than what we're used to hearing nationally?

CURLEY: Even in my own [McKinley] County, it's something that we still need to talk about. Some of our own leaders, you know, are pro-life and it's really disheartening. You know, this past legislative session when we were talking about women's health care, it was really difficult conversations we had, even for New Mexico legislators. And I think a lot of it has to do with maybe religion, or maybe they come from a community that has a lot of churches. But I feel like, with the backup of studies like this, we're able to have that as an icebreaker and be like did you know actually, overall, what our communities think? You know, it really gives a different narrative. We have to have those tough conversations and we have to start voting and people to hold accountable and to vote in right policies and laws that reflect our own communities.

Note about the report: Survey development, research and data analysis were conducted in 2020 by Southwest Women’s Law Center, Latino Decisions, and Forward Together. Collaborating organizations included Indigenous Life Ways and Tewa Women United.


Support for KUNM's public health coverage comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and listeners like you. 

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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