Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center Records
In 1985 Charon Asetoyer, Clarence Rockboy, Everdale Song Hawk, Jackie Rouse, and Lorenzo Dion, a group of Native Americans living on or near the 40,000 acre Yankton Sioux Reservation in southeastern South Dakota, came together to form the Native American Community Board (NACB). NACB's goals are to improve the quality of life by addressing issues of health, education, land and water rights, and economic development of indigenous people. It is an independent non-profit, non-governmental organization that is not part of federally supported tribal government. NACB provides awareness of pertinent health issues; promotes community involvement in economic development; promotes better educational systems; coordinates urban, tribal, and state child welfare issues; and engages in activities to promote survival of culture and way of life, working on the local, national and international levels to reach these goals.
At the time of its formation, the unemployment rate on the reservation was eighty-five percent, seventy percent of adults over age forty suffered from diabetes, the infant mortality rate was five times the national average, and life expectancy on the reservation was just forty-five years.
After its 1986 incorporation as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, NACB's first project was "Women and Children in Alcohol," a fetal alcohol syndrome program -- operated out of Asetoyer and Rockboy's basement -- which served to define the direction of the organization's subsequent health work. The project aimed to address, in Charon Asetoyer's words, "fetal alcohol syndrome and all of the residual issues related to it, because you get into children's issues, you get into education, you get into women's issues and needs. And you get into how women were treated who were chemically dependent and how their rights were being violated." (Voices of Feminism oral history, 2006, p. 27)
Inspired by a visit to the National Black Women's Health Project in Atlanta, Georgia, Asetoyer began to imagine a similar facility in her town, Lake Andes, South Dakota, that was more of a center than an office; a physical space where women and children could gather for self-help groups, tutoring, education, and nutrition demonstrations. In 1988 the NACB purchased a house at 810 High Street in Lake Andes and established the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC). The Center opened its doors in February of that year.
NAWHERC assists women and their families through direct services, public policy advocacy, and coalition building with indigenous women around the world. The Center is noted for its community-based research and publications, which have influenced policies and practices of the Indian Health Service and other agencies.
Under its treaty obligations, the U.S. government is required to provide free health care to all Native Americans living on reservations. This care is delivered via the Indian Health Service (IHS), a division of the U.S. Public Health Service. However, IHS is essentially a crisis care service.
NACB established NAWHERC to provide ongoing comprehensive community health education among Native Americans and to impact policy issues that affect indigenous women nationally and internationally. "The project is designed for women and children, based on a self-help philosophy, promoting individual and group involvement in the betterment of our lives as Native American people." (31 Oct 1988 NAWHERC press release)
NACB serves as the Board of Directors for NAWHERC, setting policy and monitoring its finances. As of 2006, the staff (including interns) numbered fourteen. The Resource Center is the operational headquarters for the majority of NACB's projects. It is funded primarily by private foundations and individual donors.
The first organization to do work on AIDS prevention and awareness in South Dakota, NAWHERC's "wholeness" programs focus on health education and prevention (including AIDS awareness, sexually-transmitted diseases, Ob-Gyn self-help, breast cancer awareness, nutrition, and fetal alcohol syndrome); support services (domestic abuse, Alcoholics Anonymous, and general support); adult learning (typing and computer skills); and child development (skill building, tutoring, computer education, and special needs services).
Early "social change and advocacy" work included conferences, fairs, community action to defeat a proposed landfill, bringing a discrimination case about misuse of federal funding for Native American children, and community gardens. Later NAWHERC worked to bring attention to sterilization abuse, and questioned the efficacy and safety of reproductive technologies such as Norplant and Depo-Provera, particularly as prescribed by the Indian Health Service (HIS).
Conceived as a center for wholeness and a place for promoting and facilitating social change, today NAWHERC gathers information on the health needs of indigenous women in the Aberdeen area of the IHS (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska), provides referral services, runs a domestic violence shelter, and advocates native rights. The Center maintains programs on domestic violence, AIDS prevention, youth services, adult learning, Dakota language and culture, environmental awareness and action, fetal alcohol syndrome, nutrition, and reproductive health and rights.
Beginning in 1989 NAWHERC staff did intensive research and lobbying to maintain services by preventing the IHS from converting the local hospital into an outpatient-only facility. Its staff and interns went on to research and document IHS's reproductive health care, abortion, and sexual assault services and policies.
In 1990 NAWHERC co-sponsored the conference "Empowerment Through Dialogue: Native American Women and Reproductive Rights," which brought together women from eleven tribes to develop the Native Women's Reproductive Rights Agenda, and form of the Native Women's Reproductive Rights Coalition. As part of its AIDS Awareness and Prevention Program, NAWHERC also sponsored HIV/AIDS Gatherings for Spiritual Leaders and Traditional Healers beginning in the early 1990s.
In September of 1991, after a year-long legal battle over zoning, NAWHERC opened a shelter for battered women, a few blocks away from the Resource Center. The Lake Andes Women's Lodge provides women and their children with a safe place to escape domestic violence and sexual assault. Staff studied and also documented management of domestic violence cases in the county criminal justice system and, through its 2005 Domestic Violence Prevention Project, hired a probation officer with specialized training with domestic abuse offenders.
The 1993 Native American Women's Leadership Development Program partnered with two organizations on other reservations to strengthen infrastructure and provide technical assistance and training.
NAWHERC produced a group of studies and reports in the mid-1990s related to environmental issues impacting the local community, such as radon, herbicide and pesticide use, fly-ash contamination, and a proposed landfill.
Other programs include: Youth Services (including the Child Development Program and the Youth Wellness Program); the Adult Learning Program; the Environmental Awareness and Action Project; the Diabetic Nutrition Program; and the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Awareness Program. NAWHERC also provides information about cancer prevention, reproductive health and rights, and educational scholarships. It administers a food pantry, sponsors community health fairs, published a newsletter titled Wicozanni Wowapi Good Health Newsletter (1985-), and later an email newsletter, Indigenous Women's Reproductive Watch (2008-)
Other publications include culturally sensitive nutrition education materials published in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute (1990-91), the Indigenous Women's Health Book, Within the Sacred Circle: Reproductive Rights, Environmental Health, Traditional Herbs and Remedies (2003), and a Teen Dating Violence Prevention Curriculum and Workbook for Native American Girls (2003)
For more information see the Center's web site at http://www.nativeshop.org/about-us.html